An interview with Robin Wonsley by Tessa E.
At the end of May, mass protest broke out in Minneapolis following the murder of George Floyd, who was killed by officers of the Minneapolis Police Department while bystanders filmed the incident. News of his murder and the video quickly sparked protests across the country and the world, including in Madison. On June 14, Tessa E. interviewed Robin Wonsley of Twin Cities DSA for Red Madison. The interview has been partially edited for length.
TE: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what kind of work you have been involved in, prior to the protest starting [at the end of May]?
RW: I’m a long time socialist and labor activist as well as a Black Lives organizer. I’ve been a long time labor advocate. I was one of the lead organizers for a campaign that successfully got a $15 minimum wage passed in Minneapolis in 2017, and in St. Paul in 2018. From there I joined Education Minnesota as an organizer, and have been working to bring our labor union along in linking up with various anti-racist campaigns that are community driven, BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] driven. I’ve been doing that since 2017. I’ve also been a part of our local socialist movement through Socialist Alternative, and have participated in a variety of actions and campaigns through that work. I joined DSA in February 2020, and have been doing work to support some of our housing organizing through our housing branch, worked on our COVID-19 response, and am now working on our response to the growing anti-police brutality movement, which has grown into a movement to defund and disband the Minneapolis Police Department.
TE: We have seen different levels of protest over the last several years in response to similar brutal murders by the police of Black people and I am wondering, at what point did you see or realize that this time is different? And the holding power of this moment?
The first time I realized that this was different was around May 28th. The first wave of protests really kicked off around Monday the 27th. The days honestly blur together. So I wanna say that the first day a mass protest was called was that Monday when George Floyd was murdered [May 25]. Then literally the following day after we had that massive protest that brought out about 20,000 folks, that several civil rights groups organized, was the occupation of the 3rd Precinct police station where the four officers involved in Floyd’s murder all worked.
As the police constantly initiated attacks on peaceful protesters, that is when we saw the looting and fires start taking place. That signaled to a lot of folks that we were moving from our typical protest after a Black person has been killed by police, when we typically allow the civil rights groups or advocacy nonprofits to go in and try to negotiate the bare minimum reforms on behalf of Black and and brown folks. Black and brown youth basically carried out multiple mass actions in the following days that had these escalation contingencies, where, yes, folks were going out to loot, folks were going out to also set fire amongst private properties. (It’s come out since then that some of the fires were set by agent provocateurs, police officers who were there to try to incite violence to justify a need for mass policing.) By that Thursday there were five actions happening in that one day, and each action was pulling several thousand folks.
We’re talking about people from not only Minneapolis, but people coming from all across Minnesota, all across the country, to attend these actions. This was something we did not see in the wake of Philando Castile, or Jamar Clark, or Marcus Golden, or several other victims of police brutality, we have never seen any actions that became like this so quick, that also had that much escalation. The mayor was not able to contain it, the governor was not able to contain it, the National Guard could not contain it. Any time they would use brutal force against peaceful protesters, protesters would get right back to the protest. These folks was not being deterred by the oppressive actions of the state to try to subdue and kill this movement, and they also wasn’t trying to be pacified by any civil rights groups.
So what we saw was very independent, characterized by the participation and leadership of Black and brown youth who were spontaneously organizing actions.
TE: How have you seen the rebellion model how communities can care for themselves and take shape when our institutions fail us?
RW: Our communities built new infrastructures of care. There was a huge mandate from our political class to direct all of our police and military presence toward subduing and attacking the peaceful protesters. But the way that they tried to package it was by saying it was these white supremacist vigilantes and white instigators, or anarchists, or segments of the left – who are actually our allies on the ground in our anti racist, anti capitalist movement – co-opting what was peaceful protest or a peaceful movement, and that without their co-optation we wouldn’t have property damage, that small or minority owned businesses wouldn’t be attacked.
Our state leaders and our city leaders used that to justify bringing in the National Guard. So the public was put under this curfew and basically told that if you’re a good person stay home, all the bad folks will be dealt with by our military and police forces.
What folks found out in that moment, because fires were still being set in local communities, is we did have white supremacists and vigilantes go and shoot up and try to target our historically Black communities in North Minneapolis. So when folks were calling for the police or calling for the fire department to come and tend to these things they got no answer. This happened for several days, where people were looking to reach out to them and nothing, they got nothing.
So communities were having to look to themselves and meet their basic needs. Communities ended up building mutual aid programs. Thousands of volunteers were doing grocery runs and buying hygienic products and baby products. Folks also started cleanup crews after all the damage police and vigilantes were bringing. And people were building their own community defense committees to address, more so in North Minneapolis, the presence of white supremacists.
In a lot of communities there were neighbors that had never talked to each other prior to this uprising, and the next thing you know, they are meeting up at Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis with hundreds of other folks, trying to create a nightly patrol system. They were forced to have to tend to a responsibility typically given to our political leaders and the police. The police have been given this social service function. And to see them all completely absent in that role really forced communities to see that we can care for ourselves, that we already had existing networks and infrastructure providing that. We just need to figure out how to support that more and scale it up.
TE: What type of organizational structures that already exist have been particularly helpful in providing a support system for the communities and the people who are protesting to defund the police?
RW: On the actual campaign side, we had existing organizations like AIM [the American Indian Movement], which is a Native American organization that does alot of work around community defense, providing de-escalation training so that you, neighbors and residents don’t have to call police to deal with someone who is experiencing, like, a manic episode. In Minneapolis we have a crap ton of non-profit organizations, especially charitable organizations. So this was their moment to shine in a lot of ways. And then the next thing you know, in the following week, you saw more churches coming out and organizing food distribution sites and mobilizing their membership to do supply runs, and to donate supplies all across the city.
We also had several organizations that were BIPOC-led that had been doing work for a number of years around police abolition, which include MPD 150, the Black Lives Vision Collective, and Reclaim the Block. We know in our city [that in] housing there is a huge crisis around affordable and public housing. We know folks are still not given the wages that are needed in order to have quality of life in this city. Yet every budget hearing, we were seeing increases in police budgets, and mind you these increases typically follow a high-profile killing like Jamar Clark and Philando Castille. So these things just didn’t make sense. Our progressive city council–and we have one the most progressive and diverse city councils in the entire country–would still authorize, largely, increases in our police funding, while all of our social safety nets that we know do add to our community safety and wellness, like housing, healthcare and food access, those things were not being invested in.
So those groups have been doing a lot of organizing in different pockets of communities to amplify that we need to start divesting from the police. And in this particular moment they were really able to sharpen that analysis more clearly. Black Lives Vision, which I should highlight is the new formation of our former BLM Minneapolis chapter, and Reclaim the Block held a very phenomenal action [on June 13], a defund MPD action that brought out about 10,000 folks. They marched through Northeast Minneapolis. We marched through the headquarters of the police union and then we ended our march in front of the mayor’s house, Mayor Jacob Frey. And surprisingly this man came out, mind you in a crowd of 10,000 folks. He knew that the organizers of this action were likely going to ask him this question, “Where do you stand around police abolition?” It’s been clear that at this point we have had multiple victories, we have our public schools divest from police, we’ve had our public universities sever their relationships, so at this point it’s looking at the city, like, “What are you all gonna do next?” It’s time to end this relationship and our mayor basically said, “No, I do not agree with defunding or abolishing the police.”
Following that, there was another community action where the city council was given the opportunity to share their plans addressing the proposal around dismantling, disbanding or defunding the police. Prior to that our mayor, all the city council members, were like, “Yes.” If you looked on their Twitters they were all for this, they said the MPD is corrupt, it’s time for their end, we need to do something different. They amplified that message that Sunday as well in their community meeting. Not even twenty-four hours later, most of those city council members were backpedaling on all the agreements supporting the disbandment and defunding of the police.
There hasn’t been deep organizing in working class and especially working class Black communities because right now what we’re seeing is actual counterattacks from working class Black folks who are saying, “No, we don’t buy what this demand to abolish the police is, like, all chaos is gonna break out. We stand with our mayor.” And we’re also preparing for that counterattack from police who are actually gonna say or try to create incidents or chaos to try to justify that, “No, you actually need us. We’re here to manage the public and create law and order.”
So we have this huge opening right now because these groups have gotten us to a point of abolition. The issue is that we did not as a collective, as a united left, we did not do the work that was necessary with working class people around there [being] a transitional program.
That is our transitional program, it’s amplifying that. It’s not looking to state leaders who are more interested in preserving and protecting private capital or private property and big business interests. Those are not our allies in the fight. You have segments of working class Black folks that are still supporting our political leaders, they’re supporting the police chief because he is an African-American man, and they think that is where we need to take on this failed project of reforming the police department.
So right now we’re in this very extreme political moment where we have the left that is trying to galvanize around abolition, but create a transitional program that wins over working class people; but then we have working class people–because we haven’t done that work–hearing only “abolition,” and for that are going back and trying to galvanize around reforming the system that we know does not work, has not worked, and has not brought safety and wellness to our communities. So there is a lot of work that needs to be done with existing groups to really win over working class people to the idea of and the practice of abolition.
TW: I think this links back to how you were talking earlier about the community stepping up and taking care of itself. So what sort of demands are you hearing on the street? You’ve already started talking about how there’s thousands of people and hundreds of views between them all, about the spectrum between abolition and reform, but in these groups where do you see that energy leading?
RW: I think a weakness, again, of not having the united front with our movement for Black lives organizations that have been doing this work, the weakness of not having broader segments of the working class, is this demand to abolish the police is seen as very isolating, seen as very disconnected from a huge population of working class Black folks and their lived experiences. Our BIPOC folks gave space to our city elected officials to determine how they will adhere to that demand. The way in which [officials have] been able to make those determinations is again based in nothing concrete, there is no concrete action behind it outside of a resolution to pursue a yearlong study that might yield a recommendation, not a referendum that can voted on, not an ordinance or policy that can be passed or enacted, but a recommendation around maybe dismantling or restructuring the police department.
So we’ve allowed our political class to get back power that under the uprising we reclaimed, a huge sense of power amongst working class folks where it caught our political and business leaders completely off guard. They were weak, and for that moment we were able to get many concessions from the political class, and we won them. These are things that we have been trying to organize and win for decades, we got literally in hours. So now with the threats of counterattacks from the police, the counter-movements that are sure to come from working class Black people who do not vibe with this abolition demand, we have a lot of work to do on the ground. Meeting people at their doors, and being intentional about how we do it under COVID times, to have conversations around demands. We need to draw out what that demand looks like.
I think some of the demands that socialists and some of the working class can galvanize around is defunding the police. It means redirecting the money toward these people-directed initiatives, community-governed and controlled and owned efforts, as an alternative to policing. I think that’s where there’s some common ground, where we all agree that we can’t keep funding the police in this way and still have our basic needs met. It just can’t happen. Those are contradictory [goals] and, time and time again, city leaders have put the interest of police over the needs and frustrations of working class folks.
TE: The rest of the world is looking at Minneapolis and thinking, “Why Minneapolis?” And I wonder if it was surprising to you. Were you thinking this was the place where it would start? And I know that you guys have a lot of great longtime campaigns that have been happening there. But was it shocking to you?
RW: Yes.On the second or third night, several of my friends that follow me on social media from college, who all did organizing work together, called. And one particular friend from the East Coast was like, “If someone would have said that the 21st Century revolution was going to take place in Minneapolis, we would have laughed in their face. Minneapolis would not have been nowhere near our radar.”
In retrospect, it’s been close to almost three weeks, the ground for it was ripe. Minneapolis is the Jim Crow of the North. If you look at data about disparity on racial level and economic level of Minneapolis, and Minnesota as a state, we rank second as having the worst disparity. At every marker of our social infrastructure we fail Black and brown folk, in public education, in healthcare, in income, in housing, we have never been able to create an equitable system that provides basic necessities and a sense of safety for our Black and brown folks. On top of that, we add insult to injury by allocating funding towards excessive policing of those communities, so those people can be routed into a prison system and be used for free labor for a multitude of corporations.
You brutalize these folks by harassing them and murdering them, too. We’ve had over a dozen murders in the past decade, where several of them have been public murders. Millions of people around the world have seen Philando Castille or Jamar Clark or George Floyd, video footage of their murders, and nothing has happened with the police who are responsible for their murders. We’ve had numerous useless federal investigations and nothing comes about from it. It’s the North Star of racism in Minneapolis in so many ways, and it makes sense that it’s Black and brown youth–and I want to make clear that it’s those who’re responsible for the uprising–got tired. You can’t deprive me of my basic needs and then authorize my death through police and then expect me to constantly be silent. If you poke a lion a couple times don’t be surprised when it bites you back. It makes sense why now Minneapolis would have its uprising.
I don’t think anyone would have imagined that Minneapolis would have the national and international impact that it has had; from our uprising, we have had anti-police brutality actions to BLM actions in all fifty states of this country. We’ve had numerous mass solidarity actions take place in more than twenty countries around the world. No one would have imagined Minneapolis to have that ripple effect from our local uprising, but I think it amplifies that folks are tired of this racist system of global capitalism, and policing is one of the clearest ways where millions of us are faced with this system. Everyone has someone who has been incarcerated in this system. Everyone knows someone who has been abused or policed or harassed through these institutions. And I think it was a trigger point for a global community to say we’re tired of how things are, we’re tired of being treated as disposable and expendable in this system. It’s been unfortunate that it took the death of another Black man for that to happen, and it’s been inspiring to see, again, the world galvanize around eradicating such a crucial aspect of globalized capitalism and to try to figure out a pathway forward to make that possible.
It’s going to have to take all of us. We can’t have policing fall in Minneapolis and do nothing about how it continues to manifest and impact folks in Atlanta, where there are uprisings happening right now, or in South Africa where they just had a racialized murder of a Black woman take place. It has to be interconnected, an international movement, for us all to be free from it.