As the uprisings in Minneapolis and around the world enter their fifth week, The Forge sat down with Jae Hyun Shim — an organizer with Reclaim the Block and MPD150, two organizations that have been fighting to defund the police for the last few years. They talked about the incredible community being built in Minneapolis through the uprisings, the organizing work that laid the groundwork for the Minneapolis City Council’s veto-proof vote to dismantle the Police Department, and the deep conversations that need to happen around safety, justice, and community if we truly want to live in a world free from the police. This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Tell me about Reclaim the Block and the work that you do.

Reclaim The Block is a campaign that came together in 2018 around the 2019 budget for the City of Minneapolis. It was a small group of organizers. There had been an action held in Mayor Frey's office by the Poor People's Campaign, where they had brought in a bunch of dirt and they recreated a graveyard in his office — we like big, dramatic things here in Minneapolis for our actions. And really quickly [after], a group of organizers got together — people from Black Visions Collective, people from the Poor People's Campaign, a few of us who have been a part of MPD150, and a few other people who we've worked with deeply in the past — to figure out how we could look at the city budget in terms of making a real change in the moment.

The first year that we came together as a campaign, we had three demands for the city, including to defund MPD by 5 percent overall — which they would not do. We were able to block 1.1 million new dollars from going into the department, but that was only new money; they still got their biggest raise in, like, ten years that year. That was for the 2019 budget. And the $1.1 million that we were able to help block from entering the department, went to a Public Safety Omnibus that was co-written by quite a few of the council members — one of them Phillipe Cunningham, whose name has popped up quite a few times in the news recently. He is also the one who introduced the Office For Violence Prevention, which is within the Health Department and so they're looking at everything through a public health lens. This past year, again, we tried to block money from entering MPD once again — and we were unsuccessful. They added a new cadet class this year as well. This last year we actually didn't feel like we won. The fact that the City Council members are now hearing these demands to defund the police, it feels like... something that wasn't possible a few weeks ago is happening right now in our city. 

How do you account for how quickly the City Council moved from where they were in your last budget cycle now saying they're going to dismantle the police. What challenges do you anticipate ahead in actually holding them to that?

I think that it's a lot of things all on top of each other. We've been working on this campaign for a couple of years. It's been the same City Council members in their seats the whole time that we've been doing this campaign so we've been building up relationships with them. MPD150 laid the groundwork in this city to even be able to talk about police abolition. The MPD150 report made it over to City Hall. It got put in every Council member's office, all of the aides had it. In our city, we've gotten to spend time really sitting with this idea of true public safety. I think [that] is part of what enabled the council members to get here. It was [also] very intentional that they got elected. The people who helped get them into those seats got them into those seats because of how progressive they are and because of the things that they spoke to on their campaign trails that aligned with [our] vision of Minneapolis. I think they're really feeling emboldened to actually move things forward because the parts of their constituency that had been quiet about these issues are louder about them.

I will say that, although we turned out hundreds of people to come to a city budget hearing, which is not a super exciting thing to come to, we didn't get the amount of people in the city who are contacting council members now. Now, there are people who we never would have reached, who we obviously haven't reached, who are, of their own volition, making these same calls into the Council saying that they see that this is wrong. Because the Council has had some dealings with campaigns around defunding, that also means that the constituent base had the language to pull it apart in a way that — if we were a small community who had never talked about defunding our police, it would put us in a really different place. I think that we have that advantage by having run campaigns around investing and divesting with the city budget. And that's also strengthened by the fact that there are sibling campaigns doing that in a lot of different cities. So Care, Not Cops [in Portland, OR], Root and Restore [in Saint Paul, MN]. We have people who are halfway across the country who we can point to who are doing similar work and we have our friends who are literally across the river from us.

What do you think the challenges will be to kind of sustain the momentum of this moment and ensure that the changes you want to see are actually made?

The biggest challenge that I see happening right now is the desire for an immediate one-to-one solution. That is absolutely not possible. There's too much deep thought and work and history to the abolitionist movement that already lets us know that there is not a single solution that can replace this large, harmful body that has been given more and more responsibilities over the years. We live in a time when people want things quickly and they want an answer now and they want it to be transparent and easy to understand. I understand that, but what I define as safety and what you define and safety and what the little boy down at the end of my block defines as safety are all really different things. The only way we can come to terms with that is to have conversations with each other, to figure out: What are the things that I'm doing that make you feel unsafe? What are the things you're doing that make me feel unsafe? What are the things that people outside of our community are doing that also feel unsafe to us? And how can we work around that? I don't think that people are quite to the point where they're ready to have that deep conversation because, right now, it still feels really scary to have something that is so a part of our society, and so deeply ingrained in how we interact with each other, potentially being pulled away. That is really scary. A lot of people I know who have had a lot of violence enacted on them by police forces [are] still really worried about what will happen in the absence of police. And I think that those are the conversations that we need to spend a lot of time with and really look to, to help us figure out: What are the new ways to create safety?

What's the organizing work to facilitate those conversations, particularly among people who might not usually talk to each other?

Our organizing work in Reclaim the Block over the past few weeks has centered around having these deep conversations with the council members. Everybody on the Council that I've spoken with agrees that having just the Council get to decide what happens next is only going to recreate a system that will be harmful. But having the Council along with their staff members and a lot of people in the community doing deep canvassing, deep conversations, and deep work with each other will be the thing that will create solutions that won't just be transition solutions but will be solutions that can be put into place long term. 

Can you talk about any innovations in organizing that you've seen on the ground in Minneapolis during the uprisings? I'm thinking, just from what I've read, about the block-by-block patrols to protect against white supremacists or the takeover of the hotel for homeless residents or anything else I might not have heard of.

The block-by-block organizing was really amazing. I live half a block off of Lake Street, where a lot of the protests have happened, and I live pretty close to where that hotel was taken over. Just seeing our neighbors figure out how to talk to each other and have these pretty intense text loops about what's going on — and calling each other in sometimes and being like, "You said suspicious behavior but that means nothing to me so I need you to describe why it's suspicious. We can't use language like that.” 

I'm seeing a lot of, they're not necessarily "Let's learn how we're white" groups, but, "Let's learn how to not police each other," or "Let's learn how to not criminalize our BIPOC neighbors so much.” There's a lot of self-study groups that that have been popping up around abolition specifically, and people trying to figure out: What does abolition mean? Or what does defund the police mean?

There was a people's ambulance that popped up for a while. There was a local fire brigade here in South Minneapolis. One of the fire stations, a bunch of the firemen, out of their own pockets, bought fire extinguishers for the fire brigade to have. I think they bought a few hundred fire extinguishers because they knew that they weren't going to be able to get to all of the fires that were happening. There was a short-term transport service that was set up. It was a 24/7 service, it ran for two weeks, and it was to help people get anywhere for any reason. They did medical rides, they did jail support, they got protesters home from a protest, they got people to grocery runs, they did drops — anything that needed to happen. 

The whole area around where George Floyd was killed has become a big memorial site. I know there's a crew that's just doing sanitation at that site. And the Million Artists Movement folks are making quilts. There's a lot of beauty happening there where people are really ensuring that George Floyd's life gets to be remembered and that he gets to be celebrated in a way that is due to somebody who had so much of their life cut out from underneath them.

Is there anything else you want to add about the organizing work you've been doing or what you anticipate seeing in the months ahead?

It's really, really great to know how many people support the things that we've been working towards all of this time. I wish that it did not have to come after a week of Black death, followed by more weeks of Black death, to get more people on board. There is such a long lineage of education and thought about abolitionist movements and about getting ourselves away from the prison-industrial complex and policing. I would encourage people to really look towards the Black feminists who have been leading that work. Mariame Kaba has written amazing pieces recently. Andrea Ritchie's book Invisible No More is free right now as an ebook. Beth Ritchie, you'll find at least one of her books linked underneath Andrea Ritchie's if you look it up. There's just so many people to look towards.

There are a lot of people who do transformative justice work. That is something that we, as a society, need more literacy around because, as we move into a different way of interacting with each other, where we don't have such harsh punitive systems that sever relationships and cut off people's humanity, we will have to learn how to hold each other with grace while we make mistakes, and when we create harm and have ways for all of us to heal and be allowed back into community with each other.

While we are having conversations around abolition and the reasons why this needs to be happening, I think hand-in-hand, the conversations I'd like to encourage people to have are also around transformative justice and the ways that you can give yourself grace as you make mistakes and that you can extend that out to others. Because the next however long is not going to be easy, but it's going to be worth it.

What feels possible right now that didn't feel possible three weeks ago?

Literally everything. People took over a hotel. We have hot meals being delivered to parks. There's the potential that 125 people who are sitting in prisons around Minnesota are going to be able to get bailed out this summer. Anything feels possible in this moment.

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