Minneapolis organizer Tony Williams speaks about the ongoing uprisings and how groups can work towards the strategic dismantling of the police.
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Kim Brown: Welcome to the Real News. I’m Kim Brown. After several sustained days of protest in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd on May 25th, the epicenter of this latest uprising movement, Minneapolis, is experiencing an over militarized response with Minnesota National Guard troops joining alongside Minneapolis Police Department and the Minnesota State Police law enforcement agencies in attempting to quell the uprisings. But organizers on the ground there are using their ingenuity to coordinate mutual aid and redistribution efforts, plus providing a platform for the solution to the crisis of over-policing and brutality, get rid of the police altogether. Well, joining me to discuss this today is Tony Williams. Tony is an organizer and a police abolitionist in Minneapolis. Over the past five years, he has worked with groups like MPD150 and Reclaim the Block. Tony is joining us today from Minneapolis. Tony, we appreciate you being here. Thank you.
Tony Williams: Thank you so much for having me Kim. Happy to be here.
Kim Brown: So from the outside looking in, it’s sort of difficult to get a grasp on everything that’s been happening on the ground in Minneapolis over the past several days. We’re just doing our best to piece it together through social media and mainstream cable news outlets, but you being there on the ground, can you share with us what you’re witnessing? Because it appears as though during the daytime, there’s a particular vibe and element for people who are out on the streets advocating truly for justice for George Floyd, but at night time, there seem to be some other subversive elements that could be a media spin on this as well. Can you give us your account of what you have witnessed? Who is protesting? Why? And what is going on in Minneapolis?
Tony Williams: Absolutely. So we’re now a week into the uprising that followed the killing of George Floyd. I think that we’ve seen a mass mobilization from the community, the scale of which has never existed here or nationally before, in some ways. I mean the sheer amount of protests that are happening around the country in solidarity with what’s going on here are pretty remarkable. We’ve seen the third police precinct burned down. We’ve seen riots destroying property, and we’ve seen protests be criminalized and brutalized by the law enforcement agencies that were sent supposedly to keep them safe. Things here on the ground in Minneapolis are very tense right now. I would say the big players are the protesters and white nationalists and law enforcement. So what we’re seeing is that law enforcement has been escalating every single night the protests. Again, I think a lot of the same people that are protesting during the day are the same people that are protesting at night and with a lot of the same tactics, but law enforcement are turning up on them in a way that is completely ridiculous and incredibly militarized at night.
We’re seeing journalists being shot with non-lethal rounds, even after volunteering that they’re press. We’re seeing black youth getting beaten up, getting tear gassed, getting shot at. All kinds of crazy stuff is happening here. And the governor and the mayor are only seeking to escalate the violence against protestors further. So we’re very worried about that. In addition, it’s become very clear that there are white supremacist elements that have come in that are purposefully trying to light fires at black and POC owned businesses, as well as put people defending their communities in danger. So we’ve had to respond to both of those things in real time. So one of the things that’s happened is we’ve done a lot of community defense organizing where it’s clear that neighborhoods are coming together and friends are coming together in order to keep a watch out for white supremacist activity, as well as defend each other from the police.
So it’s a strange time here in Minneapolis. Again, we’re no stranger to civil unrest in the wake of police brutality. After Jamar Clark was killed, we occupied the fourth police precinct for 18 days. After Philando Castile was killed in Falcon Heights next to St. Paul, many of us were involved in an occupation of the governor’s mansion. Justine Damond was killed here. Thurman Blevins was killed here. And all of those prompted protests, but it’s clear that something has shifted and that we’re having conversations that are very different than they have before. We’re not seeing people speak out in favor of police reform. We’re seeing people speak out in favor of abolition and defunding.
Kim Brown: And that is the crux of what organizations like MPD150 and Reclaim the Block are about. For our viewers who are not familiar with the work of these organizations, would you mind briefly just bringing us up to speed?
Tony Williams: Absolutely. MPD150 came about in 2017, in part in response to the murders of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile and the failure to get justice for those men in the wake of massive, massive protest and uprising. And really what it was, it became clear to a lot of us that the surface level reforms that were being advocated for by a large part of the protest movement weren’t actually moving the needle, and even when they were passed, weren’t changing the underlying conditions that lead to black folks being killed by police. And so we decided it was time for us to draw on the wealth of abolitionist knowledge out there and start thinking about what a police-free Minneapolis looks like. So what that means to us is that we’re looking for a Minneapolis that is not reliant on armed safety patrols of people from outside our community, usually white folks, and usually folks deeply implicated in white supremacy.
We want to be able to keep our own community safe. We want to be able to have enough resources to support people on the ground here in Minneapolis and make sure that they get their needs met. If we do need crisis response, mental health crisis response, domestic violence crisis response, we want it to be trained folks from our communities who are not armed unless they absolutely have to be and who are really deeply dedicated towards the safety of all involved, rather than the criminalization of all involved. So that’s what the police abolition movement is advocating for broadly. MPD150 again, came together in 2017 and said, “This conversation has been happening, but we need to give it a home. We need to make the narrative more clear on the ground here in Minneapolis.”
So we put out this report, Enough is Enough: a people’s history of the Minneapolis police department, which you can find on our website at MPD150.com. There’s also an audio book version of it. And it’s three parts. The first part of it is a past section. It’s the first people’s history of the Minneapolis Police Department that’s ever been written. We did hundreds of hours of research into primary sources to draw out the truth that racism and brutality have always been a part of the department since its founding. In the present section of the report, we interviewed dozens of community members to talk about their relationships with the department today, and pretty much universally found that police escalate and make more dangerous situations where people feel in danger rather than protecting them. And in the future section, we talk about the functions that police supposedly fulfill in terms of keeping our community safe and how every single one of those has alternatives that are either already built or that we can start implementing now. So we really are talking about a gradual shift over to a completely different way of keeping our city safe.
Reclaim the Block, on the other hand, was formed in 2018 and has done mostly policy advocacy. So we have been fighting for redirection of money from the police budget into other departmental budgets in Minneapolis. The police department budget is larger than the health department budget, the office of violence prevention budget, the youth work budget and many more departments within the city combined. And so when we see $193 million be invested into the department every year, we want to see some of that money redirected. So in 2018, a bunch of council members agreed with us. We got them to commit to a small amount, a million dollars being transferred from the department into the new Office of Violence Prevention. And I think those conversations are still ongoing. And council members are very close to being in full alignment with us around what we’re advocating for.
Kim Brown: You know, this feels like such a pivotal moment right now for a potential shift in American society and how we view policing at large and law enforcement. But it seems like this could be a particularly critical moment for the police abolitionist movement. Does it feel that way to you?
Tony Williams: Absolutely. I think the symmetry of this incident with the murder of Eric Garner in New York City is one thing that I’ve been thinking about a lot. Both men were strangled by police. Both men gave indications that they couldn’t breathe. Both men were being watched by community members who were demanding that the officers step off. Both killings were filmed. And I think what is happening right now is a deep response to the fact that in the years that Black Lives Matter has been a major political force in America, the underlying conditions of policing haven’t changed and there have been so many supposed reforms created to fix the problem and all of them have been universally ineffective. And so I think it’s very clear at this moment that people are fed up.
People have recognized that reform is no longer an option or a possibility in any meaningful sense and that we need to be looking at defunding and abolition as the ways to move forward if we want to live in an America without police brutality, and indeed, if we want to live in an America, that’s safe for everyone, regardless of the color of their skin.
Kim Brown: Tony, I want to just circle back if we could, to the protests that have been happening over the past several days. And clearly we are still in the throes of a global pandemic when it comes to COVID-19, disproportionately affecting and infecting black and brown and indigenous communities. We’ve had larger deaths in those communities, more so than in white communities. What are organizers telling people that have participated in these protests over the past several days in regards to protecting themselves and their loved ones from COVID, given that social distancing is tough to do when you’re out there with thousands of other folks?
Tony Williams: Yeah. We are doing our best to encourage people to obey social distancing protocols. One of the things that we’ve seen a lot is people buying masks en masse, or en mask I suppose, in order to pass them out to protesters so that people have at least some protection from COVID, but it’s certainly a thing that we’re worried about. But again, nobody is in charge of these protests. And I don’t mean that to say that they’re totally chaotic and unsafe because I’ve seen a lot of support and mutual aid between protesters on the ground taking care of each other, but people are coming out spontaneously. This is not the work of any organization or any charismatic elected official that’s telling us to come out and protest. This is something that’s happening organically. And so those of us who are in the movement need to make space for that and need to understand that people are choosing to make that choice, and so we just need to try to keep each other as safe as possible.
Kim Brown: Talk to us about the mutual aid efforts in organizing that you’ve witnessed, because of some of the things I’ve seen on social media are, I guess I’d call them mutual aid stations where there’s food, there’s water available. There are medical supplies. If you have perhaps been injured, there are organizing efforts around bail funds to help get protesters who have been arrested, bonded out of jail. What have you witnessed over the past several days, how the community is providing resources and taking care of each other and itself?
Tony Williams: Yeah, there’s so much happening. And it’s hard for me to even fully describe all of the things that are happening because they feel so wild and real, and everything’s happening in real time. I think the effort that … I mean, I went out the first night of the protest in order to do medic work and got a bunch of medical supplies and brought them down to the protests near the third precinct before it was burned down. And saw a lot of other folks doing the same medic work, saw a lot of folks buying supplies and making sure that everything was adequately staffed. The North Star Health Collective is doing a lot of on the ground medic work, but then also a lot of our grocery stores and pharmacies have been closed down ever since property destruction started. And so it’s become clear that people can’t get their needs met for food and other things like that in an easy way on a day to day basis.
So we’ve been seeing caravans of people from the suburbs, people from the city, going out to far ring suburbs and buying supplies and bringing them back in for distribution at various hubs. The mutual aid effort that I’m actually the most impressed by is that a number of our community members commandeered a hotel. We saw that a lot of homeless folks were experiencing a high degree of repression and were in a lot of danger because of the way the police and the National Guard were escalating against people who were out on the streets after curfew. And so organizers got to the Sheraton Hotel, which is maybe a mile from the epicenter of the protest, and talked to them and managed to convince them to house folks in 200 rooms for as long as it’s necessary. So that’s become a particular hub where folks are being housed and where there’s also food and supplies being redistributed as well.
Kim Brown: Wow. That pretty stunning. I wanted to circle back, if we could, to the police response and the Minnesota National Guard patrolling the streets now, supposedly given the authorization to use lethal force if necessary, in addition to the subversive elements of white supremacists, possibly coming to agitate and wreak their own version of havoc. Are you fearful for people that are out as they continue these ongoing demonstrations? I feel as if this response to this incident of police brutality and murder that was committed upon George Floyd is resulting in more police brutality against people who are in opposition to this ongoing systemic racism as demonstrated by law enforcement. What do protesters have to fear right now? And COVID, for goodness sake.
Tony Williams: Yeah. I mean, there’s a lot of danger out there right now. I’m not going to play it safe. Yesterday, a Semi barreled through a massive crowd of protesters on 35W in the middle of the day. And thankfully, nobody was seriously injured. People managed to get out of the way in time. But I mean, I had my brother and his girlfriend were on that bridge. I have neighbors who were on that bridge. I have friends who were on that bridge. And so it is a serious concern, safety on the ground right now here. The police have been … We’ve seen images of police driving by and shooting people with rubber bullets while they sit on their porches outside after curfew. We’ve seen instances of police purposely aiming rounds at journalists, and one photographer in the movement lost her eye as a result of a less lethal round a few nights ago.
So, I mean, we’re seeing very, very serious violence against protestors, and white supremacists are certainly a part of that as well. They’ve conducted drive-bys on community mutual aid stations. They have been leaving potential explosive devices around Minneapolis. They’ve been setting fires, again, in black and POC owned businesses. So I will say that those things are all issues, but I will also say that we are so much stronger than the repression that’s being directed against us right now. All of the best efforts of both this state and white supremacists have proven completely incapable of stopping the protests and stopping people from advocating for the abolition of the police. And I think that that’s what’s really important here.
Kim Brown: So what are we hoping for the best outcome out of this to be? In your opinion, will these protests be sustained or is there something in particular that could bring this to a close with ongoing organizing efforts continuing, but an end to the protest, as we have seen them over the past several days?
Tony Williams: I think if city officials here were willing to make a serious and measured statement about the need to [inaudible 00:17:22] us from the police, defund the police and abolish the police, then we would be in a very different place than we are right now. And I honestly think that a lot of them are coming around to that and are recognizing that reform is impossible. I’ve had many calls with them over the past few days, but we’re not quite there yet. And I’m not even sure that that would stop the protests if they happen, because I think people are just really fed up. And this is not just about George Floyd. It is about George Floyd and we mourn him, but it’s about so much more than that, and about 400 years of white supremacy in North America.
So I think that the protest will continue until people feel sated, and people feel like their needs are being met. And I hope that the country takes a real hard look in the mirror right now about how it can meet those needs, not just for the sake of stopping the protest and making sure that people are safe, but to create a positive sense of justice and peace rather than the negative sense of order and law that was present before.
Kim Brown: We’ve been speaking today with activist and organizer Tony Williams. He is a member of the groups MPD150 and Reclaim the Block. These are police abolitionist organizations based in Minneapolis. And we’ve been talking about the ongoing protest in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd, countless others in Minneapolis, and other victims of police brutality across the country, and
Minneapolis has been a flash point for all of this uprising that it looks as though we could get some changes, substantial changes coming out of this one. Tony, we appreciate you making the time to speak with us so much. Thank you.
Tony Williams: Yeah. Thank you so much, Kim. And once again, you can find our work at MPD150.com and ReclaimTheBlock.com. I encourage anybody who’s interested in the ideas or even skeptical about them to head to our websites and check out what our platforms are about.
Kim Brown: Absolutely. Go check them out and thank you for watching the Real News Network.
Kim Brown has been covering national and international politics for over 10 years and has been a sought-after voice on issues on race and culture.