Indigenous Minnesotans — key voice on racial profiling — split on future of Minneapolis Police Department

The American Indian Movement, founded in response to police brutality, wants reform, not dissolution of MPD

Mural at the Minneapolis American Indian Center on East Franklin Avenue. The words are a popular Lakota saying, meaning "We Are All Related." The mural artist is Rory Wakemup. Photo by Melissa Olson/Minnesota Reformer.

The uprising following the Memorial Day police killing of George Floyd has exposed a split among American Indian leaders over issues of police accountability and public safety. Some want to reform the Police Department, while others want to abolish it altogether and replace it with something new.

The debate in the large and diverse Indigenous community in Minneapolis reflects the larger citywide fracas about what to do about public safety. It pits the City Council — which moved last week to let the voters decide whether to abolish the department and create something new — vs. Mayor Jacob Frey and Chief Medaria Arrondondo, who say the agency can be reformed. 

The American Indian community’s role will be significant both because the city’s Indigenous comprise 1.4% of the population and could be decisive in a close vote — and because they are a key voice on police brutality and racial profiling. 

Though largely overlooked in the national dialogue about race and policing, Indigenous Americans, like Black Americans, are on the receiving end of questionable stops, searches, arrests and use of force by police in Minneapolis and across the nation, data show. 

Between 1999 and 2015, American Indians were killed by police at a higher rate than people of any other race, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Closer to home, American Indians living in south Minneapolis are more likely to be stopped, searched and arrested by police than other Minneapolis residents.  

“Back (in the 1960s and 1970s) they would just beat you up, take you down to the river and leave you there,” said Frank Paro, national president of the American Indian Movement, which was founded in Minneapolis in 1968 to fight police brutality. “Now it’s 2020. Now they just kill us.” 

Researchers working on behalf of the Center for Indian Country Development analyzed data from the City of Minneapolis, which showed that during a recent one year period, American Indian women were stopped, searched and arrested much more frequently than other women. 

American Indian women comprise 1.4% of the population of women in Minneapolis, but they accounted for 6.6% of police stops of women. After they were stopped, 27% of American Indian women were searched, while white women were searched 6% of the time. 

Women in certain neighborhoods in the now infamous Third Precinct are particularly susceptible to being stopped, searched and arrested. More than 40% of women stopped in East Phillips and Midtown Phillips were Native American. Researchers concluded: “Place plays an important role in this disparity; the disproportionate stops of Native American women are geographically concentrated in areas with high Native American residents and that are associated with sex work.”

In a separate study for the Center for Indian Country Development from spring of 2020, research focused on fatal encounters between Native Americans and police, and found that for both men and women, Native Americans have more fatal encounters per capita than their white counterparts. Native American men have 14 times as many fatal encounters with police as white men, and Native American women have 38 times as many fatal encounters as white women.

Key leaders divided on future of MPD

But leaders of Indigenous organizations are split about the path forward. 

Paro, president of the American Indian Movement, scoffed at the idea of abolishing the police department, likening it to a peanut butter and pickles sandwich. 

“Nobody in their right minds can say we don’t need the police, we can do community policing. The American Indian Movement stands with Chief Arradondo, and the mayor of Minneapolis and re-training for the Minneapolis Police Department,” he said. “Reform the Police Department, reform the civil rights division of the City of Minneapolis and do something about the Minneapolis City Council.”

Arianna Nason is Anishinaabe from the Fond du Lac Ojibwe community in northeastern, Minn., and a co-founder of MPD150, which is a group of activists who are calling for the abolition of the Minneapolis Police. 

Arianna Nason of MPD150. Courtesy photo.

“Reform doesn’t work. Reform hasn’t worked. The Police Department that we have right now is the reformed police body,” she said. Nason said she doesn’t believe the Minneapolis Police can be reformed because state violence is embedded in its DNA. “Can’t work with a system that is working the exact way it was designed to. It’s not broken. It’s not a broken system. it’s fully functioning and that’s what’s terrifying to me.” 

Leaders from both AIM and MPD150 agree that community organizations must lead and engage the community in re-imaging what public safety means throughout the city.

Paro said he’d only been in his position for just over a week when he learned of George Floyd’s death from a fellow community member. Paro said he hoped something good could arise from the killing. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m sorry this man lost his life, but I’m glad something major happened so I could do something.” 

Paro said that in the day following Floyd’s killing, he was focused on protecting the community in the face of arson and destruction. He began by reactivating AIM’s street patrol. “We knew the Minneapolis Police Department would not protect Franklin Avenue and our American Indian organizations and businesses throughout the city. So, we posted people at those locations,” Paro said.  

AIM Patrol had permits to work the streets after curfew for the first two nights, but the rest of the week they had to operate on the sly. “We had to play cat and mouse with the Minneapolis Police and the National Guard, and unfortunately, we were the mouse.”

Given the history of its founding, AIM’s current support for Minneapolis Police may seem surprising.  AIM Executive Director Lisa Bellanger said it’s rooted in respect for Arradondo. Bellanger said Arradondo has been a strong advocate for community-police partnerships. 

“AIM is not so much standing with the Minneapolis Police, but standing with Minneapolis Police Chief Arradondo who has been very responsive to community issues. However, we see he is limited in what he’s able to accomplish. His biggest obstacle is the City Council, but also the union,” referring to the influential police union that has successfully thwarted major change.   

Bellanger said AIM is opposed to the language used by some members of the City Council.  “We can call for defunding, dismantling and we can call for a total reorganization of the police force but it’s not going to do any good. The minute you throw out the term ‘defund’ and ‘dismantle’ the police, it creates chaos.”

Nason of MPD150 acknowledged that some in Minneapolis are concerned — and perhaps have the misimpression — that MPD150 have not considered an alternative to police.   

Definitely an anxiety I hear is folks thinking that there’s going to be some snap and everything’s gone over overnight. We need to be able to have some type of support for each other, some type of infrastructure, whether that be from just even within our own communities or from like support from the county or our neighborhood association.” 

She said neighborhoods are already organizing themselves for self-protection in response to the May unrest. 

While AIM and MPD 150 may be split on their approach to issues of policing and public safety, American Indian community leaders agree that a portion of the current police budget should be re-allocated to  community-led organizations that might be tapped to re-imagine the relationship between the Minneapolis Police and the city’s residents. 

Paro said  the AIM Patrol will continue to work in Minneapolis. He  said money for training in mental health and de-escalation would go a long way. 

Bellanger said AIM wants to continue to have a place at the table in any conversation about public safety, as well as new investments in youth programming to prevent crime.  

Nason agrees more investment in the community is needed. She lamented inconsistent funding and overly complex processes to get it. “Imagine how much more positive and much more beautiful and vibrant our community would be if every family had access even to things like emergency housing assistance,” she said. 

In 2017, MPD150 released a report called “Enough is enough. A 150 year People’s History Performance Evaluation of the Minneapolis Police Department.” Nason said the goal of MPD150  is to keep engaging the residents of Minneapolis on police abolition. “How can we plant seeds towards a more life giving future? How can we tend to the soil of our community? how can we build this garden of dreams that we want to see actualized into reality? And, we cannot speak for people, we cannot tell people what will be best for them.“

Melissa Olson
Melissa Olson is a writer and producer of independent public media, including the KFAI program "Sanctuary," Mondays at 1 p.m. The daughter of an Ojibwe adoptee, her award-winning audio documentary "Stolen Childhoods" can be found on SoundCloud.