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'Why Minneapolis?': How deep surveillance of black Muslims paved the way for George Floyd’s murder

The Progressive
Tuesday June 9, 2020
by Vanessa Taylor

The city has a long history of spying on its Black residents.

Following the Memorial Day police murder of George Floyd, Minneapolis protesters reclaimed—and burned—the third police precinct, commandeered a hotel for the homeless, and pushed city council to consider disbanding the police department. The uprising inspired protests across the globe but many are still asking, “Why Minneapolis?”

While it seems like an unassuming Midwestern city, Minneapolis has a deeply disturbing history of the surveillance of Blackness; this history not only created the conditions for Floyd’s murder, but shapes the everyday life of Black residents.

Independent journalists like Tony Webster and outlets such as Unicorn Riot have long documented Minneapolis’s love affair with surveillance.

In May, Buzzfeed reported on the numerous surveillance tools that are deployed in and around Minneapolis, such as facial recognition and automatic license plate readers. The report also highlighted how federal agencies like the Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA, are providing tools to further surveil protesters. But surveillance in Minneapolis is not limited to these tools; it is, instead, a framework that defines the city.

In 2014, the Obama Administration launched Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), a Muslim surveillance program, with Minneapolis as one of three pilot cities. Distributing $10 million in grants nationally, the program in Minneapolis mostly targeted Somalis, as Minnesota has the largest Somali population in the United States. And an array of Minneapolis organizations took CVE funding, or otherwise partnered with CVE programming, including the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office (whose grant totaled $347,600), Minneapolis Public Schools, and others.

As Mohamud Awil Mohamed, a Minneapolis community organizer and chaplain, told me, CVE was “marketed as a health and human services program . . . but in reality it was an extension of the state-security apparatus.”

While the original CVE grants expired in 2018, the Department of Homeland Security is now accepting applications for Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention, which is essentially CVE 2.0.

Though CVE was first implemented in 2014, the debunked logic of surveilling Black Muslims in Minneapolis as a security measure arose much earlier. During a 2009 Countering Violent Extremism summit, the Obama administration gathered local, federal, and international officials to discuss methods to counter “extremism.”

Before that, as Kafia Ahmed, an organizer who grew up on Minneapolis’s south side, remembered, “The FBI and the Obama Administration were already working on criminalizing Somalis in Minneapolis. I had FBI agents coming to campus at the University of Minnesota interrogating young Somalis during classes so it grew out of that larger context.”

Under CVE, a de facto policy of treating Blackness as a crime was given legal weight. Somali and other Black Muslim communities in Minneapolis—many of whom also sat at the intersection of being immigrants and poor—were now officially “seen as a band of criminals and not truly American,” Ahmed says.

With Minneapolis police primarily composed of officers who live outside of the city and growing further militarized, Ahmed adds, “They only [had] an investment in controlling us, keeping us in cages, and, if we don’t comply, killing us. How they view us is as something to be controlled and not truly as human beings.” 

These experiences are not separate from Floyd’s. In her book, In The Wake: On Blackness and Being, scholar Christina Sharpe wrote, “To be in the wake is to live in those no’s, to live in the no-space that the law is not bound to respect, to live in no citizenship, to live in the long time of Dred and Harriet Scott; and it is more than that.”

In other words, as Mohamud Awil Mohamed put it, “[CVE and Floyd’s murder] are born out of the same structure—state violence.”

With Targeted Violence and Terror Prevention launching soon, Mohamed worries that increased financial need means that people will be more likely to accept grant money, and therefore, fall for its ruse. “[These programs] are all mechanisms of control,” Ahmed says. “Why can’t we as communities get money for the express purpose of advancing our communities?”

The racial disparities in Minneapolis are some of the worst in the nation and the COVID-19 pandemic has not helped. Rather than investing in Black communities, Minneapolis’s Mayor Jacob Frey, a Democrat, has pushed for more police funding while city leadership is focusing on tasks like dismantling public housing.

As Defend Glendale & Public Housing Coalition wrote in a statement, “[Our City Council] has been attacking BIPOC communities since they came into office: gentrifying BIPOC neighborhoods, privatizing public housing, failing to support minority businesses, and funding a police department that terrorizes our communities and kills us.”

Floyd’s murder does not exist in a vacuum. Minneapolis has developed multiple avenues for the surveillance and criminalization of Black life. As Mohamed, quoting anthropologist Talal Asad, says, “‘The law never seeks to eliminate violence since its objective is always to regulate violence.’ It is why a pig put his knee [on] George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and why the state regularly entraps and violates the civil liberties of those that it surveils.”


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