by Gabriel Donnelly
During the more than two years since the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) murdered George Floyd, and set off an intensified, international Black Lives Matter movement, the struggle against policing in Minneapolis’ Black community has continued. But recently, what began as a grass-roots movement to defund the police has taken strange turns. A particularly noteworthy development is the growth of private armed security forces operating in lieu of, or alongside, traditional police.
The city government funds and collaborates with these armed militia groups, who claim to be a “bridge” between the police and the community. Although they make radical noises, their role is, obviously, like that of the police–to buttress state power.
Armed militia groups are a dime a dozen in modern American life, but the relationship which has developed between these groups and the Minneapolis city government is something new. The city has paid large sums of money to local non-profit groups that claim to be “bridges” between the community and police. In actuality, these groups appear to be a way to buy off militant community members with jobs, all the while allowing them the rhetoric of revolutionary “self-defense” without giving them any power or authority. Recently, the embattled mayor Jacob Frey has even begun making public appearances with security provided by these groups.
During these past two years, far from cop violence being curbed, there have been additional police murders. The killing of Daunte Wright, Winston Smith, and Amir Locke all rocked the city. In spite of large protests, no significant reform of policing was ever made.
As discussed in “Minneapolis After the Third Precinct: the BLM Uprising a Year Later,” the Black Lives Matter (BLM) Uprising of 2020 was led by the courageous struggle of the Minneapolis working class, whose uprising included conquering the Third Precinct’s headquarters and popularizing cries for police abolition. In that article, I also traced the rise and fall of “defund the police” legislative initiatives in the Minneapolis City Council following Floyd’s murder.
Since all attempts to cut the police budget were killed, the budget has grown enormously. Currently the MPD budget is $196 million, which is a three million dollar increase from the beginning of 2020. The biggest cut that the police department ever saw was a relatively tiny $8 million dollar cut in the first budget passed after Floyd’s murder. Even when other city departments were cut, MPD funding has grown.
In a recent editorial for the Minnesota Spokesman Recorder, “How the police are defunding Minneapolis,” Eamon Whalen lays out how the MPD has become a massive suck on city resources in the two years since the uprising: “The combination of [spurious workman’s compensation claims by police] and police misconduct settlements is approaching $150 million dollars. That’s more than three fourths of what the MPD’s budget was in 2020. The city’s self-insurance fund, which it uses to pay out settlements, is expected to be at negative $94 million by the end of 2022.”
Despite the BLM movement’s legislative failures, protesters have bravely continued pushing back against compromises. The occupation protest in George Floyd Square was a source of major contention between the city government and protesters since the very beginning of the unrest.
Police Continue Killing Black Youth as Alternatives to Police Are Sought
When the MPD killed Winston Smith in early June 2021, that murder inspired another wave of protests and another occupation. Less than two weeks into that occupation, a man drove his truck into the protesters and killed Deona Marie Knajdek. Six months later, the youth of Minneapolis responded to the MPD murder of Amir Locke: students from a local high school organized a sit-in at City Hall which lasted for several days.
This ceaseless struggle has further called into question the legitimacy of the police. But with armed militia groups patrolling the beat, that alternative has taken up all the room for discourse on ideas about alternatives to policing. Instead, heavily armed nonprofit groups have stepped into that space and onto the world stage.
These groups emerged during the hottest early days of the BLM Uprising in Minneapolis. In the wake of the uprising, the so-called Minnesota Freedom Fighters (MNFF) were formed to protect property and “maintain peace” in the area: “The MNFF was created after the local branch of the civil rights group[,] the NAACP[,] put out a call for residents to help protect local businesses.” With their uniform patches, bulletproof vests, and rifles, the MNFF are certainly well coordinated.
Undoubtedly, this formation is partly a response to some heavily armed, largely white, right-wing groups such as the Oath Keepers and the Boogaloo Boys, which were fixtures at the 2020 protests. Describing themselves as a “black self-defense group,” the MNFF also tries to serve as “a ‘bridge’ between the police and the African-American community.” Tellingly, these formations present themselves as neither the community acting for itself, nor as a police force being imposed upon the community, but instead as a cumbersome third thing: a bridge.
Instead of Community Policing, a Bridge to Nowhere
It wasn’t just newly formed groups that took on this formation, but preexisting Minneapolis nonprofits as well. “Some 40 years ago, Steve [Floyd] started Agape to help transform lives. It started with Agape Assembles and then Champions of Agape, with gang members bettering their lives through life skills training offered by the organizations. The murder of George Floyd gave rise to a new model, but the organization’s mission to transform lives remains the same.” The Agape Movement also describes itself as a bridge between the community and police. There is nothing particularly unique or surprising about these formations. The BLM Uprising, the presence of the aforementioned right-wing counter-protesters, and a lack of faith in police led to a nationwide resurgence in Black militia groups and a new interest in ideas of Black self defense.
Armed groups at protests are just a part of reality in America. This has been the case in Minneapolis since at least George Floyd’s murder. However, the intensity and consistency of the struggle against policing in Minneapolis created a unique dynamic between the bourgeois city government and these groups. In the wake of the police murder of Daunte Wright, the MNFF worked to police the behavior of protesters. A member of the group indicated that “throwing objects at the police takes the focus away from their calls for justice and saps energy from the movement.” They worked to make their presence felt at the protests and to enforce the conduct and tone that they desired.
At the time, City spokeswoman Sarah McKenzie said, “there are several ‘formal and informal relationships’ with members of the Freedom Fighters, but [the City] does not fund or contract with the organization because it is an armed group.” These interactions between city and group raised questions for some protesters: “However, some demonstrators said those ties mean the Freedom Fighters act at the behest of the police and are not aggressive enough in calling them to account.”
Nonprofits, being as much of a shell game for moving money around as anything else, provide opportunities to circumvent the city’s hesitance to directly fund armed groups. While MNFF may not get funding from the city, the nonprofit Change Equals Opportunity (CEO) does receive funds. The CEO of CEO is Jamil Jackson. Proving that one man can wear many hats, Jackson is also the founder and executive director of MNFF.
The Sudden End of George Floyd Square – for $359,000
After over a year’s occupation of George Floyd Square, the incredible ending to that occupation starkly revealed the tensions at work in this dynamic. In the early morning of June 20, 2021, Minneapolis city workers removed barricades and reopened the square to traffic. Not only did the city claim that this had been done in concert with Agape, but it claimed further that the initiative had been the group’s idea. “[Founder Steve] Floyd said they surveyed those who work and live in the area of 38th and Chicago and found that 90% of them wanted to see the intersection safely reopened.” Despite the polls, this was a controversial decision—seemingly even within Agape itself. One member told the New York Times that Agape was claiming responsibility for the decision in order to insulate the city from pushback to the idea.
This was not the only controversy related to the move. Mayor Jacob Frey approved a $359,000 contract for the Agape movement to reopen the Square. Frey used COVID-19 emergency powers to move those funds without needing approval from the City Council. “The mayor had publicly described the reopening as a ‘community-led initiative’ driven by Agape Movement. But the group had actually been awarded this $359,000 contract with the city.” Councilmember Cunningham stated that “Our Health Department should not be expected to fill in the gaps for whatever MPD does not want to do or is politically unpopular.” In essence, Cunningham is pointing out how Frey used Health Department funds to pay the Agape Movement to do duties that the police could not or would not do. Bourgeois city politics recognized the need to look “community-driven” and needed to cope with having an increasingly unpopular police force. In Agape and the MNFF, they found willing allies. This dynamic has not gone unrecognized by Minneapolis locals who have coined the slogan, “if you’re paid by the city, then you’re a piggy.”
Mayor Frey, with the complicity of the Charter Commission, has overseen the transformation of the radicalism of “defund” into its opposite: standard austerity politics. Every other city department is subject to budget trimming except for the MPD.
In July of 2022, an exposé by KSTP local Minneapolis uncovered documents elucidating the relationship between city hall and these groups. As the report puts it, these “records… reveal new details about the fragile relationship between police, city hall, and armed community groups during the height of unrest in Minneapolis.” Armed community groups were allowed to skip permitting processes, avoid curfews, and have confiscated guns returned to them swiftly. “The Minnesota Freedom Fighters don’t have a security contract with the city of Minneapolis. In fact, the group isn’t licensed to provide security at all in Minnesota, according to state regulators. Yet, after police confiscated firearms from several members of the group last year, police reports show officers were told to give the guns back as quickly as possible.”
A Question of Survival for Black People
All of this bourgeois politicking has served to buttress an embattled MPD, but it has not done anything to diminish the struggle of Minneapolis’ Black proletariat. Facing a restive working class on one side, and an intransigent police department on the other, Frey is in a snarl. The mayor seems to have recognized that public faith in the authority of traditional state powers is crumbling and needs far more than just buttressing. This relationship between the city and these armed, seemingly independent, non-profits is one attempt to maintain order in the face of these conditions. It is an attempt with chilling potentialities for future developments.
The Black proletariat of Minneapolis is also caught in a snarl, and one with much higher stakes than a tough reelection campaign. At the current moment, police abolition seems out of reach, but the unabating brutality of the cops cannot be tolerated passively, nor has it been. It is a question of survival. Turning to ideologies of Black self-defense, while trapped in such a snarl, is not a surprising development.
However, the militias have tried to sell a sellout as a success. Their empty posturing does nothing to actually challenge the violent power structures that they were brought into being in order to oppose. Worse than that, their existence, and counterfeit radical bona fides, have been used as spackle to fill in the holes in the MPD’s authority. If MPD is too unpopular, or too unwilling, to function as the state’s strong arm, these groups should not be offering themselves up to be it. And yet, they cleared George Floyd Square, and they serve as bodyguards for the mayor. It is an insult to George Floyd’s memory and to the 2020 uprising. It is also a dangerous farce.