- Interview by
- Thomas Bergstrom
Omar Fateh, a Minnesota state senator and Democratic Socialists of America member, is a freshman lawmaker who represents the district where George Floyd was killed. Over the last year, he’s had an up-close view of the social and political upheaval in the city, where radical demands for racial and economic justice have exploded.
On Sunday night, shortly before the closing arguments and jury deliberations began in the Derek Chauvin murder trial — and just days after the killing of Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota — we spoke with Fateh about what things look like on the ground and in the state legislature around weakening the power of the police.
Can you describe what’s been happening in Minneapolis and Brooklyn Center, and what you’ve been doing in the senate?
I started off the session connecting with local folks on the ground, coming up with legislation around police accountability, and working with folks in the state senate and the house. There have been several hearings on the house side, and some of the bills have passed, but on the senate side we’ve had zero hearings. They’ve been completely blocked, even though at the end of last session Republican majority leader Paul Gazelka indicated that the negotiations they had and the agreement they came up with — which was a package that was pretty weak — was just a starting point and that we’d reengage in these talks in the upcoming session. The inaction has shown that all of what was discussed last year was just a punt — hoping that things would slow down and there wouldn’t be as much steam behind these efforts.
Now, with the trial in the murder of George Floyd, folks have started taking to the streets again — people want to see justice. We’re all basing our opinion that there might be a not-guilty verdict on the history: there’s a consistent pattern of police officers getting away with murder.
And even as we’ve seen inactivity in the senate, a twenty-year-old black man, a father, Daunte Wright, was murdered by a white officer who claims she was reaching for her taser. That’s a claim I do not buy.
This is a systemic issue. It’s not a training issue, it’s not an issue of what can be reformed. And there’s been zero support on the Republican side and a lot of neglect on the Democratic side as well.
What have you seen in your district and in Brooklyn Center in terms of mobilization of police and military?
Number one, I was really proud to see a lot of our constituents and folks that have been organizing at George Floyd Square go up to Brooklyn Center to show solidarity when the murder of Daunte Wright occurred. That was really amazing to watch.
In terms of the militarization, I see that as a complete failure. The state, the city, the county — all local levels of government and law enforcement — have had one year to prepare for large crowds and protests. We knew what was coming, we knew people were going to take to the streets, and instead we opted for militarization, we opted for having the National Guard and law enforcement come in.
It was a choice to do so. It was a choice to inflict harm on protesters with rubber bullets and chemical weapons (which, by the way, have been banned now by the Brooklyn Center City Council, but are still being used, from what I understand, based on the county authorizing it).
There seems to be a decision to use crowd control and to intimidate and put fear into protesters to not come back. For example, we’ve had two nights in which protesters were gathered en masse and locked up, violating their First Amendment rights, and told that they would be detained for thirty-six hours. This included folks in the press, people who should not be touched, who have a right to be there to provide accountability and show the truth of what’s going on on the ground.
So this whole situation has been a complete failure.
What are some things that you and your allies in the state legislature have tried to propose to address this, and how have those efforts fared?
I proposed a bill earlier this year that would basically ban law enforcement from associating with any white nationalist or white supremacist groups. It failed in committee. I brought it up [last week] as an amendment on the floor, and it was voted down on party lines. You think it would make sense for us to not have folks in public service who are white supremacists, but that was shot down.
I’ve called for a stall in budget negotiations and conference committees until we first have hearings and pass meaningful police accountability. We should not adjourn this year without taking any action. That would be a travesty, and that would be a slap in the face to our communities.
There are a few pieces of legislation that could make a difference. The first is ending qualified immunity for police officers — which would mean not letting officers guilty of police misconduct off the hook when civil action is taken against them.
The second is tightening up rules around body cameras — prohibiting any erasing or altering of recordings and also giving the next of kin of those killed by police the right to an unredacted recording within forty-eight hours.
Lastly, bringing back civilian oversight and input. We need to remove state restrictions to allow local governments to put in place civilian oversight that has actual teeth, that can conduct fact-finding and actually discipline officers.
Those are just a few things I think we can get in the senate, but right now, what I’ve heard is that [Republican state senator and majority leader] Paul Gazelka has agreed only to have “fact-finding” hearings. But we know the facts. We know what’s going on. People of color are being murdered; black men are being murdered. And it’s a decision whether we want to act or not.
I just want to make one thing clear again: this is not a training issue. This is a decades and decades–old system that has gotten away with murdering black men and people of color. Officers are doing so knowing that they can get away with it. And the fact that we had zero push this year to get anything on the senate side, the fact that senate Republicans refuse to acknowledge white supremacists have infiltrated our law enforcement agencies, is very troubling.
There’s a reason why people are calling for defunding the police and abolishing the police in general. It’s gotten to a point where there’s just a complete distrust of law enforcement based off of what people are seeing on TV and based off of their own lived experiences.
Once someone puts on that blue uniform, the trust is just not there. Once someone, whether they’re a black person or a white person, puts on that blue uniform, there is a level of unease and discomfort and fear put into people, specifically people of color.