‘Transformative Change’ Proves Elusive

Robin Wonsley Worlobah has an incredibly busy schedule these days. The Chicago native, who has lived in Minneapolis since 2014, is not only a full-time community engagement coordinator…

Robin Wonsley Worlobah has an incredibly busy schedule these days. The Chicago native, who has lived in Minneapolis since 2014, is not only a full-time community engagement coordinator for the statewide teachers union, Education Minnesota, but she is also working on a Ph.D. in gender, women, and sexuality studies at the University of Minnesota.

Still, her eyes light up often with laughter and warmth.

Wonsley Worlobah is running for a seat on the Minneapolis city council next year, as the city’s first Black, female Democratic Socialist candidate. Her candidacy is fueled in part by the years she has spent as a grassroots activist in Minneapolis, working on campaigns for racial and economic justice.

“We are going to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department. And when we’re done, we’re not simply gonna glue it back together. We are going to dramatically rethink how we approach public safety and emergency response.”

All of these facets of Wonsley Worlobah’s life—scholar, union employee, activist—coalesced on May 25, 2020, when George Floyd was murdered.

Floyd, a Black man, was arrested over his alleged use of a counterfeit $20 bill. When officers tried to fold his six-foot, four-inch frame into the back of a squad car, Floyd resisted, saying he was claustrophobic.

He ended up face down on the street, his wrists shackled together. A white Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes while two other officers helped pin him down. A video taken by a young woman at the scene went viral, sparking a summer of unrest in Minneapolis and around the world.

But it wasn’t Floyd’s death, exactly, that prompted Wonsley Worlobah to run for office. It’s what happened afterward, when efforts to reform the city’s police department seemed more possible than ever—before they quickly collapsed.

Any “transformative changes” in Minneapolis, she says, whether they involved recent pushes for fair wages, paid sick time, or tenants’ rights, came from the community up—and not from “any proactive work from city leaders.”

She aims to change that.

Immediately after Floyd’s murder, the streets of Minneapolis erupted in protest. The police department’s Third Precinct building, home to Chauvin and the other involved officers who were there when Floyd was killed, was burned to a shell on May 28.

For many outside observers, it seemed like a watershed moment. Vicky Osterweil, writing for The Nation in June, expressed awe at the way events in Minneapolis had quickly led to calls to abolish or, at a minimum, defund the police.

There had been riots and protests after other high-profile police killings of Black and brown people, Osterweil notes, including the 2014 unrest that took place in Ferguson, Missouri, after Michael Brown was shot by police while walking home from a convenience store.

But none resulted in widespread support for police reform, Osterweil declared, until protesters breached Minneapolis’s Third Precinct building and destroyed it. “I cannot recall another time when protesters took over and burnt down a police station,” she wrote.

In October, a wrinkle in this story developed, however, when federal charges were brought against Ivan Harrison Hunter of Boerne, Texas. Hunter has been accused of inciting violence at the Third Precinct in May, as a member of the rightwing extremist group the Boogaloo Bois.

The Boogaloo Bois are a loosely-knit outfit that many experts see as driven by a white nationalist and anti-government ideology. Members of the group have appeared at protests across the country in recent months, including those in Portland, Oregon, and Kenosha, Wisconsin.

United States Attorney Erica MacDonald has accused Hunter of firing multiple rounds from an AK-47-style assault rifle into the Third Precinct building on May 28, before it was evacuated by police, in hopes of inspiring a riot. (A heavily armed Hunter also turned up at a George Floyd protest in Austin, Texas, in early June. He was questioned during a traffic stop but not arrested.)

The developing Boogaloo Bois connection aside, it’s fair to say that the destruction of the Third Precinct inspired immediate action in Minneapolis. Shortly after the building fell, a rally held at a city park featured pro-police reform statements from several City council members, including its president, Lisa Bender.

“Our commitment is to end our toxic relationship with MPD,” Bender told the crowd gathered before her, “and to end policing as we know it to recreate systems of public safety that actually keep us safe.”

Bender’s revolutionary-sounding language was echoed by another city council member, Steve Fletcher, who represents a ward in downtown Minneapolis. In an opinion piece published by Time magazine, Fletcher called for “dramatic structural change” to the city’s police force. He counted himself among others on the council “who are publicly supporting the call to disband our police department and start fresh with a community-oriented, non-violent public safety and outreach capacity.”

Other council members, including Jeremiah Ellison, who, as the son of former Minnesota Congressman and current state Attorney General Keith Ellison, has bona fide progressive credentials, readily chimed in to support the movement.

“We are going to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department,” council member Ellison tweeted. “And when we’re done, we’re not simply gonna glue it back together. We are going to dramatically rethink how we approach public safety and emergency response. It’s really past due.”

By late summer, however, it was clear that Fletcher, Bender, and their fellow council members were not going to deliver on this call for dramatic change.

Wonsley Worlobah believes she knows why.

First, there was a procedural hiccup.

On June 26, a month after Floyd’s killing, the city council voted unanimously to put an amendment to the city’s charter to the voters in November. The amendment called for replacing the city’s mandated police force with a new “Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention.”

But a somewhat obscure city charter commission stood in the way. This unelected body (whose members are appointed by a Hennepin County District Court judge) must approve any proposed changes to the city’s charter before the public has a chance to vote on it.

When charter members reviewed the city council’s proposal, they decided it wasn’t ready to be put before voters in 2020, meaning no structural changes would be coming to the Minneapolis Police Department any time soon.

To Wonsley Worlobah, this was disappointing, but not unexpected. The authority of the charter commission provided cover for city council members, she says, by preventing them from having to actually follow through on their stated support for radical police reform.

“The charter process is there to give cover to [city officials] when they do not want to move forward with transformative practices,” she argues, recalling a campaign to raise Minneapolis’s minimum wage to $15 that she was a part of in 2016. When an amendment to the city’s charter was proposed in that case, the charter commission blocked it. This gave city council members a reason to also reject the amendment. The city leadership, Wonsley Worlobah learned, is “not there to authorize progressive changes.”

The difference then, she says, was that the movement around the Fight for $15 had anticipated the charter process being used as a blockade against progress. And so activists took the city council to court and won the right to have the amendment for a wage increase placed on the ballot.

In 2017, the Minneapolis city council passed a $15 minimum hourly wage. But the push for police reform has largely stalled. Wonsley Worlobah thinks it is because activists were not as prepared this time around.

“Some of the groups leading the charge, I think, felt that, because we had nine city council members declare nationally that they were looking to do an alternative model, that they could partner together to create those solutions,” she recalls, before pointedly adding that this hoped-for collaboration “did not happen.”

Although organizations such as MPD 150 and Black Visions Collective had been working on campaigns to abolish the police in Minneapolis for some time, Wonsley Worlobah believes the sense of urgency after Floyd’s death overtook their organizing capabilities.

When city council members declared their willingness to radically alter the Minneapolis Police Department in June, many saw it as the opportunity they had been waiting for, to finally dismantle—or at least defund—the police.

In July, however, Wonsley Worlobah and Ty Moore, a 2013 Socialist Alternative candidate for the Minneapolis city council, raised a note of alarm. The two wrote a cautionary article for CounterPunch magazine, warning that the Minneapolis city council should not be allowed to take the lead on police reform.

Citing a growing disconnect between the city council’s bold talk and a subsequent lack of concrete action steps, Wonsley Worlobah and Moore urged the public to “push back against every attempt to narrowly define the problem—and therefore the solutions—as limited police reform.”

They feared—and rightfully so, it seems—that the conversation would get lost in procedural red tape and promises to tweak (but not radically alter) police operations. What was missing was a clear policy platform, crafted by people on the ground who had been seeking reform long before Floyd’s brutal death was broadcast to the world.

That policy platform must include more than surface-level reforms, the two wrote. As police officers already wear body cameras in Minneapolis, Wonsley Worlobah and Moore called for a plan that addresses the “deep structural racism and class inequalities embedded into American capitalism.” These structural injustices, they argued, lead to police brutality and a profoundly flawed criminal justice system.

“If we would have had a clear proposal, we could have won people over and expanded our options,” Wonsley Worlobah insists. This, in turn, could have allowed those pushing for real change in Minneapolis to avoid the bureaucratic quagmire of the charter process.

But hope is not lost. In September, Wonsley Worlobah and other local activists, including Michele Braley, a leader in restorative justice practices, helped block the city council’s efforts to rebuild the Third Precinct.

Just months after council members so boldly declared their interest in dismantling the police, a committee within the same council voted to allocate $4.8 million toward a new, temporary Third Precinct building, a few blocks from the one destroyed in May. This was done, Braley says, without any community input—nor any attempt from the police to make amends with neighborhood residents.

She describes a community meeting convened by current council member Cam Gordon, whom Wonsley Worlobah is set to run against in 2021. Representatives from the police and city works departments had been invited, and Braley recalls them going over matter-of-fact details regarding the proposed new precinct building.

This approach caused her “blood to boil,” she insists, because it felt like even the very public murder of Floyd was not enough to disrupt business as usual.

And so Braley, Wonsley Worlobah, and others organized to stop the Third Precinct from being rebuilt, forcing—at least for now—the police department and the city council to rethink their next steps.

When it comes to the future of public safety in Minneapolis, Wonsley Worlobah has a vision for what that should look like: “We want something life-affirming, that does honor people’s basic humanity.”

This post was originally published on Radio Free.

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