According to the Minnesota Constitution, “Government is instituted for the security, benefit and protection of the people.”

On Memorial Day 2020, four police officers employed by the City of Minneapolis took part in the cold-blooded public murder of George Floyd, a Black man. It was another killing in the long list of deaths caused by the epidemic of racism and violent policing in the United States. It came on the heels of the highly publicized murders of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky.

People in Minneapolis began to revolt, and so have others in cities all across the country. The “simultaneous collapse of politics and governance has forced people to take to the streets — to the detriment of their health and the health of others — to demand the most basic necessities of life, including the right to be free of police harassment or murder,” wrote professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor.

Life, the protests have continued to proclaim, is more important than property. “You can rebuild a building, but you can’t bring George Floyd back,” some have expressed. Minneapolis protesters made this point obvious by destroying a Target, and setting a police precinct and Arby’s ablaze.

Photo by Hexen Photography - Toledo, Ohio

These actions are exposing an underlying ethic, if you can call it that, of the system of government we live under. Though property is not living and breathing, the law and its officers treat it as such and even superior to biological life. It will, through the police, protect property, but kill humans without reason or remorse. It protects the private property owner, and his “liberty” to destroy the people, neighborhoods, and ecosystems he “owns.”

Elected officials, like the governor of Minnesota, have made pleas to the people to act “civilized” and not to burn or destroy property. But no equivalent press conference was called when public servants killed George Floyd.

Critics who imply that property destruction is equivalent to the violence public servants inflict on people erase the truth that property ownership and protection are themselves acts of violence, existing through exploited labor and stolen lands. When police are a violent institution rooted in white supremacy and defend property rather than human beings, then property destruction can become a collective act of self-defense:

  • The Boston Tea Party destroyed the property of a multinational corporation.

  • The Underground Railroad stole the “property” (enslaved people) of slaveowners.

Freedoms and rights Americans have fought for were won through protests and actions that challenged the sanctity of private property. These protests continue that tradition.

We must fight to transform this country; we must fight to change the legal system and culture that does not prioritize life over property and which allows the violation of humanity to play like a broken record.

The lie of regulating an inherent harm

Some “police reform” advocates propose regulatory “fixes,” like more training or body cameras for officers. Through these regulations, they say, the system will become just. In fact, Minneapolis Police have been called a “model” of success for regulation advocates, according to policing scholar Alex Vitale. Implicit racial bias, de-escalation, mindfulness, and crisis intervention training have all been implemented in Minneapolis. They have adopted “community policing,” and made efforts to become more diversified. Clearly, this “makes no difference,” writes Vitale.

The belief in regulating something which is structurally flawed or harmful is a lie, and it pervades society. The paradigm of regulation of harm has failed.

A fully realized, emancipatory society requires deeper action, not lipstick on a pig. It is with this in mind that many groups and organizers have pushed for structural change to defund and abolish policing as we know it, and to reorient the priorities of society toward something that cherishes and respects life.

Developments to defund the police department have begun in response to George Floyd’s killing: some public institutions have begun cutting ties with the police department. Others need to follow their lead.

Photo by Hexen Photography - Toledo, Ohio

Community Control?

One step toward more structural change of policing that is often proposed is some amount of community control over police departments. But, even when communities try to win even the slightest amount of control over their police, the state, the courts, and private actors go to great lengths to thwart them.

In Minneapolis for example, in 2016, advocates gathered the required number of signatures to get a police accountability ballot initiative on the municipal ballot. The law would require police to carry professional liability insurance. The law would hold police officers personally responsible for misconduct and take that burden off taxpayers. But the city council refused to place the question on the ballot claiming the measure was “preempted” by state law. The Minnesota Supreme Court agreed — local residents were never allowed to vote on the law.

Community checks on police brutality have been systematically denied across the United States. Some states are passing preemptive laws to block basic reforms, like local proposals to ensure officers live in the neighborhoods they police (rather than white suburbs). Other checks are thwarted by police union contracts and state court procedures.

Photo by Hexen Photography - Toledo, Ohio

Uprisings are a symptom

“America,” Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear?”

After being dormant during the pandemic, writes author Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, “life is returning to some sort of normal in the United States, and normal inevitably includes police officers killing an unarmed Black man in their custody, followed by street protests.”

“The police-state,” wrote CELDF Organizer Kai Huscke in 2016, “in service of the corporate-state, reacts predictably when events like the police murders of Michael Brown or Otto Zehm or Tamir Rice occur. Investigations will be conducted, blue ribbon panels will be created, task forces made up of powerful people with credentials will be appointed, the public will be invited to participate. Pronouncements are made, money is spent, experts called in, personnel shuffled, and officers trained. Yet in the end the system is unshaken. It’s business as usual. No real change emerges.”

It’s time for something more.

We must fight to transform this country; we must fight to change the legal system and culture that does not prioritize life over property and which allows the violation of humanity to play like a broken record.

Time to think big. After all, the Minnesota Constitution, like most state constitutions, does also say “all political power is inherent” in the people. Let’s not go back to normal.



The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund has worked on developing rights-based, in contrast to regulatory, criminal justice law with communities and individuals around the country. If you haven’t engaged in anti-racism work in the past, start now

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