frey lied, amir died: connecting community and police violence

Last week, police officers shot and killed another Black man, 22-year-old Amir Locke, in the city that just two years ago was torched by the trauma of George Floyd’s murder, and just months ago failed to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a new Department of Public Safety. Locke had been sleeping on his cousin’s couch, shot to death within nine seconds of police entering the apartment during a no-knock SWAT raid. The killing happened in the midst of a tragic week of loss–with several teenagers shot and killed by other teenagers. The horrific layering of all this death has prompted a new wave of trauma, rage, and demands to transform policing in Minneapolis. But it’s also started to build a bridge between conversations and movements to end police killings and community violence. Rather than treating the two as separate issues, activists and some city leaders are drawing deeply sociological connections about how structural racism produces both kinds of violence and what it will take to address these staggering losses.

On February 1, 2022, outside of an alternative education center just south of Minneapolis, Richfield’s South Education Center, two teenagers were shot. One of the victims, 15-year-old Jahmari Rice who was known for his excellence on the football field at his previous high school and had only been at South for two days, bled out on the pavement. The two alleged perpetrators sped off after the shooting, but were later apprehended by police. The two young men are 18 and 19 years old, respectively. At the time of the killing, Jahmari Rice’s father, Cortez Rice, was in jail, incarcerated for allegedly harassing the judge overseeing the trial of Kim Potter, a veteran of Brooklyn Center Police Department (and former police union president and field training officer) who shot and killed 20-year-old Duante Wright in 2021 during a traffic stop (after grabbing and unloading her service weapon rather than her Taser). Rice had live-streamed a video of himself going into the foyer of the downtown condominium building that activists had identified as Hennepin County Judge Regina Chu’s home address. He was there for a Black Lives Matter protest staged to critique the judge’s decision to restrict live video footage of Potter’s trial (a decision she later reversed).

The next morning, on February 2nd, a SWAT team with the Minneapolis Police Department killed Amir Locke, the first such police killing by an MPD officer since Dolal Idd was shot and killed in December 2020. Locke, a 22-year old Black man who dreamed of a music career, was staying at his cousin’s couch in the Bolero Flats apartments in downtown Minneapolis. The police executed a “no-knock” raid, a practice that Mayor Jacob Frey had promised that he had “banned” while running for re-election. Opening the door with an acquired key, officers shouted their presence as they stormed into the apartment. Sleeping on the couch in the living room, under a blanket, and with a (legally purchased and registered) handgun, was Locke. As caught on body camera footage, officers shouted “Police! Search Warrant!” and kicked the couch. Amir began to awaken, rising under the blanket and holding the gun in his hand. Officer Mark Hanneman responded by shooting Locke, fatally injuring him within nine seconds of entering the apartment. 

The MPD officers were in the apartment not to find Locke (or his cousin), but rather to search for evidence and another young Black man, Mekhi Speed (the brother of the young man who lived in the apartment) who was wanted by the St. Paul Police Department. Speed, a 17-year-old, was later apprehended in Wisconsin, and is now facing prosecution for two counts of second-degree murder, which carries a maximum penality of 40 years in Minnesota. Speed is alleged to have murdered a 38-year-old Black man and father-of-two, Otis Elder, in January in St. Paul during what appears to be a robbery or drug deal. All of this happening in the shadow of the criminal trial against the three other officers involved in the murder of George Floyd, which wraps next week.

Activists in Minneapolis again took to the streets, declaring “Frey Lied, Amir died,” as some City Council members again reignited the campaign for a new Department of Public Safety. Under pressure to explain why he campaigned for re-election by taking credit for “banning” no-knock raids, the Mayor replied to the City Council that his “language became more casual.” What the department’s policy reform had actually done was to distinguish between “announced” and “unannounced” entries when serving warrants. While “announced” entries were preferred in the policy, unannounced warrants were allowed in cases where officers could justify the risk through a court-approved warrant. Summarizing the “unannounced” option as what is “sometimes referred to as “no-knock” entry,” the new policy required that officers announce their presence before crossing the threshold of a residence, repeating the announcements “Police” and “Search Warrant” periodically during the entry, except in very specific exceptions. Thus, according to the policy, the raid that led to Locke’s death was consistent with department policy, given that they had received approval for a no-knock warrant (from Judge Peter Cahill, the same official that presided over Derek Chauvin’s trial) and as long as officers stated their announcement before entry. (In the video, they appear to announce as they’re entering, a point of contestation between activists and the city.) After the killing, Frey announced that the city would place a moratorium on all no-knock warrants, bringing in outside experts to write a new, stronger set of policy guidelines.

Not a week later, the city was again mourning after a 15-year-old high school student, Deshaun Hill, who was North High football team’s starting quarterback, was shot and killed walking down the street in North Minneapolis after school, on the same day that a bus driver was shot in the face after being caught in crossfire between two vehicles, while several young children were still on board the bus. All of this tragedy follows a spate of gun violence, in Minneapolis and other cities across the country, deaths that are concentrated in the lowest income and most racially diverse neighborhoods.

In the public conversations, homicides in the community and police killings are often held at a distance from one another, with each described as having distinct, separate causes and consequences. And it is often a largely disconnected set of activists calling attention to community violence versus police violence. (Scholarship often reflected this divide as well, with largely separate literatures on victimization and racial disparities in the criminal justice system.) To the extent that the two are connected in the media discourse, the link is often that interpersonal or community violence is used (implicitly or explicitly) to justify or legitimate state violence–hence the invocations of “black-on-black crime” or descriptions of the victims of police violence as a “suspect” or “felon.” Or the two get placed in competition–elected officials can deal with the problems in policing, or deal with violence in the streets, but not both, the headlines blare.

Yet as last week in Minneapolis reveals, there are so many deeper connections between violence by police (state violence) and interpersonal or community violence. Just for a start, these points of overlap include:

  • Some of the same dynamics that fuel violence in the community also propel violence by police, including social networks that normalize and spread violence. Both forms of violence are also inseparable from the prevalence of guns and gun culture in the U.S., which make all kinds of altercations in the home and community more fatal.
  • Police violence fuels community violence. When people don’t trust the police to respond to disorder and crime, and fairly investigate cases, they take matters into their own hands. Each case of police violence across the country makes more salient Black Americans’ fear of the police. This means that community violence cannot be solved effectively without also redressing police violence.
  • Both community violence and police violence, and the egregiously high rates of both kinds of deaths among young Black men, are fueled by structural racism. Patterns of residential segregation, economic injustices and discrimination, environmental dangers, and more leave poor communities of color with more hostile, abusive, and inadequate policing. This means that it’s the same people, families, and communities facing the brunt of both kinds of victimization.

As activists and city leaders have worked to bring these conversations together under the banner of a more holistic public safety approach in Minneapolis, we are starting to see these efforts bear fruit. 

In particular, we’re seeing more public awareness of structural racism and the vulnerability to premature death it produces. For example, in her newsletter to residents, current City Council President Andrea Jenkins (the City Council representative for Ward 8 in Minneapolis, which includes part of George Floyd Square) announced: “We must do the hard, long term work of undoing racism. We must make bold changes to public safety and policing policies.” As Council President Jenkins notes, however, the solutions are not only about police reform (or even transformation), but rather all of the other parts of the social fabric that produce safety:

“At the City, and across the board, we need increased investments in youth programming, economic and workforce development programs, and rental assistance programs that work to reverse some of the harm done to Black, Indigenous and people of color in our city. We need bold investment in community ownership infrastructure for Black, Indigenous and people of color to lead. White people must engage in this work. It is awesome to be in solidarity by putting signs in your yard, fists on your social media page, and by marching and protesting. You must also ask yourself, “can I hire a Black kid?” “Can I ensure, and support measures that ensure, a single Black mom is earning a living wage that supports her family and is enough to, at minimum, pay the rent?” The pathologizing of young Black boys and girls in preschool, grade school, high school, and even college, must stop.”

Similarly, Minister JaNaé Bates, a local faith leader and recently the Director of Communications for the “Yes 4 Minneapolis” campaign supporting the public safety charter amendment, recently tweeted that she’d marched for Amir and attended the worship service for Deshaun Hill. After noting that both events brought out people who had voted for and against the charter amendment, Rev. Bates called for the city to come together and do “the hard work of wrestling together to end gun violence and police brutality because both are literally killing my people – some quickly, the rest of us slowly.” Both of these Black women are working against the siloing of the two conversations, bringing together the tragedy of the victims of community violence and those of police violence and highlighting the bold systemic changes needed. 

This same transition towards a more holistic conversation is happening in scholarly conversations in recent years as well, led by scholars who focus on the voices of people living in the most impacted communities. For example, James Forman Jr.’s Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America considers why so many Black residents and elites supported the policies that led to mass incarceration in Washington, D.C. One of the key conclusions of the book is that the politics of crime and punishment in Black communities in shaped both by intimate knowledge of the risk of criminal victimization and discriminatory treatment by the state. As Elizabeth Hinton, Julilly Kohler-Hausmann, and Vesla M. Weaver argue, “Calls for tough sentencing and police protection were paired with calls for full employment, quality education and drug treatment, and criticism of police brutality.” Yet legislators only listened to the first call. Similarly, Lisa Miller’s The Myth of Mob Rule: Violent Crime and Democratic Politics argues that high rates of both criminal victimization risks and mass incarceration are produced by racialized state failure–particularly the failure to develop the kinds of broad social welfare policies that would both prevent and respond to victimization through redistributive channels. More recently, Andrea Boyles’ You Can’t Stop the Revolution: Community Disorder and Social Ties in Post-Ferguson America shows how Black communities have fought against both police violence and community disorder, twin products of state violence and neglect. Key in many of these books is the understanding that cities alone cannot resolve this paradox. Transformative economic redistribution instead will need to happen at state and federal levels of government.

To resolve both these issues then we will have to hold a series of seeming contradictions in our heads and hearts. It is a tragedy that Otis Elder was murdered and his family and loves ones deserves justice; so too is it a tragedy that Amir Locke was killed as police attempted to investigate that homicide and his family and loved ones deserves justice. And it is a tragedy that a teenager, Mekhi Speed, is facing decades of imprisonment for what was likely the worst day of his life. He (and his family) too deserve a merciful vision of justice. Going farther, real justice, as many abolitionists have argued, would mean not just responding to all of this death, but preventing it in the first place. All of these lives mattered and all were failed by systems that did not keep them safe.

Author: michellesphelps

Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Minnesota.

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