Antone Melton-Meaux recalls his days at the University of Virginia where police detained him for three hours based on reports that a man wanted for assault had run into his apartment building.
Ilhan Omar talks about being bullied as a Muslim refugee and raising a Black son in Minneapolis, where she wants him to grow up and thrive.
Jeff Hayden tells the story of learning to cross the street as a young boy in south Minneapolis, his mother leaning over to tell him to watch out for the police.
The three candidates, all in contested DFL primaries Tuesday, are talking about their experiences being Black in America and the feeling that they could have just as easily been pinned under the knee of a police officer, much like George Floyd. But in a period of reckoning for their party and the nation as a whole, they’re also contrasting their ideas on police reform and racial inequality, issues that have fueled several primaries in the city where Floyd died, particularly the contest between Omar and Melton-Meaux.
The race in Minneapolis’ Fifth Congressional District, the most diverse in the state, has divided civil rights leaders in the wake of Floyd’s killing. In the Minnesota Legislature, Hayden represents the district where Floyd was killed and has become a key figure in the legislative debate over the future of policing. But he’s fighting for his political survival after losing the DFL endorsement to activist Omar Fateh, who has challenged the strength of his support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
The moral resonance of Floyd’s death also looms in another contested primary involving four-term state Rep. Raymond Dehn. A former mayoral contender, Dehn has long been an advocate for criminal justice reform in the city. But his challenger, activist Esther Agbaje, argued that the struggle needs new blood as she wrestled the party endorsement away from Dehn.
The three urban primaries, among the few truly competitive DFL contests for state or congressional seats, could serve as harbingers of the party’s post-Floyd future.
“Public safety has moved to one of, if not the top priority,” said Fateh, who is challenging Hayden in Minneapolis’ Senate District 62. “It left a lot of people afraid and upset. What we saw was a lot of neighbors rally together to take public safety into their own hands.”
While the candidates espouse the same goals, the solutions they offer have distinct differences.
Omar worked on legislation in the U.S. House that banned chokeholds and no-knock warrants and eliminated qualified immunity for officers in the wake of Floyd’s killing. She supports the push in the Minneapolis City Council to replace the city’s police force with a new community safety agency.
“Many attempts to reform the Police Department have failed and it’s time to really think about having a new system that would allow our communities to do the work that is needed,” she said. “Most of the problems we have in our city are arising from things like substance abuse disorder, mental health diagnoses and poverty that requires medical professionals and social workers, not criminal enforcement and armed officers.”
Omar’s got the backing of people such as Minneapolis City Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins and Valerie Castile, the mother of Philando Castile, a Black man who was shot and killed in 2016 by a St. Anthony police officer during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights. “She marched with us in 2016, she marched with us after the murder of George Floyd,” said Castile of Omar. “She has listened to us and worked with us.”
Melton-Meaux doesn’t support dismantling the Police Department, but he agrees more funding should be moved from law enforcement to community services. His platform pushes to demilitarize police, end qualified immunity for officers and change the legal definitions for use of force.
His supporters, like civil rights activists Josie Johnson and Nekima Levy Armstrong, argue their support for him goes beyond policy positions. It touches on a key theme of his campaign: that Omar, a rising star and member of “the Squad” in Congress, is more concerned about her national profile than the needs of the district.
“I’m in touch with people on a regular basis who feel as if they are being neglected by the powers that be,” said Levy Armstrong. “Understanding our needs is critical of the person who is going to represent us in Congress. Someone who is going to spend the time listening to what we need and not just talking and giving rhetoric.”
Both sides are on the attack in the contentious race, which has attracted millions of dollars from outside of the district. Melton-Meaux is critical of Omar for launching a virtual book tour the day after Floyd was killed in May instead of being with protesters at the corner of 38th and Chicago. “She was promoting her own celebrity and brand and not the people,” he said.
Omar said she finds Melton-Meaux’s insinuation “offensive.” Her father was also battling COVID-19 at the same time and later died. Her supporters say she was frequently at the memorial and helping communities hit by civil unrest. They also have criticized Melton-Meaux for a 2015 Star Tribune op-ed that called out protesters’ anti-police chants as he argued that the movement needed to create a bigger tent. Melton-Meaux defends the commentary, saying he wrote the piece to help the movement grow and build collaborations.
Tensions over policing and the Black Lives Matter movement also have extended to Hayden’s race, where Fateh has criticized the incumbent for past backing from the controversial Minneapolis police union. Hayden said an erroneous endorsement was put on his website alongside those of other unions. He denies that he’s accepted the police union’s backing.
Fateh supports the push to radically reimagine policing in the city and the state, and said Hayden hasn’t been a present leader in the Black Lives Matter movement. But Hayden said his experience of more than a decade at the State Capitol has helped him build connections necessary to bring resources back to the district, which still suffers the scars of properties burned, looted and vandalized after Floyd’s death.
Dehn is also reminding his constituents how long he’s been pushing for criminal justice reform in his primary race in north Minneapolis’ House District 59B, including a campaign to restore voting rights for felons.
As a 2017 candidate for mayor, Dehn took heat for questioning how police officers are armed and trained. Now, he’s happy the conversation has broken into the mainstream. “I think a lot of things changed for a lot of people when they saw the killing of George Floyd,” he said.
But Agbaje, an attorney and DFL activist, secured the party’s backing over Dehn this spring, arguing it’s time for a changing of the guard. She said the Legislature has had years to pass criminal justice accountability measures, and it’s never been more critical than in the time of COVID-19, when Black people are disproportionately affected.
“We need to move urgently on this,” she said. “All of this is just another point in time for us to look critically, and look carefully and make some real changes.”