The city’s northside has since the opening decades of the 20th century been home to the largest African American community in the state. The formation of a Black enclave here was no coincidence. It was the impetus, as David Vassar Taylor explains in African Americans in Minnesota, for restrictive housing covenants used “to contain and isolate” African Americans.
Samuels has lived in this community for 25 years, during which he established himself among the city’s prominent Black leaders. He served as a city council member for 10 years, ran an unsuccessful race for mayor in 2013, and is now the CEO of Microgrants, a private nonprofit that provides grants to minority-owned businesses and workers.
Recently, at a time when a giant question mark hangs over the future of the current police department, Samuels has reemerged into the spotlight as a fierce advocate of police presence on the streets of Minneapolis. Many have conflated his support for more boots on the ground with an endorsement of the city’s controversial police department, whose treatment of the city’s Black residents became a national scandal following the murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin in May 2020. However, Samuels says he recognizes that the department has historically targeted Black Americans and that police reform is long overdue. But he also thinks that armed police officers do help combat the community violence that has taken hold of some neighborhoods with a large proportion of residents of color.
That sentiment is reflected in a recent survey, which found that the majority of Black voters in Minneapolis oppose reducing the size of the police department. They’re concerned that cutting the size of the police force would further tighten the grip that violent crime and drug problems have on the streets.
As Minneapolis voters head to the polls this fall for the first time since Floyd’s murder, the public safety and police reform agenda has taken center stage on the political scene here. There have been two warring sides that have competed for media attention in this proud, liberal city that has long struggled with racism: centrists who cling to the lofty idea of reforming an un-reformable police department, and leftists who are quick to call for dismantling the police.
But the recent poll, sponsored by four local news organizations, reveals that the city’s Black residents—who are the most impacted by decisions on public safety and police reform—come out somewhere in the middle. When the pollsters asked 500 Black voters in Minneapolis their views on trimming the size of the police, a whopping 75 percent of them said they oppose cutting the number of police officers.
Ea Porter, a Black resident of the north side, is among the voters opposing fewer cops. She thinks fewer police officers on the streets would encourage bad guys to further perpetrate violent crime. “I think Black voters are more likely to feel the effects of the lack of effective, and inadequate policing,” Porter told MPR News. “Don’t experiment on us, because we’re the ones that are going to be hit hardest first.”
Even so, a large portion of the city’s Black population wants the current police department dissolved. In the same survey, 42 percent of Black residents said they support the proposed amendment that seeks to replace the police force with a public safety agency. Interestingly, though, Black voters are still less likely to support the amendment compared to their white counterparts, 51 percent of whom support the proposed public safety department.
Don Samuels is the loudest critic of the public safety agency—and of cutting the size of the police force. And his advocacy has been more than mere rhetoric. In 2020, Samuels was one of eight residents who sued the city for not having enough police officers on the job. This year, more than once, Samuels also sued the city over ballot language that seeks to dissolve the current police force.
Samuels’s main concern is similar to that of Ea Porter: that the new department may lead to fewer boots on the ground—and that Black residents and poor communities will pay the price.
Soon after Samuels sent the message on that Sunday afternoon on his porch, he lowered his phone and told me about the person to whom the message went: a woman who lives in a city a few miles east of Minneapolis. The woman, a supporter of the public safety amendment, doesn’t think the safety conditions on the north side are bad enough to warrant a large presence of the police force. So Samuels sent the message, explaining the things he’s witnessed.
I asked Samuels to read me what he wrote. He painted a grim picture of the neighborhood: a story about a young girl who was killed while playing on a trampoline, a teenager who was shot in the neck twice, a neighbor so afraid of stray bullets that she installed a bulletproof barrier behind her headboard.
Similar incidents to those Samuels chronicled in the message have been reported across the state since the murder of Floyd. In 2020, as the Associated Press has recently reported, Minnesota recorded 185 homicides—a 58 percent increase from the previous year. These crises unfolded around the same time frustrated city council members and activists called for defunding the police.
When law enforcement loses its legitimacy, said James Densley, professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University in Minnesota, citizens start to imagine alternative methods of policing. “The entire community is questioning the department’s ability to truly serve and protect the community,” he told me. “So it makes logical sense that people would want to hit reset on the police department.”
Yes 4 Minneapolis is the coalition leading the movement to replace the police department with a public safety agency, which would have mental health experts, social workers, substance abuse specialists, and armed officers. In November, Minneapolis voters will decide whether to keep the current department or replace it with the proposed agency. “People of Minneapolis know that the current system is not working for anyone,” JaNaé Bates, the spokesperson for Yes 4 Minneapolis, told me. “So this charter change is a concrete response to what the people of Minneapolis have been feeling and asking for.”
Densley said that the proposed public safety department or any other initiative to replace the current police system is worthy of support. “But at the same time,” he added, “there has to be a role for law enforcement.”
That’s also what Samuels and most Black residents in Minneapolis want. But what kind of officers would they like? Certainly not, as Samuels put it, “thick-muscled white men intervening, with a stern attitude, and taking down young Black man after young Black man on the street.” Instead, the Black residents here need cops who value Black lives and serve the community with dignity and respect.