Sisco Omar in front of Riverside Plaza in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on June 16, 2020. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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When members of the Minneapolis City Council grabbed the attention of the state — and the entire country — in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing by moving to dismantle the police department, there was one important voice missing: That of Ward 6, home of the largest concentration of East Africans in Minnesota. 

The area has been without representation since March, when Abdi Warsame resigned from the council to lead the city’s Public Housing Authority. A new council member won’t be elected until August. But young activists say the lack of representation is really nothing new. No one has ever really spoken for them, they contend, including a generation of older Somali political leaders. 

As far as the police are concerned, they say, Somalis who have joined the force are no better than white officers. So activists stepped into the void to protect their neighborhood during the riots following Floyd’s death. They say their experience helps illustrate a radically different approach to public safety — one that emphasizes community-led public safety programs. 

“If it means disbanding or defunding a police department that really has been ineffective in the work that they’re doing, I’m completely for it,” said Kowsar Mohamed, a program manager with the city of St. Paul’s department of planning and economic development. 

These young leaders cut their activist teeth in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood. The worst of the looting and arson was elsewhere, but they feared it could spread and mobilized quickly to keep it out. 

Cedar Riverside is also where many of the Somali politicians currently representing the area in federal, state and local governments made their mark. But the activists have long accused them of showing up only when “there’s a camera crew” or during election seasons. These politicians are generally of a generation that doesn’t have the same understanding of injustice, or simply moved into the neighborhood to fulfill their ambitions, they say.

Fixing what’s wrong isn’t as simple as hiring more — or different — police officers. Or electing representatives who look like the communities they serve. That already has been tried. 

Lack of political representation in City Hall 

On Friday, three weeks after Minneapolis police officers killed George Floyd, City Council members, with Ward 6 not represented, unanimously passed a resolution to replace the police department with a community-led public safety system. 

Kowsar said having no representation in the city government at this moment is troubling. “An entire ward, one of the most populous wards, has no political representation at the city level when all the unrest is happening in the city,” she said. “It’s really telling.”

But she was quick to add that politicians who represented the area at all levels have neglected pressing issues for years. “The silence of those who were elected to represent this community is really defending at this time,” she said. 

Kowsar, 23, was born and grew up in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood. As long as she can remember, she said, the ward has been one of the poorest in the city, with consistent gang-related violence.   

Riverside Plaza in Minneapolis’ Cedar Riverside neighborhood. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

She has watched politicians make promises during elections to address the community’s concerns. But she said that they’ve yet to make any substantial changes to the lives of their constituents, most of whom are immigrants and refugees from East Africa and Southeast Asia. 

More than half a dozen Somali candidates are now vying to represent the ward, which already sent Ilhan Omar to Congress and Mohamud Noor to the State Capitol. Kowsar said it’s unfortunate that residents have supported candidates from their own ethnic background, but then are left to their own devices. “That also proves to a lot of people that you need to be more insightful about who you elect and why you elect them,” she added. 

Salehudeen Saleh, a student at Metropolitan State University, agrees. “I haven’t seen a politician who really looks out for the interest of the people in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood,” he said.

That includes Warsame, who was elected in 2013. Warsame declined to comment. But under his tenure, the ward saw some improvements, including repairing potholes and creating the Cedar Riverside Opportunity Center. Before becoming a council member, Warsame helped to redraw the boundaries of the city’s wards — an effort that led to increased representation of minority groups on the City Council. Some of his non-Somali constituents accused him of giving preference to his Somali community.      

Still, Saleh said he won’t vote for a new City Council member in August “unless there’s a youth from the neighborhood — someone that actually cares and has been part of the neighborhood.” In a time of crisis, the youth did a better job than any City Council member, he said.

“We had youth coming out in the mornings, giving food and taking food to the elderly people,” he added. “We had youth at night patrolling the neighborhood.” 

“When we’re together, amazing things happen,” Saleh said. “And I’d much rather have us focus on that, than to focus on electing somebody that’s going to be there for two years, make their money, and eventually move on to better things for themselves and not really care about the community.” 

Sisco Omar, a community organizer at Mixed Blood Theatre, said while it’s important to have a representative in City Hall, he didn’t have high hopes for any politician. “Honestly,” he said, “we’ve reached a point where we don’t really depend on the officials due to us always getting the short end of the stick.”

Disbanding the police department 

Kowsar stresses that “disbanding” the police department doesn’t mean literally abolishing public safety and having no order on the streets. It means defunding the police and putting that money into community-led public safety programs.

The existing system, she said, hasn’t worked for Americans of color. “Young men and women are losing their lives … and it’s really just because of systemic racism,” Kowsar said.

An alternative to the current policing system, she said, is formalizing the neighborhood watch system that many communities resorted to when law enforcement abandoned the streets and rioters burned down buildings and looted businesses. 

Omar, 23, who has lived in the ward since he was 9, is one of the leaders who helped organize a neighborhood watch in Cedar Riverside, when they heard of the possibility of white supremacists coming for their community. 

“We set checkpoints at the two entrances to the neighborhood, pretty much watching out for anything that’s coming in and out,” he said. Omar and Saleh believe that the businesses along Cedar Avenue and Riverside Avenue were spared due to the effort of the young.

Over the past decade or so, the Minneapolis Police Department and the Metro Transit Police Department have hired dozens of Somali officers in an attempt to improve the relationship between police and community.    

But community members who grew up interacting with these officers in their neighborhoods say they are no different than white officers. 

“When it comes to the whole police thing, it’s all about power,” Omar said. “It gets into their head once they put on that uniform. It doesn’t matter who that person is, who’s behind the badge, when they have it, they mistreat that power.”

Ibrahim Hirsi is a reporter at Sahan Journal, where he covers immigrant communities and the politics and policies that affect them. He was previously a staff writer for MinnPost and MPR News. Ibrahim got...