MINNEAPOLIS – A year after George Floyd’s death sent millions across the country into the streets in some of the largest sustained protests in American history, the city at the center of that movement continues to struggle with its own reckoning over policing, equality and racial justice.
Colorful signs featuring Floyd’s name and face still decorate front yards across this Upper Midwestern city in a collective demand for justice. Visible scars also remain from the unrest that erupted after his death, leaving scores of buildings damaged or destroyed.
While the city breathed a collective sigh of relief last month when a jury convicted former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin of murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death, the sensation was fleeting.
“I think we felt like we could breathe a little bit after Chauvin’s conviction,” said Brian Herron, pastor of Zion Baptist Church in North Minneapolis, the heart of the city’s Black community.
Like many here, Herron, a former Minneapolis City Council member, had been skeptical that a jury would convict a police officer in the death of a Black man. “I don’t know if there’s a real sense of justice, but there’s a sense of accountability,” he said.
As Minneapolis prepares to mark the first anniversary of Floyd’s death Tuesday, it remains a city in turmoil, with many of the racial inequities highlighted during last year’s protests unresolved. The police department is in crisis – woefully understaffed, its officers demoralized and its practices and culture under investigation by the Justice Department. At the same time, there has been a pronounced increase in crime while the relationship between the police and residents remains fractured.
“All that tension is still here,” Herron said.
Adding to the anxiety is escalating violence in the city, including a dramatic spike in shootings in its Black community. A 6-year-old girl was killed and two other children gravely wounded in shootings in recent days, shocking residents and prompting a war of words among elected officials and community leaders, including some who have sought to link the violence to calls to defund the police in the aftermath of Floyd’s death.
Three more people were fatally shot in two incidents late Friday and early Saturday, including a shootout outside a downtown nightclub that left two dead and eight injured. No arrests have been made in any of the recent incidents, according to police.
The city remains deeply divided over the future of its police department, which some city council members want to replace with a public safety agency, a proposal that is likely to be on the ballot in November.
“The rhetoric around defund has gotten us to where we are today,” said Sondra Samuels, a longtime north-side activist who is among a group of residents that has sued the city over police staffing shortages. “Not everybody is an Officer Chauvin. … We need police in this city,” said Samuels, who is Black.
More than 200 Minneapolis police officers – a third of the force – have resigned or sought to leave the department since Floyd’s killing cast a harsh spotlight on policing here. The result has been a staffing shortage the mayor and police chief say has complicated efforts to respond to the rise in violence.
“When you make big, overarching statements that we’re going to defund or abolish and dismantle the police department and get rid of all the officers, there’s an impact to that,” Mayor Jacob Frey told a local television station recently.
Frey – who, along with the entire city council, is up for re-election this year – has called for more funding for police overtime and additional cadet classes to increase the number of officers on the streets, proposals that require the council’s approval.
Some fault the mayor and other officials for not investing more in social services and other efforts they argue would be more effective at preventing the violence. They question the reasoning in sending a surge of officers into a community still traumatized by Floyd’s death and where there is mutual distrust between the police and many of the residents they are sworn to protect.
“We deserve a more comprehensive plan than simply adding more police or focusing on police reforms,” said Phillippe Cunningham, a council member who represents an area of North Minneapolis hit hard by shootings and has led efforts to create a new public safety agency that would include a law enforcement division with a smaller number of officers.
A spokeswoman for Frey said the mayor “has partnered with the community to tackle the root causes of crime,” including “economic policies designed to break cycles of violence and poverty and ultimately build a more equitable and safer city.”
Although the city has enacted several police reforms, including a ban on chokeholds and neck restraints like the one Chauvin fatally used on Floyd, many residents say they have seen no evidence of real change in a force that has long been accused of racism as well as aggressive behavior, especially toward people of color.
They say the limited number officers seen on patrol often cruise the streets with their windows up, refusing to engage with residents, and behave aggressively toward those they do encounter. Business owners say officers have cut back on outreach efforts, which some blame on the staffing crisis.
“I tell the officers I know to just try to show a little humanity, show people you’re a human being,” said Sammy McDowell, the Black chef behind Sammy’s Avenue Eatery.
McDowell operates two cafes – one on the predominantly Black north side and the other in northeast Minneapolis, which is mostly White. “You have to try and have a relationship with the community you serve, but there hasn’t really been much of a change. … I know they are short-staffed, but something has got to give.”
Many White residents who live on the city’s south side near where Floyd was killed say they still feel uncomfortable calling the police despite the increase in crime in their neighborhoods, including burglaries and carjackings, because of concerns they might put their minority neighbors at risk from officers.
“I don’t want to feel responsible for what could happen,” said one White woman as she walked near 38th and Chicago, the intersection where Floyd was killed. She asked that her name not be used, citing the increasingly hostile debate among her neighbors about crime and safety around the intersection, which has been turned into a makeshift memorial to Floyd and a site of continued grieving and protest over racial injustice.
Frey has said the city plans to reopen the intersection after the anniversary of Floyd’s death, setting up a potential conflict between the city and a group of caretakers who say they won’t give up control of what has become known as George Floyd Square until demands for further justice – including additional changes in policing and investment in Black-owned businesses – have been met.
Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, the first Black man to lead the department and who made headlines when he testified against Chauvin at the former officer’s trial, has pushed back against what he has described as political attacks on his department and cuts to funding. In December, the city council voted to shift nearly $8 million from the department’s budget to fund alternatives to policing, including the creation of mental health crisis teams and anti-violence efforts.
“I am down about a third of our department. We cannot do this work alone,” Arradondo said during a news conference last week in which he insisted his officers are doing everything they can to stem the violence. “It’s going to take the collective leadership of all of us to do that.”
Arradondo, through a spokesman, declined an interview request.
The debate over policing has divided many in the Black community – pitting younger activists who have called for the police department to be abolished against those who have criticized how the effort to defund or reimagine public safety has been handled.
Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil rights lawyer and longtime racial justice activist, has been one of the police department’s fiercest critics, but she said the effort to dismantle the department had moved forward without the input of many Black residents.
“They conducted no research, consulted no experts. … They should have specifically come to the Black community because we are the most likely to experience police violence as well as community violence, but they didn’t,” Armstrong said. “We shouldn’t have to choose between no police or corrupt police.”
She recalled warning council members involved in the defund movement that proposing drastic changes to policing without considering “economic justice” efforts to build up the community and reduce crime would sow chaos. “And look what has happened,” she said.
The surge in violent crime isn’t unique to Minneapolis. Cities across the country, including Atlanta and Chicago, have reported spikes in shootings and homicides, which many blame on the economic despair and sense of alienation brought on by the pandemic. But those problems have been magnified in Minneapolis, which has publicly grappled with how to reimagine its approach to public safety since Floyd’s death and where hostilities between residents and police have been on display in front of the country.
Last year, the homicide rate in Minneapolis hit highs not seen since the mid-1990s, when killings led the city to be derisively called “Murderapolis.” The bleak trend has continued into this year. According to police data, nearly 200 people have been shot this year – more than double the same period last year and the most recorded in more than a decade. There have been 31 homicides, compared with 15 at this point in 2020.
Most of the shootings have taken place in North Minneapolis, where Black residents have questioned why city officials have not reacted with more urgency to control what some have described as a pandemic of violence and where a growing number of children have been caught in crossfire.
On April 30, 10-year-old Ladavionne Garrett Jr. was riding in the back seat of his parents’ car when gunfire broke out. He was hit in the head by a bullet that pierced the car’s trunk. He was taken to North Memorial Health Hospital, where he was in a medically induced coma after surgery. On May 15, Trinity Ottoson-Smith, 9, was bouncing on a trampoline at a friend’s house when someone fired several shots from the alley, striking her in the head. She was also taken to North Memorial, where she was placed in an intensive care room down the hall from Ladavionne’s.
The community was holding a vigil for those children when gunfire erupted again Monday night, striking 6-year-old Aniya Allen as she sat in the back seat of a car eating food from McDonald’s after a day of shopping with her mother. Aniya, who died Wednesday, was the granddaughter of K.G. Wilson, a longtime peace activist who has spent years rushing to scenes of other shootings to comfort families and to try to prevent further bloodshed.
“I have done nothing but try to help families for years,” Wilson said last week as he choked back tears near the spot where his granddaughter was fatally shot. “Now it’s my child. What makes you think yours won’t be next? When is enough going to be enough?”
Some Black residents, including families of those injured or killed in gunfire, have asked why those who took to the streets to protest Floyd’s death – including White people – haven’t flooded the streets in anger over the wounding and killing of Black people in the ongoing violence.
“My grandson is fighting for his life. This ain’t doing nothing,” said Sheree Jennings, Ladavionne’s grandmother, who left his hospital bedside to interrupt a news conference last week where Frey and other leaders were speaking about public safety.
“Why is this community not angry? Is it because he is a Black kid? Is that why? Is it because a cop didn’t shoot him? … We’ve got to do better than this,” she said.
A year after his restaurant on the north side was threatened by the civil unrest that erupted across the city, McDowell has found himself in the unusual position of being a racial ambassador to the mostly White customers at his location in northeast Minneapolis.
A large man standing around six feet tall, McDowell knows some White people might view him as threatening if they were to see him on the street. But behind the counter, serving coffee and sandwiches, they’re comfortable as he talks them through issues of race as they grapple with their own feelings in the aftermath of Floyd’s death.
McDowell has found himself having long talks with White customers who have struggled to understand the systemic racism that has blocked Black people from buying homes in certain neighborhoods or obtaining bank loans. “From their perspective, it just doesn’t make sense,” he said. “But they are trying to understand. They are trying to make an effort.”
But the most challenging discussions have been about the future of policing. Sometimes McDowell, who tells his customers he is not against law enforcement, reverts to the only way he knows to explain the complicated debate over public safety.
“If you have one rotten tomato, it’s going to spoil the whole box. So you’ve got to remove it,” he tells them.