Soren Stevenson pressed his hand to the gash in his face. His cheekbone and nose were broken, the skin around them soft and wet with blood. He knew immediately he would never see out of his left eye again.
Only days earlier, Stevenson had been moved by the Minneapolis Police Department’s murder of George Floyd.
“I’m not gonna go back inside until he (Floyd) gets justice,” Stevenson remembered thinking.
He was among the thousands who marched at multiple protests that week.
Not even 15 minutes earlier – just after 6:30 p.m. on May 31, 2020 – Stevenson had arrived at this latest protest, near the University of Minnesota. He had barely time to get his bearings. Someone with a bullhorn shouted, “White bodies to the front!” Stevenson said he obliged, helping form a line between other protestors and the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) officers in SWAT gear lobbing flash-bang stun grenades toward the crowd.
That’s when it happened.
The officers began firing “less lethal” foam projectiles, according to Stevenson and video from the scene. One of those rounds hit Stevenson in the face, bursting his eye instantly. He staggered back from the front lines. Nursing students acting as medics intercepted him, flagging down a neighbor to give Stevenson a ride to the hospital.
“In the car, I remember saying something like, ‘Guys, I just lost my eye,’” Stevenson said. His medics’ grim silence confirmed what he already knew: He’d just sustained a wound that would alter the course of his life.
MPD and city officials have formally denied much of Stevenson’s account of the incident. However, last year, the city settled a civil lawsuit Stevenson filed over his injury for $3.9 million, including attorneys’ fees.
Now, three years later, Stevenson’s running for the Minneapolis City Council this November. His injury – that’s what he calls it now, “the injury” – is a big reason why.
“I still have a voice. I survived. I’m still able to stand up and say, ‘This isn’t right,’” he said. “And there’s a lot of people that aren’t able to do that because they’re no longer with us. To me, I feel a certain responsibility to them.”
What’s at stake in the Ward 8 race
Three candidates – including Bob Sullentrop and Terry White – are aiming to unseat Ward 8 incumbent Andrea Jenkins, who also serves as president of the Minneapolis City Council, in the November election. But Stevenson is her highest-profile challenger, having secured both the DFL party’s endorsement and the backing of the local Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) chapter.
Stevenson is one of several DSA-allied candidates on the ballot citywide who are pushing for a leftward shift in Minneapolis’ politics, and who would likely be a stronger counterweight to Mayor Jacob Frey if elected. Stevenson hopes to build momentum for even more police reforms, and usher in a broader slate of policies that – as Stevenson puts it – “protect people” and “make the city a safer place.”
His drive to run for the office emerged from an intense period of reflection in the months after his injury, during which Stevenson connected with a support group for family members of Minnesotans killed or wounded in encounters with police.
“He got a chance to see what it feels like for Black people to try to stand up against injustice,” said the group’s founder, Toshira Garraway, who has come to count Stevenson as a dear friend.
The group, which counts the families of Floyd, Amir Locke and Winston Smith as members, helped Stevenson grapple with, as he has put it, “what it means to be a white man shot in the struggle for Black liberation.”
But Stevenson’s candidacy in Ward 8 could pose a dilemma for some progressive Minneapolis voters. The Ward 8 incumbent, Jenkins, is a pioneering politician: the first Black, openly trans woman elected to public office anywhere in the U.S. In an interview with MinnPost in July, Jenkins argued there’s something deeply tone-deaf and colorblind about “attack[ing] and denigrat[ing] a Black person in your quest to solve racism.”
The 62-year-old incumbent – who’s worked in City Hall since 2001 – accused her 29-year-old challenger of “sloganeering,” questioning whether Stevenson has the experience and savvy to enact his big ideas. She also resented Stevenson’s critiques of Minneapolis’ current slate of elected leaders, who she said are already working hard to uproot deeply-entrenched structural racism from city government.
“It’s easy to take a dump on Minneapolis right now,” Jenkins said in July. “Yeah, we are the center of the world. We have two consent decrees – it’s never happened anywhere in the country before. We have a very fucking racist police department. It’s true … But yeah, I care about these issues and we are doing the work and people are completely disregarding it.”
Yet Jenkins’ more-centrist voting record on the City Council has given Stevenson an opening in south Minneapolis’ Ward 8, where voters have a history of supporting left-wing causes – like rent control or replacing the police department with an alternative – at higher rates than the rest of the city.
Stevenson said he admires and respects Jenkins’ trailblazing achievements. However, he said some of his critiques of Jenkins’ record are fair – especially on the issue of policing. He said Jenkins is among the elected leaders who ought to be held responsible for failing to hold MPD accountable and instill culture change in the department that might have averted the need for the court-ordered reforms in the first place.
“This is not me just punching Minneapolis when it’s down,” Stevenson said. “This is me saying Minneapolis is a fantastic place. And it can be better … We can have a kinder, safer city again, and we need leadership that shares that vision with the ward that wants to drive us to that place.”
Why Stevenson moved to Minnesota
Stevenson spent most of his youth in the Pacific Northwest and, until a few years ago, had every intention of going to medical school.
When Stevenson was 3-years-old, his parents moved to Grants Pass, the town of fewer than 40,000 people in southwest Oregon where Stevenson would grow up. After earning an undergraduate degree at Seattle Pacific University in 2016, he returned to Grants Pass to work as an assistant in a family medical practice.
At the clinic, Stevenson began to notice the patterns.
Patients would come in with health problems like depression, obesity, or diabetes that had little to do with their desire to exercise or eat their fruits and vegetables – and a lot to do with the circumstances of their socioeconomic status. Over and over, Stevenson encountered patients whose biggest unmet need was housing. He remembered one patient coming in with high blood pressure, and the doctor sending her home with a prescription – and a cookbook for Mediterranean meals. On a follow-up visit, a friend of the patient confessed to the doctor that the cookbook wouldn’t do much good: She lived in a tent in the park.
“It was clear that this patient was not unhealthy because of their own fault,” Stevenson said. “This patient was unhealthy because she couldn’t afford to sleep in a home.”
This was a turning point for Stevenson, who decided he didn’t want to spend his career helping patients pick up the pieces. He wanted to work on policy solutions to the “core issues” in society that caused or exacerbated health problems.
That’s how Stevenson ended up in Minneapolis. He abandoned his plans for medical school and enrolled at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs in 2018. He picked the U in part because the housing costs would be lower; his mother grew up in Duluth and had family friends in the Twin Cities who could house him.
Though Stevenson planned to study public health, housing featured prominently in his graduate work. In January 2020, Stevenson joined a project at the Center for Urban and Public Affairs as a research assistant. The project, led by researcher, Brittany Lewis, centered on a dozen large apartment complexes in Brooklyn Park where residents had complained about violence in the community, unsanitary conditions in the units and a lack of connection to regulators in city government.
Stevenson was part of the team that convened residents, landlords, government officials and representatives of community organizations for an “advisory council” that shaped the direction of the research, according to a contributing author, Shana Riddick.
What Stevenson heard during those sessions has helped shape his Minneapolis City Council platform. The vision he posts on his campaign website of “dignified and attainable housing for all” comes directly from what he heard from residents in those meetings.
“They said, ‘We want dignified housing,’” Stevenson said. “Dignity has a lot that goes into it. It’s not dignified if you can’t afford it. It’s not dignified if there’s rats and roaches. It’s not dignified if the landlord abuses you in some kind of way. They didn’t have to have some sort of luxury housing. They just wanted to be treated as people.”
Stevenson graduated with his master’s degree in May 2020, and the Brooklyn Park researchers had invited him to continue working with them through the summer.
Six days after summer term began, Stevenson sustained his injury.
‘I’m going to make sense of it’
A strange side effect of the trauma Stevenson endured is that he has almost no visual memories of his own from May 31, 2020. He remembers the physical sensations he felt after taking a less-lethal round to the face: an overwhelming feeling that his body was overheating. He remembers what he heard, what he said, what people said to him.
But while Stevenson was able to see through his remaining eye that day, what Stevenson recalls when he thinks back on that day are the snippets of an Instagram video and news footage that he’s grafted into the places where his own memories should be.
The haze around him would thicken for the next month. Stevenson was whisked from the protest to M Health Fairview for the first of a half-dozen surgeries on his face. June 2020 was a blur of appointments with doctors and attorneys, all subsumed by medications to keep Stevenson’s pain at bay.
As Stevenson’s pain medications tapered off, his new reality began to set in. He had graduated from college and hit the job market at the depths of the brief but harrowing COVID-19 recession. He’d not only lost an eye, but much of his sense of smell as well. He found himself swinging “from irate to desperately sad to totally fine” – only he couldn’t give these feelings names at the time, because he’d “completely lost a connection to my emotional self.”
At the end of July, Stevenson wanted to hit the streets again, and attended a protest organized by the group Families Supporting Families Against Police Violence – the advocacy and support group Garraway founded in 2019.
Afterward, Stevenson looked up the group and sent Garraway an email. The two met and traded stories. Stevenson told her about his injury. Garraway told him about her fiancé Justin Teigen, who was found dead in 2009 after fleeing from St. Paul Police officers. Garraway said it was the beginning of an unlikely friendship.
“Me and Soren come from two different worlds, completely,” said Garraway. “I’m a poor Black girl from the west side of Chicago. Soren is a white guy. But we have the same thing in common and that’s humanity – and doing right by each other as human beings.”
Garraway invited Stevenson to the support group meetings, and Stevenson started attending.
“He has literally been with us since 2020, riding it out with us,” she said.
Families Supporting Families includes relatives of maybe 35 people who’d been killed or wounded by police, she said. Stevenson wasn’t the only white participant, but most members of the group are people of color – and unlike Floyd’s death, Garraway said the cases of many other members’ loved ones made very little public impression. Like Stevenson, these family members have been left to grapple with the aftermath alone.
“People need a safe space to be able to vent and know that there are people who have experienced the same type of trauma,” Garraway explained.
“To me, the way that I could live with the injury … was by doing something – doing something about the fact that I was not the first or the last person to be brutalized by Minneapolis Police,” said Stevenson. “I’m going to make sense of it by making sure that this kind of brutality doesn’t happen to other people.”
Stevenson no longer regularly attends weekly meetings, but still makes a special effort to attend the group events marking important days – the birthdays and death anniversaries of loved ones – for the families with whom he’s closest.
Before Stevenson launched his campaign, he asked members of the group what they would think if he ran for the Ward 8 City Council seat.
“He didn’t want people to think that he was using the platform of the people that are hurting most in this state,” Garraway said.
But Garraway gives Stevenson a lot of credit for his willingness to speak up, and talks about their friendship in glowing terms.
“I prayed when Justin lost his life for good people to come into my life to support me,” she said. “[Soren] is like one of my biggest cheerleaders. I want him to know, I am grateful to God – beyond words – for our friendship, for his loyalty, for his fight to stand up for people.
“He could have easily gotten hurt and given up and said, ‘OK, I’m done with this whole entire thing,’” Garraway said. “To turn that pain into triumph is amazing.”
Contrasts on policy, tensions about identity
Stevenson likely represents the stiffest re-election challenge that Ward 8 incumbent council member Jenkins has faced since she won the seat in a cakewalk in 2017.
She won’t be easy to unseat. Though Stevenson has the endorsements of both the DSA and the local DFL party this year, Jenkins has the backing of high-profile Democrats like U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar (Dist. 5) and Attorney General Keith Ellison, as well as local chapters of the SEIU, AFSCME and Teamsters labor unions. All of Mpls, an influential political action committee that supports Mayor Jacob Frey, has also endorsed Jenkins, and could bring considerable financial resources to her aid.
The central thrust of Jenkins’ pitch is that she has the practical experience to get things done, going back to her years working as a vocational counselor for Hennepin County before getting deeply involved at City Hall.
“I’ve been doing this for 35 years. If there was no passion, I would have stopped,” Jenkins told MinnPost in a July interview. “But yeah, I care about these issues, and we are doing the work, and people are completely disregarding it.”
Who’s disregarding it?
After carefully avoiding the use of her opponent’s name for more than an hour, Jenkins paused and considered herself before finally answering:
Among the resumé points she felt Stevenson and others are glossing over: During Jenkins’ tenure, the City Council had declared racism to be a public health emergency in Minneapolis, launched a truth and reconciliation process for Black and Indigenous residents and began exploring alternatives to deploying police or firefighters to mental health emergencies two years before Floyd’s death.
Stevenson counts Jenkins among the city leaders who have taken a hands-off approach where “active leadership” is required. When negotiating the last update to the city’s police contract, Stevenson said Frey and the City Council had not pushed for changes that would’ve held officers “more accountable,” or reined-in the department’s practice of offering “coaching” to officers after alleged misconduct rather than imposing harsher discipline.
Court orders for reform “are outside things being put on Minneapolis,” Stevenson said. “We would not be in this place if Minneapolis leadership – going back longer than Andrea’s tenure, but including that time – had taken [these] steps.”
“Active leadership is going to be OK to ruffle some feathers when it comes to dealing with the police,” said Stevenson. “Active leadership is not throwing up easy wins.”
Does the City Council have the leverage to enact such sweeping changes, given how much executive authority Minneapolis’ charter now grants to the mayor?
“The City Council needs to make it very clear to the mayor when he goes into those negotiations: ‘These are three things we want to see changed,’” Stevenson said. “If [the negotiations conclude] and it’s not satisfactory, then we send it back and they try again.”
But there’s a friction between the incumbent and Stevenson that – at least for Jenkins – runs deeper than any policy disagreement.
Here’s how Jenkins sees things: Stevenson may have had a personal reckoning with, as he put it at the DFL convention in May, “what it means to be a white man shot in the struggle for Black liberation,” but that white man is now aiming to unseat a Black politician on the charge that she didn’t do enough – and Jenkins said she resents it.
“I see a lot of signs in my ward that say, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ ‘Love is love,’ ‘Everyone’s welcome’ – all of these things, and yet as a Black woman, my voice is criticized and/or minimized,” Jenkins told MinnPost.
MinnPost paraphrased this Jenkins’ quote for Stevenson and asked him for a response.
“I’m really sorry … that her neighbors – myself included – wanting to see their values better represented in City Hall is a personal attack. That’s really sad,” he said. “Andrea, as a person, is a very admirable, very respectable person. She has achieved a lot of things in her life. I don’t take away from any of those things.”
Stevenson said his campaign is a “multiracial coalition” that reflects the values of a diverse range of Ward 8 residents.
No racial or ethnic group is a monolith, Stevenson said, but “we are, in fact, listening to Black voices when we say we want a police department that treats everyone with dignity and respect … These policies that we want to see, are shared with people across the board – including and especially in the Black community.”
MinnPost welcomes feedback, news tips and suggested corrections at email@example.com.