Minneapolis council member says he ‘got got’ at ‘defund police’ rally

By: - October 8, 2021 3:16 pm

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 protests and riots 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.

Minneapolis City Council Member Phillipe Cunningham said during a recent candidate forum that he had no idea there was a big sign on the front of the stage that said “DEFUND POLICE” when he went onstage at a Powderhorn Park rally with eight of his council colleagues.

It was 13 days after George Floyd’s death at the hands of police, and the council members made international news with their vow to “begin the process of ending” the police department in front of thousands of people in the park.

Propped up in front of the stage — held together by chicken wire and taped to the stage — were hard-to-miss large, white block letters spelling out “DEFUND POLICE.” 

But Cunningham recently said during a Racial Justice Network candidate forum that he did not see the “defund police” sign before walking on the stage, and said he had made it clear to the rally organizer, Black Visions, that he would not pledge to defund the police. 

“Would I stand on the stage now and agree to dismantle? I wouldn’t use that language, no, but I… still agree that a system reorganization is a common sense next step,” he said on the virtual candidate forum on Zoom. “We said we would not be a part of something that says ‘defund the police,’ and then they put ‘defund police’ on the front of the stage.”

Council Members Alondra Cano and Andrea Jenkins were also onstage that day, but have since largely sided with the mayor on policing issues. 

If he could do it over again, Cunningham said he would have also done “a 360” around the stage and probably noticed the sign, he said. 

“I’m in my first term, I don’t have people — staff — who advance me and do a 360 around stages,” he said. “I entered through the back of the stage and I exited through the back of the stage; I did not know it said ‘defund police’ on the front of the stage until I saw the picture in the New York Times.”

He and other council members have said Black Visions originally wanted the council members to pledge to cut the police department by $45 million, and they refused.

During the candidate forum, Racial Justice Network founder Nekima Levy Armstrong asked Cunningham if he later told his constituents he didn’t know what he was signing up for when he agreed to be a part of the rally. 

“No,” he replied. “This is a part that’s not fair. I’m human, and so I was embarrassed because I didn’t know that that was on the front of the stage. Like, you know, I got got. And now people are saying I’ve talked about defunding the police. I’ve literally never said that. I have always responded with ‘We need to reimagine public safety.’ Defund is not the right way to talk about it. But now it’s stuck on my forehead because I got got by organizations.”

Video of the rally shows Cunningham walk from the side of the stage to steps in front, just to the side of the sign. He talked onstage about the opportunity to dismantle police and rebuild public safety with a public health approach.

“All that money has been going into the police department, and what have we gotten in return? Pain, trauma, and hurts. It is time for us to get behind community and get behind the strategies that we know work, and you have a majority of the city council here today, ready to back that up,” he said onstage that day. 

Black Visions, which led the push for the Powderhorn Park pledge, did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but Kandace Montgomery, co-director of Black Visions, has said the council members were making a commitment to begin the process of defunding police.

In an interview, Cunningham said he stands by everything he said that day onstage, and since — that the police department should be dismantled and rebuilt.

“I thought it was bad messaging,” to say “defund the police,” he said.

He said he was “mortified” when he saw the photo of the council members. He said it’s “ludicrous” that people have such a fixation on that moment onstage.

“So, I have tried to be more transparent about it and be open about it, but I mean, I’m a human, and it’s embarrassing to have been quite frankly deceived in that way,” he said. “We were trying to fill a leadership gap, like we were trying to be responsive. We were doing the best that we can with what we had.”

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs.