One week ago, Minneapolis resident George Floyd was killed when a white officer pinned his neck under his knee for nearly nine minutes. Protests erupted soon after, taking chaotic turns: A police precinct was set on fire, and the National Guard was called in to take over for the Minneapolis police, who were unable to control events on the ground. This is hardly the first time protests over a local police shooting have happened in the city, but this time it’s a little different: These protests are not just about Floyd but every black neck pinned under the knee or in the crook of an arm of a cop. They are about a country already feeling helpless in the face of a pandemic made to feel more helpless by racism and violence. And they’re also about the story of police violence in Minneapolis specifically, which is also the story of police reform activism, and how that movement’s evolved.
On Monday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Jon Collins, a reporter at Minnesota Public Radio who works on the race, class, and communities desk and previously hosted a podcast about the shooting of Philando Castile. We talked about why Minneapolis, with its progressive politics and its high standard of living, keeps seeing deaths like Floyd’s, and why the police force has lost the respect of its residents. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: You first saw local protests like this in 2015, after the shooting of Jamar Clark. Protesters tried to take over the Mall of America. This approach—digging in, forcing people to pay attention—became a hallmark of Minneapolis activism, following tactics honed by Black Lives Matter. And when Philando Castile’s death was livestreamed by his girlfriend, the machinery of protest cranked to life again.
Jon Collins: There have been lots of black men who have been killed by police over the years in Minneapolis. Typically there would be some small protest and then it would go away before too long. But with Jamar Clark, what happened is people focused on the police. The shooter was part of the 4th Precinct, which is in north Minneapolis and covers one of the traditionally back neighborhoods in Minneapolis. Residents protested at the 4th Precinct and actually occupied the grounds nearby in the middle of winter for more than two weeks. And the middle of winter in Minneapolis means 20 below.
Then, Philando Castillo was driving with his girlfriend and his girlfriend’s daughter, and he got pulled over. He told the cop he had a gun, but he also had a permit, and an officer shot and killed him. But the protesters of Castile’s death disrupted a bit more. They had a tactic of going on the interstates over and over and shutting down traffic. And it did anger a lot of people, but it also got them a lot of attention. That could be a lesson folks learn now: What works is disruption.
I’m hoping you can remind people exactly what happened to the officers involved in Clark’s and Castile’s deaths. Were they punished?
So Minnesota, until just three years ago, had never had a police officer charged for killing someone while on duty. The first time that officer was charged, it was Jeronimo Yanez, who shot and killed Castile. That was after a lot of pressure from activists and people in the community to file charges. Then Yanez was acquitted on all counts.
In July 2017, an Australian woman who lived in Minneapolis, Justine Damond, thought she heard noises, went out to the alley, and called the police. An officer named Mohamed Noor shot and killed her in her alley. He was charged and found guilty of third-degree murder and manslaughter. That was the first time an officer was ever found guilty for killing someone in Minnesota. And Derek Chauvin’s case is actually the first time a white police officer has been charged for killing anyone in Minnesota.
You’re sketching this picture for me of an acceleration of bringing officers to some kind of justice. With Clark, there were no charges. With Castile, there were charges, but the officer was found not guilty. With this shooting of a white woman, the officer there was found guilty. Reactions are changing in real time as each shooting happens.
Think about it in terms of time, too: It took about four months for the authorities to arrest Yanez, and eight months for Noor. For Chauvin, it took five days. And it happened in a way that is not typical at all, especially for a police officer: The state’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension actually took him into custody, not to a local police department or sheriff’s office. It was the state going around Hennepin County to arrest a police officer.
One of the interesting things that’s happened in the past few years is that when something like this happens, the response time by local officials has really accelerated. And the tone the officials take has changed. For instance, a few years ago, our mayor would not have chimed in on whether an officer murdered someone. But the current mayor, Jacob Frey, it took him like three days to say this was murder and the officer should be charged. So I do think the discussion and the way people think about this and about race at large is becoming more blatant. And even people who are in positions of power are starting to understand how ingrained racial issues are in how we police and how we have policed in the past.
Frey has tried to make some changes inside of the police department in terms of how it’s trained to deal with people, right?
Training police in the state of Minnesota is relatively decentralized. Anyone who has minimum credentials or experience can say, Hey, I’m going to offer this class. They can submit it to the post board, which will likely approve it. One of the classes that was really common for officers all over the country to take was warrior training.
It’s literally called warrior training?
It’s changed names a couple of times, but that’s essentially the point of it. It teaches police officers to be very aggressive in protecting their own safety. It came up as an issue because Yanez, Castile’s killer, had taken warrior training. Many departments in the state told their officers that they were no longer going to pay for them to go to this particular training. So Frey was able to say, I’m going to make it policy that no one can go to this training. The response from the police union in was aggressive. It basically said, If you’re not going to use public tax dollars to pay for this training that we think is important, then we’re going to pay for the officers to do it. I’m not sure how many officers the union paid for, but nonetheless, it was a very aggressive stance to take with the mayor. And that happened right from the very beginning of their relationship.
The current union president, Bob Kroll, was named in a racial discrimination suit back in 2007 for allegedly wearing a white power badge on his motorcycle jacket. He’s been quoted saying the Obama administration “handcuffed and oppressed the police.” He is the subject of at least 29 complaints to the city’s office of police conduct review.
Kroll is a controversial figure, but when he got elected and then reelected, it showed that his style is what the rank-and-file members of his union think represents them the best.
His predecessor at the Police Officers Federation was also controversial. A couple of years ago there was a scandal called #Pointergate: Then-Mayor Betsy Hodges was in a picture with an activist and they were pointing their fingers at each other. The activist had some sort of criminal record in the past, so the former president of the police union was one of the sources telling a local news station that they were making gang symbols. It was an offensive charge, ridiculous on its face. But that’s traditionally how the police unions have oriented themselves toward the civilian leadership. It was kind of an embarrassment for the union, but it also showed the clout that it has.
Minneapolis has had a lot of chances to make things better. There have been so many of these confrontations with police and civilians. It seems the one thing the city hasn’t tried is totally turning the police force upside down. Is there even a process where that could happen?
The police union is powerful, and its contract is really, really, really strong. It’s very hard for officers to be fired for anything less than a conviction of a serious crime. We have had some officers fired, but most of the time they can petition and go to an arbitrator and get their jobs back—even in cases where it looks bad to the public and becomes news. About half the time in Minnesota, when officers are fired, they get their jobs back through arbitration. So, turning the department upside down and getting rid of a bunch of people you think of as bad apples is a really hard process. And it would probably take a lot of commitment from, and a lot of trust in, police department leadership throughout.
Is there any sign that the officers themselves see this moment with Floyd’s death as some kind of turning point?
Apart from individual officers, not in Minneapolis. One of the interesting things about this particular case and the response to it from law enforcement is that you’re finally seeing officers nationwide condemning police killing. You never really saw that in the past. But in the MPD, there’s not a ton of evidence that there are a lot of officers who dissent at this point.
Has George Floyd’s family been able to express what justice would look like for them?
They’ve said very bluntly they want the officers to go to jail.