What happens when a tiny police abolitionist group finds itself with $29 million?

A supermajority of the Minneapolis City Council committed to dismantling the Minneapolis Police Department before a crowd gathered at Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on June 7, 2020. The decision came after peaceful protests and rioting in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. The event, "The Path Forward: Community Meeting with City Council Members," was organized by Reclaim The Block and Black Visions. Photo by Tony Webster.

Black Visions Co-Director Kandace Montgomery took the stage in shorts and a T-shirt at Powderhorn Park on June 7, 2020 — 13 days after George Floyd died under Derek Chauvin’s knee. She stood in front of large, white block letters spelling out “DEFUND POLICE.” 

Montgomery declared, “Minneapolis, we’re here because now is the time to dismantle MPD. Black people and queer people and trans people and Indigenous people and disabled people and immigrants and poor people — we have never looked to the police for our safety. We have looked to each other. We have looked to each other for protection from the police. It shouldn’t have taken so much death to get us here. George Floyd should not have been murdered for so many people to wake up. ”

And then nine Minneapolis City Council members vowed to “begin the process of ending” the police department in front of thousands of people in the park.

That Powderhorn Park rally was a pivotal moment for Black Visions, a previously little-known police abolitionist organization that sprang out of the local Black Lives Matter chapter. After Floyd’s killing, they were inundated with $29 million in donations, most of it in June 2020, from across the country.

But the millions overwhelmed them, and they struggled to manage it with transparency and accountability, some activists said. 

After what they called a “detox” in December, Black Visions re-emerged as a leader in the citizen petition drive to restructure public safety in Minneapolis. 

The umbrella coalition called Yes4Minneapolis expects to deliver 20,000 signatures — 8,000 more than needed — on Friday, giving voters the chance to vote in November on dismantling the police department and crafting a new one.

When the Black Lives Matter movement exploded in 2014, Montgomery helped start the Minneapolis chapter, but ultimately got burned out due to the lack of stability and resources to do long-term work, she said in a Reformer interview.

A half dozen former BLM organizers wanted to build a more long-term organization, and began meeting in houses, eventually founding the queer-led Black Visions — formerly Black Visions Collective — in 2017 to improve the lives of Black people and abolish police.

“It was literally us just knowing each other and saying we want to not just be responding to Black death all the time, we want to be proactive in our approach, we want to build long-term organizing strategies that can really sustain and support our people — how do we do that?” Montgomery said.

The group made a splash in 2018 when it led a light-rail blockade and 1.5-hour shutdown after the city limited the train to Super Bowl ticket-holders. That helped them connect with other activists and abolitionists who wanted to move away from policing and “Dream about what it would look like to call on our City Council to defund the police.”

They developed an offshoot campaign called Reclaim the Block to get people interested in the municipal budget, and the fact that the city was spending $180 million on policing and less than $40 million on housing.

Kandace Montgomery of Black Visions. Courtesy photo.

Council Member Alondra Cano said Reclaim the Block began lobbying the council to move money from the police department to alternative programs, and helped convince the council to shift $1.1 million to create the Office of Violence Prevention in 2019. The office got an even bigger boost last year, as violent crime shot up.

“No one gave a (expletive) about it back then,” Cano said. “Nobody cared about it. It’s like, ‘Crazy Minneapolis is just being crazy again, who cares?’ But it wasn’t until after Floyd that people really tuned in.”

They also made news by protesting the police presence at Minneapolis Pride in 2018.

Black Visions had five staffers when its first office opened about a year ago, right as the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The organization took in about $250,000 in 2019 and less than $23,000 the year prior, according to tax documents filed by what Montgomery called its “fiscal sponsor,” TakeAction Minnesota, a social justice group Montgomery first worked for when she moved to Minnesota in 2013. 

And then Floyd was killed. 

Black Visions sprang into action, publicizing Mayor Jacob Frey’s phone number, confronting him at his home and chanting at him to “go home” when he refused to take the defund police vow.

They turned up the heat on the City Council.

Council President Lisa Bender said the council was inundated with calls and emails. The activists wanted council members to cut $45 million from the Police Department, but she refused.

Behind the scenes, Black Visions and Reclaim the Block pressured council members to get on the stage and make the pledge, with nightly planning meetings and public cajoling. Council Member Linea Palmisano was in the audience but refused to get on stage, despite lobbying by activists and her colleagues. 

In fact, Council Member Andrew Johnson was still texting her from the stage, she said, trying to get her to come up, saying she should because she agreed with “the spirit of it.”

The activists had tried to get her cell phone number and planted paper George Floyd gravestones in council members’ yards, including hers, on May 30 because they didn’t respond within 24 hours to their call for a pledge to defund police.

“They were already creeping around under the window I was working from at 3 in the morning,” Palmisano recalled. “No, I’m not interested in giving these people personal access to me. I’m still mad about that.”

Council Member Jeremiah Ellison also came home to find faux gravestones in his yard after a long night patrolling his ward, even though he’s one of the council’s most vocal proponents of public safety restructuring.

In the end, nine council members agreed to get up on the stage in Powderhorn Park.

“There was tremendous pressure in that moment to go and do it,” Palmisano said.

And then came the money. Celebrities from Lizzo to Fallout Boy encouraged people to donate and the money started pouring in. Black Visions and its offshoot received a combined $29 million in donations, Montgomery said.

Soon Montgomery was apologizing in a Zoom meeting with activists about how the money was being distributed. They’d written an open letter to Black Visions and Reclaim the Block calling for transparency and accountability about how the money was being used “in the hope that we get some answers for ourselves and our community, after exhausting all other options.”

The letter said that when a few young, Black activists on the front lines of protests tried to get funding from Black Visions for protective gear, they were told that Black Visions’ “main priority is to pay people within their organization to continue to do policy work that supports defunding the police and winning the fight.” 

Black Visions also declined to tell the letter-writers the total amount of donations received, so the authors demanded Black Visions share the information or hold a community meeting on the topic. According to the letter, the next day, Black Visions released a statement that included a call to send donations elsewhere.

“It definitely was difficult,” Montgomery recalled. “I appreciate calls from the community to be transparent, and that was always our intention. I think part of it is just folks knowing how organizations work, and that we were actually trying to figure out all of those numbers in the meantime so that we could be really clear and transparent with folks and build a plan for how we were gonna get that money back out to community members.”

A progressive activist granted anonymity to speak frankly said Black Visions is like other organizations that have been suddenly and unexpectedly showered with money and a megaphone but without time to plan.

“More money, more problems,” the person said.

In mid-December, Black Visions announced it was “going on a detox,” blacking out its website and social media and declining interviews while focusing on internal strategic planning.

“That was really about taking a pause after a long and hard year to assess inside, internally, our organization and taking a moment to be able to breathe and plan for what we saw coming next,” Montgomery said. “It’s hard when you’re in consistent rapid response mode to feel like you can be strategic.”

A page on Black Visions’ website explaining the detox can no longer be found, but a website archive site shows the page outlined how the donations had been spent and acknowledged that Black Visions and Reclaim the Block “made mistakes and caused harm.” They promised to take several steps in the coming months, including developing a “public, accessible, online form for community members and leaders to name any concerns and provide feedback on transformation and redistribution plan.”

They also used the detox to plan their push for a charter amendment petition drive and a “people’s movement assembly process” to engage people on their vision for public safety, Montgomery said. 

Corenia Smith, campaign manager for Yes4Minneapolis, said the coalition collected more than 20,000 signatures and will file the petition Friday. And just in case the signatures aren’t all verified by the city elections office, the City Council has a backup plan to get a similar proposal on the ballot.

In the immediate aftermath, the “defund police” movement lost steam as the council itself devolved into budget bickering, with little to show in the way of reform, nearly a year after Floyd’s death.

Montgomery said even though a few of those nine council members who went onstage at Powderhorn have since reneged, it was an important moment for council members to make a public commitment. 

Black Visions now has a staff of about 11, and they’re continuing to grow, with several job openings listed. Last year they distributed $8.9 million to “community members” through “direct mutual aid” and over $7 million to Black-led organizations, Montgomery said. 

The sister organization Reclaim the Block has taken a different role building a multi-racial abolitionist coalition.

Council member Ellison said he knows there were a lot of concerns about transparency for a while.

“From my vantage point, they’ve continued to be good policy advocates,” he said. “I trust the leadership over there to sort out whatever hiccups there may be.”

What’s the plan this year?

“This year we’re excited to continue to be engaging with community members about what further redistribution looks like, but at this moment we don’t have an exact plan around that because we wanna slow down and talk to folks,” Montgomery said.

If and when Minnesota is hit with more racial trauma, Montgomery said she hopes people donate to other organizations on the front lines.

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