My childhood experience of police was defined by the absence of it. Growing up white in Lynnhurst, I rarely saw police cars. I never thought about police — they didn’t make me feel particularly safe or particularly afraid. This experience is shared by most people who grew up in neighborhoods like mine. It was only when I moved into other neighborhoods, built community with people of different backgrounds and experiences and continued to educate myself that I realized my experience was a stark contrast to that of members of other communities.
For the last several years, I have been organizing with a local collective, MPD150, that advocates for police abolition. In contrast to those who advocate for reforming police departments, abolitionists believe that policing is inherently flawed and must be replaced with other public safety institutions. After the brutal killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on Memorial Day and the uprisings that followed, America is in a process of collectively examining its relationship to policing. Almost all of Minneapolis agrees that police departments are responsible for systemic racist violence and wants change, but the question remains: What does that change look like?
I joined MPD150 after several years of organizing around policing, beginning after the police murders of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile. I participated in the black youth-led occupations of the 4th Precinct Station and the St. Paul governor’s mansion. These occupations drew new public attention to police violence and led to a series of systemic responses: an unprecedented large-scale investigation into Jamar Clark’s case and body camera policies that were touted as major reforms. Philando Castile’s killer’s trial marked the first time in Minnesota history that a police officer was criminally prosecuted for killing a community member. But though they were novel, these actions did little to curb police violence in Minneapolis. The officers who killed Jamar Clark were never charged and are still on the Minneapolis police force today. The body camera legislation was full of loopholes allowing officers to avoid filming. The officer who killed Philando Castile was acquitted of all charges despite a $3 million settlement paid to the Castile family in a wrongful death lawsuit. According to the Star Tribune, Minneapolis police killed more community members last year than any year in the last two decades.
In these few years, the MPD has shown its reform-proof nature, remaining essentially unchanged despite the intensity of public outrage and action. Disenchanted by the ineffectiveness of those reforms, I was drawn toward the abolitionist perspective of MPD150 because it demanded the deeper, structural change Minneapolis and our country clearly need.
MPD150’s work has been to locate police violence within a historical context, advocate for police abolition, provide resources for people to envision what will come next and provide ideas about how to get involved. Our central work has been publishing “Enough is Enough: a 150-year performance review of the Minneapolis Police Department.” This report is available in print and audio forms on our website, mpd150.com, alongside a wealth of other resources for people looking to learn about abolitionism.
Two key findings of the MPD150 report are worth emphasizing here. First, the report demonstrates that, from its inception five years after the U.S. Dakota War solidified the violent expulsion of the Dakota people from their ancestral homeland, the police department has consistently been an instrument of violence against black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) and against poor people. Second, the report illuminates how the cycle of failed police reform has spanned the last 60 years.
For generations, the cycle has continued. Police commit an act of violence. There is public outrage. There are reforms or actions taken to placate that outrage. Those reforms are either proven ineffective or undermined. And the cycle continues as the violence continues.
As abolitionists, we want to break this cycle.
We want more than a public repudiation of an officer’s behavior. We want more than a few murderous cops prosecuted and convicted — as if their racism does not run through the veins of the entire police body. We recognize that killings of BIPOC people are only the most egregious examples of police violence and that people are abused, intimidated, jailed and fined by police in this city every day. We want this entire system torn up from the roots and we want to plant something new that truly keeps our people safe.
I want to encourage the people of Southwest Minneapolis, particularly the majority of us who are white and middle class, to use this moment for deep reflection and action. Most of us grew up perceiving the police as an organization that promoted public safety. When the police show up, it is usually because we called them there, and we can usually expect the police to treat us with respect. But that has never been true for communities of color, poor or houseless people, and other communities who the police have harmed instead of protecting.
As people with the privilege of choosing whether and how to engage with the police, it is important that we push ourselves to uproot the oppressive systems both in our own bodies and minds and on a systemic level. We are in a pivotal moment in time and space right now where we have the possibility to make deep and lasting change so that future generations can know life without police violence. Our city council has committed to dismantling the police department, but we need to make sure this vision does not get watered down, replaced with reforms or that the institutions that replace the police department do not replicate its oppressions. This fight is just beginning, and we need to stay in it for the duration.
When I talk to people about police abolition, many agree with the ideas but struggle to make the leap to imagining a police-free future. I have had the same struggle. Having spent my whole life in policed cities, it is a challenge to imagine something different. But while it may be challenging, abolitionists believe this imagination and collective creation is the necessary and urgent work to be done.
A core abolitionist principle is that the best way to increase public safety is to meet people’s basic needs rather than policing them. Growing up in well-resourced and barely policed Lynnhurst, I saw that a world without police is possible. The task now is to provide these resources to all of our communities while dismantling the systems that harm them and replacing them with alternative public safety institutions. I have seen these systems come to life in places when people come together to support each other in the absence of police — at the 4th Precinct occupation, at Standing Rock and all across Minneapolis as people have spontaneously organized relief and community defense efforts over the last several weeks.
From these experiences, I have developed a deep faith that abolition is not only possible but is the only viable way forward. Please check out our website and the websites of our partner organizations, Reclaim the Block and Black Visions, for ideas on how you can be part of building our police-free future in Minneapolis.
Peter VanKoughnett is an organizer with MPD150, a group founded in 2016 with the aim of working towards a police-free Minneapolis.