Interview with Minister JaNaé Bates of Yes4Minneapolis
In the wake of the horrific police murder of George Floyd and the subsequent nationwide racial justice uprisings, organizers and activists in Minneapolis took up a campaign to fundamentally change the city’s “police-only” system of public safety. Yes 4 Minneapolis (Y4M), a Black-led campaign of grassroots, faith, and legal advocacy organizations, along with trade unions, health workers, small businesses, and individual voters, fought to allow Minneapolis residents to vote on a City Charter amendment that would replace outdated and undemocratic policing mandates and establish a new Department of Public Safety. Despite massive energy for change in Minneapolis—and beyond—the ballot measure was defeated at the polls in November 2021. However, as always, the struggle continues. Y4M communications director Minister JaNaé Bates spoke with Organizing Upgrade’s Alexander Osuna to help us understand the campaign.
Organizing Upgrade: Can you take us back to how Y4M built this campaign?
Minister Bates: After witnessing the very public murder of George Floyd, people across race, region, income, gender, and age poured into the streets across Minnesota, across the United States, across the world, and courageously declared that Black lives mattered. In the city of Minneapolis there was the determination that we needed a piece of policy to actually match that proclamation. In the summer of 2020, organizations like Reclaim the Block, TakeAction Minnesota, and Black Visions organized City Council members to push through a policy that would replace the Minneapolis Police Department with the Department of Violence Prevention and Public Safety. At a public meeting hosted by Black Visions and Reclaim the Block, a strong majority, a veto-proof majority, of council members declared that they would get this on the ballot for the 2020 election. We know the 2020 election was huge and pivotal.
Many cities in Minnesota have constitutions that guide and govern the city. Minneapolis is unique in that they have a Charter Commission—an unelected body of people who are appointed by a judge. This Charter Commission is mostly older and mostly white. The commissioners live in the wealthier neighborhoods of the city, and were appointed by a judge who was appointed by a Republican governor. The Commission historically has been for all intents and purposes to slow-walk change. This unelected Charter Commission prevented the Department of Violence Prevention and Public Safety from making it onto the 2020 ballot, despite there being such overwhelmingly broad support for it.
The organizations that had been pushing the 2020 ballot measure, that had been organizing community members around it, learned that we had to get this on the ballot in 2021 by a citizens’ petition or by trying again through the City Council. We said: We are going to do both. We organized the City Council members to create their own ballot initiative proposal, we launched the Yes 4 Minneapolis coalition, and we went out and talked to neighbors.
OU: Can you talk about your efforts around the citizens’ petition?
Minister Bates: A whole series of organizations actually started these conversations back in the summer of 2020. For example, Barbershops and Black Congregations Cooperative and the Muslim Coalition of ISAIAH had been holding Listen-and-Lead sessions every Sunday throughout the summer in Black neighborhoods and in the park in North Minneapolis. Black Visions was hosting People’s Movement Assemblies in similar neighborhoods. Labor unions and advocacy organizations were hosting house meetings and park meetings across the city. They all would talk with community members and ask: What keeps you safe? What does public safety look like to you? What would you need in the city to feel safe, to be safe? Then they compiled all this information and created Yes 4 Minneapolis.
In January 2021 the leads of the emerging campaign sent out 500 surveys in addition to the thousands of conversations they had already had in the city. They got written information from community members and were intentional about Black, Brown and Indigenous folks being represented in the responses, and the proposed language of the City Charter amendment. In February we launched our petition collection and knocked doors, because you have to get these signatures in person. This is Minnesota in February—we’re knocking doors and it’s 20 degrees outside. We needed to get 11,218 signatures or something close to that. We got 22,000. The City Council was also leveraging their own ballot initiative proposal at the same time.
OU: Yes 4 Minneapolis is made up of grassroots organizations, community organizations, faith organizations, trade unions. Some of these organizations are newer, some have been around for a long time. Whether you were hitting doors, or defending yourself against right-wing talking points, or dealing with a problematic city bureaucracy, you also needed to keep your coalition together. How did you all keep Yes 4 Minneapolis together, strong, and forward-moving?
Minister Bates: We wanted this to be something coming out of community, and we really did want it to be Black-led. The reality is it was a hard, messy process. It was a very diverse coalition and there was a broad spectrum of political ideology. The folks who were the first to be a part of it and anchoring it were abolitionists and used the language of abolition and defund. There was some head-butting with other organizations who were more reformist in nature or who were just generally adverse to defund. There was wrestling about how do we actually talk about what the policy change would do? And so that really did take a lot of principled struggle.
We really wanted to talk about expanding public safety. We really wanted to challenge a particular framework of defund. We didn’t want to vilify that. But we did want to challenge an austerity framework. Defund was a framework that was being used by folks who were also really trying to build things and create things and fund things in the community. And so, if that is what we were actually trying to do, then let’s talk about expansion. So, we landed with expanding public safety. We wanted this framing to be grounded in what the Charter change itself could actually do.
OU: And so this politically diverse coalition faced tough challenges?
Minister Bates: The battle that we were embroiled in was also between a Democratic establishment, more aligned with the Police Federation and the corporate landlords, and corporate lobby, versus more progressive Democrats.
It became clear that the city clerk had a lot of power and was going to push really bad ballot language with an “explainer” that would have read like a warning label. We ended up filing a suit because of this. We won that initial suit. And then our opposition filed a lawsuit—backed by a corporate developer and two Black community members, one a very conservative City Council member. Our Judge had a long history of being for right-wing policies. And the day before she ruled to basically say that peoples’ vote on the amendment wouldn’t count, the Star Tribune—the largest paper in the state—basically gave the judge sainthood on their front page. The Star Tribune was heinous throughout this entire process—law and order dog whistles, awful on the issue, and very clearly biased toward the mayor, who was a stark opponent of the amendment because it lessened his power.
So we filed an appeal with the Minnesota Supreme Court arguing that the judge’s ruling that peoples’ votes won’t be counted if they vote on the amendment was an issue of democracy. A clear violation of it. We had done everything that we were told to do. We checked all the boxes. Held the tens of thousands of conversations. Got the 22,000 petition signatures. Went through every channel of our local government that we were supposed to go through. And got this done lawfully and constitutionally. And then we’re told by a right-wing judge, “No, these votes won’t count.” We filed with the Supreme Court and the day before early voting started, the Court ruled in our favor. Our coalition launched our voting drive and breathed a breath of relief.
OU: It seems like you all were able to create space where diverse organizations could be part of the same conversation about public safety, because these different groups were part of the same community already taking up these tough conversations. The public safety framework and how you all were engaging the issue didn’t seem to require you to throw organizations under the bus, while probably helping defend against the divide-and-conquer messages that were coming at you from the press, or from the mayor, or from the right.
Minister Bates: I think we ended up with over 70 organizations in the coalition by the end of the campaign. There was a lot of growing pains that were happening while we were in a big public fight with the mayoral apparatus of the city. We knew that it was really going to be about staying true and committed to the messaging that we all agreed on as a coalition— talking about the benefits of this policy and what it was going to concretely do for people.
We really leaned into that. We were intentional about having representation from all these different facets of organizations. We were able to start to actually pull apart this idea that police and public safety are synonymous. We grounded people in this conversation about public safety, what actually keeps you safe, makes you feel safe? When you really do have those conversations with people, even with police officers, if you just ask them what does the safe community look like? What does it feel like? What does it smell like? What do you see? No one says a bunch of police.
What are the things that we can actually have? Where can we be? What do we deserve? That’s what we got to talk about. It wasn’t a cakewalk by any stretch of the imagination, but I think it was a right and just way to talk about the things we want to create together. Regardless of where you were on abolition.
OU: Despite all of the work, the obstacles were there and the ballot measure was ultimately defeated. What is your assessment of the defeat? What lessons do you draw forward from this? And how do those lessons fuel future work for the organizations involved in this coalition, and for other reform, progressive, or abolitionist groups doing similar work across the country?
Minister Bates: The disinformation machine that we were combating used vilified messaging around abolition and defunding against us. But also, our opposition got more sophisticated. Our message was undeniable about expanding public safety, and very clearly about all the things that people can and should have. Our opposition got to the point where they actually just started to say “the things they’re saying are right, and we should have these things. But you don’t need structural change to have them.”
They co-opted so much of our messaging. But one of the benefits we got out of it is our opposition saying on record many times: “We should have a Department of Public Safety. A comprehensive public health approach is actually the right thing to do.” And so now, we get to hold their feet to the fire on that. It is highly likely that our opponents will try to cobble together a piecemeal program that will fail again. But then, we can actually have a proof point: We need to change the Charter.
Another lesson that we got out of this is to not underestimate the craftiness of the opposition. In Minneapolis we have some of the starker disparities in the country. Black folks are really consolidated to one area of the city. And of course, these also happen to be the poorest neighborhoods. We saw particular law-and-order “Black-on-Black crime” dog whistles come out of this campaign, that were really about amplifying the fears of Black folks who live in these areas. Not at all talking about the root causes of crime, of violence.
Our opposition leveraged a handful of Black folks in that area to try to say, “Black people don’t want this” and basically use that as a political weapon toward the huge bulk of “liberal” white people. And they moved this large voting bloc—the ones who vote in the mayor every year since the ‘90s, these wealthiest and whitest neighborhoods in the city, saying, “it’s because Black people don’t want this.” Political cover to make bad political choices.
Moving forward we need to be incredibly intentional about building concrete relationships with the old guard in the community. Black folks are not a monolith. We say it all the time. And yet we still don’t operate that way. A bunch of younger Black folks really did create this campaign, sustained it, moved an immense amount of work, challenged the Police Federation for the first time in 60 years and got 43% of the vote. But there was still the handful of old guard Black folks you know, like older Black pastors who’ve been doing civil rights work since Civil Rights pt. 1, and ostensibly they were against the amendment. We’ve had conversations recently, and it actually became clear that this old guard were for everything about the amendment, but were tapped by the mayoral apparatus saying, “We can do all those things and we don’t need to change the Charter to do them.” And so now they’re in the situation where they have to hold him accountable to do things that he actually can’t do. That most certainly is a hard lesson learned.
OU: What is next?
Minister Bates: So, the campaign itself is in its transition out. But for the coalition of community members and 70-plus organizations and legislators and small businesses, I’m sure there will be many iterations to come—that will continue to fight for police reform and for public safety in the city of Minneapolis. What’s particularly great about that is the fact that we get to talk about fighting for police reform and public safety. And recognize those as two separate entities, which for a very long time was not the case.
Minister JaNaé Bates was the communications director of Yes 4 Minneapolis and continues to be the communications director for ISAIAH and Faith in Minnesota.