It’s been two years since Americans learned the name of Breonna Taylor. The fateful details of her death have become well-remembered: Police in Louisville, Ky., shot the 26-year-old EMT while attempting to serve a “no-knock” warrant on her ex-boyfriend, who did not live at the home. Ever since, Taylor’s family has publicly grieved the loss of a beloved young woman who dreamed of becoming a nurse. “I just think she was destined to be great,” her mother, Tamika Palmer told The Cut. “She lit up a room and had this aura about herself.”
In the two years since, the list of Black people who have been killed or abused during a wrongful raid has steadily grown. It includes Anjanette Young, Onree Norris, and now Amir Locke, a 22-year-old Black man killed by Minneapolis police last month. With frightening regularity, Americans have seen how casually and carelessly a “tactical” police raid can end a Black life.
Along with the murder of George Floyd two months later, Taylor’s death inspired a level of protest against police violence not seen since the Black uprisings of the late 1960s and early ’70s. Demands to reimagine public safety have multiplied in the streets and, with the election of movement organizers like Representative Cori Bush (D-Mo.), from within the halls of power. Last February, Representative Karen Bass (D-Calif.) introduced the most well-known of these proposals, the George Floyd Justice in Policing bill, which would have banned “no-knock” raids and police chokeholds at the federal level.
Yet many such proposals may not get to the root causes of the tragedy that killed Breonna Taylor, by only addressing it as a “botched” raid whose victim was in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Mounting evidence suggests that a redevelopment effort in Louisville contributed to the deadly raid on Taylor’s home. If raids are extensions of racist urban planning practices, tinkering with police tactics and procedures won’t put an end to the killing of Black people by the state. Justice will only be possible when governments invest in housing and communities, as activists and researchers have long called for, instead of gentrification and policing that treats working-class Black residents as disposable on the path to building wealth and prosperity for non-Black people.
The notion that a gentrification effort led to Breonna Taylor’s death is not new. In August 2020, lawyers representing her family alleged that her death was connected to “Vision Russell,” the city’s campaign to redevelop the neighborhood where Taylor lived. The warrant against Taylor’s ex-boyfriend, Jamarcus Glover, preceded the city’s move to repossess the home that he rented. Shortly after Glover’s arrest, Louisville and a land bank purchased the property for $1.
Then, in November 2021, investigators at the Root Cause Research Center released a revealing report that filled in the rest of the picture. Through an analysis of documents obtained through an Open Records Request, the researchers found that the city’s redevelopment efforts led to the aggressive enforcement of “nuisance” offenses such as drug use. An astounding 85 percent of nuisance violations came in majority-Black West Louisville. As part of its push to eliminate “blight,” the city established a “Place-Based Initiatives Squad” to build low-level cases and execute search warrants. It was this special unit that carried out the raid that killed Taylor.
After two years, the public outcry and legislative response have not brought us any closer to a future in which Black people can thrive and their communities are funded rather than expended. Several months after it stalled in the House, Karen Bass declared the George Floyd Act to be dead. At the local level, reform efforts have run up against recalcitrant police and prosecutors. A year after Mayor Jacob Frey “effectively” banned no-knock raids, the Minneapolis Police Department had obtained 90 such warrants. Frey has since reiterated his commitment to a ban, but not before police killed Amir Locke in a raid that began while he was asleep on a friend’s couch. In the wake of Locke’s death, police reformers are looking again to Minneapolis—the city that appears trapped in a cycle of violence, outrage, and failed reforms.
In November, voters shot down “Question 2,” a ballot measure to disband the Minneapolis Police Department and create a new Department of Public Safety in its place. Yet beneath the headlines is a movement that is methodically working to connect the issues of police violence and gentrification.
Robin Wonsley Worlobah rose to national attention for her work on the “Yes on 2” campaign. “Minneapolis has been a major battleground in this fight for police reform since Black Lives Matter emerged,” she tells The Nation. “Minneapolis has tried everything: pick and choose any training, any procedural change you can think of… We’ve tried them all.”
In January, Wonsley Worlobah became the first Black democratic socialist on the Minneapolis City Council, where she has continued to lead the effort to transform public safety in her city. An experienced community organizer, she came up through the local Black Lives Matter movement and the fight for a $15 minimum wage. On the campaign trail, Wonsley Worlobah urged voters to support Question 3, a measure to establish rent control. In Minnesota, 43 percent of households are “cost-burdened,” meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, and nearly 80 percent of Black households are renters. In the November election, Question 3 passed with 53 percent support.
When it comes to police reform, even progressives are unlikely to see the issue as connected to rent control policy. But as Minneapolis is showing, the tool promises to help stabilize communities and reduce the incentives for cities to aggressively pursue low-level offenses, such as the drug charges against Jamarcus Glover, Taylor’s ex-boyfriend. In deindustrialized cities like Louisville and Minneapolis, aggressive policing of street crime helps make way for development as well as whiter, wealthier residents. As one criminologist puts it, a neighborhood’s “coffee shops” and “street stops” rise together.
But in rent-controlled areas, communities have a better shot at being stable, healthy, and safe. Studies of Cambridge, Mass., New York City, and San Francisco find that rent control provides significant protection against displacement, which is associated with lasting psychological distress and negative health outcomes. Along with economic hardship itself, these social factors make crime and violence more likely. By contrast, livable and affordable housing is a “prescription for good health,” as the researchers Allison Bovell-Amman and Megan Sandel have written. Stable homes, in other words, are the foundation of safe communities.
No single policy can uproot the long, lethal history of anti-Black policing. But reforms that strike at the heart of racialized economic insecurity can be the basis for real safety. Here again we can look to Minneapolis’s recent election. While voters passed rent control, the measure to create a Department of Public Safety failed by a count of 56 percent to 44 percent. Wonsley Worlobah believes the result confirms the necessity of linking major police reform with the everyday needs of working-class people. “When I talk to residents in Minneapolis, they want housing and health care,” she says. “They want good jobs with a livable wage, and neighborhoods free from pollution.” These issues will not be solved by a bigger police force—or even a better-behaved one.
This work is pragmatic, insists Wonsley Worlobah. “We start by asking, what services already exist that would meet people’s needs if they were fully funded?” As a candidate, she issued a plan for if Question 2 had passed. Titled, “A Black Democratic Socialist Vision for Public Safety,” the plan calls to gradually shift the majority of MPD functions toward non-police city workers. It’s an approach that builds on the use of unarmed crisis responders in cities around the country. The oldest of these programs—Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets—has operated in Eugene and Springfield, Ore., since 1989. Since 2019 alone, crisis response units have been launched in Austin; Denver; Sacramento; San Francisco; and Olympia, Wash. Wonsley Worlobah’s plan goes even further: Virtually every part of government would play a role, from 311 operators to librarians, teachers, nurses, and reentry counselors.
A path to genuine public safety is already imaginable. With the passage of rent control in Minneapolis, it may have already started. Cities could provide financial aid to save “blighted” homes from racist redevelopment. They could block evictions and create crisis response teams. Whatever the measures, policy-makers can do much more than prevent encounters with police from ending badly. “The death of Amir Locke affirmed we need to be moving in this direction,” says Wonsley Worlobah. There’s no hope in fixing a public agency that can “show up while you’re asleep and execute you.”