What Happened When the Minneapolis Police Lost Legitimacy?

Ordinary people took control of their own safety.

Something unthinkable happened in Minneapolis over the past two weeks: The police department lost their legitimacy. The public, roiling over the killing of George Floyd, withdrew its consent. Minneapolis public schools and the University of Minnesota ended their security contracts with the police department. A veto-proof majority of City Council members pledged to “dismantle” it.

Now, the city is entangled in a political fight about how to create a system of public safety that does not depend on a domineering police force. In the absence of clear alternatives, forces opposing change are starting to coalesce. Yet the answers are right there. Even in the chaos of the past two weeks, ordinary people took control of their own safety and we learned that the safest system is one grounded in and accountable to an organized community.

I study grass-roots movements and have partnered for several years with organizers in Minneapolis on research. For the first few nights after the killing of George Floyd on May 25, they described to me a loose network of young black leaders and organizations like Black Visions Collective that drove the continuing and growing street movements against the police. Opportunists, however, were taking advantage of confusion to sow destruction.

Yet a network of community defenders quickly emerged to protect residents. Their goals? Protect people’s ability to safely protest and tamp down on the chaos. These community defenders sought to enable democracy, not squelch it, so that organizers could advance the struggle for reforms.

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