Candidates vying to become Minneapolis mayor criticize how incumbent Jacob Frey handled the historic week of civil unrest after police murdered George Floyd last year.
The top contenders each vow to restore peace more quickly if they are faced with a similar scenario if elected, but they offer divergent approaches on how to do it.
Four of Frey's 16 challengers who've raised the most money ahead of Tuesday's election — AJ Awed, Clint Conner, Kate Knuth and Sheila Nezhad — say Frey's response to the unrest is an example of the incumbent's failed leadership. Frey counters that the challenging experience makes him best equipped to respond to any future crises.
"These were unprecedented and unpredictable circumstances that I have led through," he said. "I have been tested and I certainly understand the dynamics of managing a crisis unlike … arguably any other mayor and certainly any of the challengers."
In 2020, hundreds of peaceful protesters filled the streets to call for accountability and prosecution of Minneapolis police. But some looters and arsonists also damaged more than 1,500 businesses, causing more than $500 million in damage, the second-costliest civil disturbance in U.S. history. A curfew was imposed and Gov. Tim Walz ordered in hundreds of National Guard troops.
Frey, who Walz endorsed in the campaign, said he'd do things differently if faced with future unrest, such as including fire and police chiefs at news conferences. But he also touted his response in 2020: immediately meeting with Black community leaders, firing the four officers and requesting the Guard after looting was reported.
Frey's challengers say they would lead the city through difficult times differently.
Awed, a court mediator, said he would join protesters to demonstrate against any police misconduct and help ensure protests stay peaceful by using the credibility he's established in the community to engage with residents.
"A mayor … should show solidarity," he said. "I'm going to keep it authentic at all times."
If riots erupted, Awed said he would also collaborate with Walz and call on the National Guard.
So would Conner, an attorney, adding that he would help de-escalate violence by ordering police not to shoot rubber bullets or tear gas at protesters — unless he authorizes it as the mayor, rather than leaving it up to the police chief to approve. He would also coordinate with law enforcement to protect businesses.
"I would be on the front of these issues and absolutely responsive at any hour of the day to any kind of situation going on with our policing and making sure we have transparency at an unprecedented level when dealing with any kind of potential crisis," he said.
Both Conner and Awed condemned Frey's order to evacuate the Third Precinct police station before it was engulfed in flames. Frey has said protecting the building wasn't worth sacrificing another life.
Knuth, a business owner and former legislator, said she would tap neighborhood teams and work with businesses to come up with a plan before civil unrest unfolds.
"You don't know when something like this is going to happen. But it is absolutely essential to be prepared and to have strong working relationships, clear lines of communication and even understanding how to do something like call in the National Guard," she said. "And it's not clear to me that Jacob Frey and his administration had done that kind of preparation."
She said she would collaborate with Walz and work with the National Guard as a "last resort." Knuth said police may have escalated violence in 2020 by releasing false information initially in Floyd's death and firing "less lethal" weapons at protesters.
Body camera videos released this month from May 2020 show an officer describing "hunting people" — video Frey has also condemned.
Knuth added the city should have completed an "after-action review" sooner.
Earlier this year, local officials hired an outside firm to conduct the review, with a final version likely released in early 2022. Frey said the city requested funding from FEMA in July 2020 for the after-action report, but it was declined. Last February, the city approved a contract for the firm completing the report.
Nezhad, a policy organizer with Reclaim the Block — one of the groups that's led the push to cut police funding — said she would provide hot food and bathrooms to protesters to ensure a peaceful atmosphere as well as provide free mental health counseling. To help damaged small businesses, she said she would boost city funding for the rebuild effort.
"What makes me different is my experience from community organizing in multiracial coalitions in Minneapolis for a year," Nezhad said. "I know what it's like to be on the ground, I know what it's like to feel like there's no other option for getting your voice heard."
Nezhad said the presence of police and the National Guard escalated the situation in 2020 and she declined to answer if she'd request National Guard assistance or work with Walz in any future emergency if she's elected.
"If I had a crystal ball into the future, I maybe could answer that question," she said. "But I think there would be a lot of factors at play."
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141