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Rep. Ilhan Omar on the moment that will ‘reshape our whole system’

The representative from Minnesota’s Fifth District spoke about the killing of George Floyd, the protests that followed and the hope for change going forward.

Rep. Ilhan Omar
Rep. Ilhan Omar bowing her head during George Floyd's memorial service on June 4.
REUTERS/Nicholas Pfosi

Rep. Ilhan Omar has spent much of the last two weeks in Minneapolis, in her district, where a little more than two weeks ago, a police officer killed George Floyd as three other officers stood by and assisted.

Not long after, the streets erupted around the country. Buildings were destroyed. More lives were taken. The National Guard was called in. Police shot and tear gassed protesters. The reason for the protests is evident: Around the country, police have shot and killed black people at a disproportionate rate. And often, in cases made visible by national media, officers are either not charged or acquitted.

Protests in response to police violence are familiar. In 1965, after police injured a pregnant woman, there was the Watts Rebellion in Los Angeles. In 1992, there were the Los Angeles riots after police beat a black man, Rodney King, on camera. And more recently there was the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, after Michael Brown, an 18-year-old, was shot and killed by a police officer.

But this time, the protests seem different: They are in every state, they are sustained, and they have prompted a discussion about sweeping policy reforms that may actually come to fruition. In a wide-ranging conversation, MinnPost talked to Omar, who has spent time grieving in her district, drafting legislation, and thinking about how we got here and where we might be going.

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The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

MinnPost: Does this moment feel different at all? Why?  

Rep. Ilhan Omar: As an organizer, I have been fighting and organizing against police brutality and systematic racism in the Twin Cities for years. And now I get the opportunity to take all of that experience to Congress. And so if there is anything that is to come from this moment, it’s one that will really, hopefully reshape our whole system — not just here in Minneapolis, throughout the country and throughout the world.

The speed in which we are seeing, not only the proposals of transformative change, but also tangible real time accountability, is remarkable.

And so as we grieve, we are in a place right now where we are not sitting in despair. For far too long we’ve gotten used to the fact that not only will justice be denied but delayed. And this is really something different.

MP: How do you navigate that tension of being an activist who’s moved into Congress, between outsider and insider? 

IO: I’ve been out demonstrating. I’ve used the resources of my office, of my campaign, and of myself to organize and mobilize. We have a different opportunity to utilize the power of our letterhead and our ability to introduce legislation. And so being able to have ears on the ground and the trust of organizers to be able to implement and advocate for change in the halls of power is really something that often doesn’t really exist. I think that cultivating power away from systems of power to the grassroots movement is something exciting and will ultimately change the way in which we see who should be in positions of power.

MP: Do you think that House Democrats’ and Senate Democrats’ responses so far to activists have been adequate, or do you think it’s been in tension? 

IO: The response, I will say, from a local level to state level to a federal level has been one we haven’t seen before. I was just recently reminded of the history of movements and how long it took for change to be actualized. The Montgomery Bus Boycott took 385 days or something like that. Many of the kinds of movements that have really brought us to this moment of progress in our country have been prolonged. And many of the uprisings and unrest often took place after justice was denied. And so, to now have this happen, and move to a space where you can move to actually guarantee justice for George Floyd — by transferring the case to a different leadership, to the escalation of charges and charging other officers who were involved, to what we are seeing proposed by different municipalities and states, and now at a federal level, within the span of two weeks — is dynamic, remarkable and unprecedented.

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I think the space in which this is taking place historically is very different. We are in the middle of a public health epidemic that is also causing an economic crisis. And so dealing with the other pandemic that we have not really fully dealt with in this country, which is racism, makes all of it sort of compounded and combust. And I think that’s what we’re seeing in the level of energy and the urgency in which people are responding.

MP: Could you talk a little bit more actually about your predecessor in Congress, Attorney General Keith Ellison, taking over the case?

IO: There is this famous quote. I don’t know whose quote it is, but Speaker Pelosi always invokes it. And it’s one that says: “The times have found us.” And I think everything in his life and his work has sort of prepared him for this moment. And to have someone take the lead on this case that has the trust and the integrity of the communities that are seeking justice is something really profound. Oftentimes, you know, as cases move through different departments, you’re dealing with people who are skeptical about the person who will be in charge. And this is a case where people are relieved and delighted and excited that it is in the right hands.

For someone who 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 40 years ago was speaking on this and seeking justice, even when Humphrey was the AG, to now have the opportunity to have the case in his hands, is remarkable. And I know that he understands the weight of this moment and the weight of this case, in the context of the history that he will create. And I know that the people trust he is going to move strategically, methodically, and do what can be done in delivering justice for the George Floyd family, for his community, and for the people of this country who are all, regardless of what party affiliation they have, equally appalled by what they saw.

MP: What is your conception of the City Council’s commitment to dismantle the police force? 

IO: For far too long, people, who’ve lived and worked in Minneapolis, particularly black and other marginalized communities, have faced violence from the Minneapolis Police Department. So many attempts have been made to hold them accountable and to institute reforms. Yet, MPD continued to fail the city. And all of that truly was laid bare in the way that police officer took George Floyd’s life and the actions of the department in response.

This department doesn’t really do the basic things that we all expect it to do, involving the most serious crimes and care for victims. The Minneapolis Police Department leaves half of all homicide cases unsolved. Their lack of concern for victims of rape has been a disgrace, as rape kits go untested and rapes go unsolved.

Rep. Ilhan Omar
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Rep. Ilhan Omar speaking on June 3 at the scene of the George Floyd's death.
And so yesterday, I was in community with the City Council members, and really believe a new system will allow our community to do the work that is needed and employ the skills that are needed to solve some of the needs that they have in regards to public safety. That it will have the ability to address the mental health issues that often get criminalized, the poverty that often gets criminalized.

I think there is an opportunity for them to, in dismantling and disbanding the Minneapolis Police Department, to really rid our society of the current form of policing that we have, and put in place one that prioritizes crime prevention and community response, but also has, you know, peace officers that deal directly addressing some of the serious crimes that occur in cities and communities like ours. Things like community violence interruption programs have always produced better results than policing has.

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And so this effort really is a tremendous effort. It’s heavy lifting. And it’s one that is going to need some foresight, and an ability to kind of have a 360 lens on what is possible and what could happen if the right steps are not taken, in assuring the safety of the community.

And this effort must be one that creates an opportunity for all of our residents to weigh and give proper feedback in the ways in which they want to reconstruct a new way forward.

MP: Do you think there’s a role for police unions, especially in Minneapolis, but also nationwide? Is there a role for police unions in the union movement? 

IO: I used to be part of AFSCME and so the work unions, and the work of the labor movement, has been to protect and uplift people who are in a position to be made vulnerable by their workplaces and to advance more humane and dignified policies that set standards. You have unions who are doing that work and protecting their members from retaliation, protect their members from not being allowed to perform their general duties, or protect them from being shortcut in getting health care and a dignified wage.

And the kind of protection that police unions have fought for is one I don’t believe is in lockstep with what the rest of the unions fight for. The ability to function with impunity and cause harm to the community is not one that should be protected. And so I really sympathize with my brothers and sisters in the labor movement who understand that there is a disconnect with the values that they have and the values that the police have  embedded in the kind of contracts that they fight for.

MP: Can you talk a little bit about the folks that have been on the ground in Minneapolis for years, laying the groundwork for this shift in the way that lawmakers are thinking about policing? 

IO: There are the people who’ve worked on police accountability. There are people who have been on the front line in fighting for a more dignified and just system. And then there is the Movement for Black Lives, that is mainly youth, queer, femme identifying folks, who are not only addressing the injustices within policing or the injustices within our criminal justice system, but they are also addressing the social and economic neglect that many of our communities face; the disinvestment that leaders have codified in policy. Their level of unapologetically holding elected leaders accountable is one I think that is both admired and envied by many of the organizers across the country.

These young organizers are really good at building coalitions, having not just courage, but also clarity in their asks, and getting buy-in for the things that they are fighting for. And that’s what we saw yesterday, that’s what we’ve seen as we’ve fought for racial equity policies over the last seven years in the city. And doing policy work as they’ve helped us identify and get rid of ordinances that were the gateway to criminalizing youth in the city of Minneapolis. And so I both admire them and feel moved by them to do the urgent work that they are asking us.

MP: Some news outlets initially described George Floyd’s killing as a death, not a killing, and at the same time, described looting as violent. So I wonder, how do you think the media coverage of the protest has gone over the last few weeks? 

Language, as we both know, is a powerful thing. And the language we choose to describe things can have the power to sway people in favor of the people who are delivering the message or can be used to discredit them. What I find quite appalling is the way in which the media has engaged in their continuation of really creating a value system when it comes to the kind of people, the message that they have, and the way in which it gets conveyed.

We’ve all seen the protesters who were against the shutdown for the pandemic. And there was a lot of time not spent on the way in which they were protesting. But a lot of time was spent on whether the cause they were protesting against was justified or not. And when it comes to the protesters and the demonstrators out today, the conversation really is on how they’re protesting and how they’re demonstrating, and not so much on whether their cause is justified.

What happens is that you take the focus off the actual problem that has made people come out to demonstrate because they want their voices to be heard. They want the problem that they are speaking about to be talked about.

As Reverend Al Sharpton says, “No one brings me on board to keep a secret.” The point of having a protest, the visual of a rally, is for that message to get out. And so if the whole conversation is about how that rally was carried out and what the people who were rallying were wearing and all of that, then you’ve really done a disservice as the folks who have the ability to get that message out to the masses. And this isn’t new, right. We’ve seen it happen over generations. We see it happen around the world. And it’s really, again, another form of the way in which racism and discrimination and injustices show up in our society.

MP: Can you talk a little bit about the sort of messaging behind the phrase “law and order,” in the way that Republicans, including President Donald Trump, have used it over the past few weeks? 

It’s to me a form of dog whistle to speak of law and order, when people are essentially protesting the laws and order that is unjust. It’s a space in which you are subjugating people to a system that really isn’t orderly and really isn’t lawful.

I feel quite appalled in the way that that keeps getting repeated, as if the people who are out demonstrating aren’t demonstrating against the laws in which you pick and choose to subjugate them with.

When we were debating the anti-protest policies in the Minnesota House, they would speak about people breaking laws. And this was an opportunity for us to remind us that the laws in which black people were enslaved, lynched, subject to Jim Crow, mass incarcerated, and now brutalized by police, are the ones that people are opposed to. And none of those things would have changed or have a chance of changing if people did not not reject them.

Our country has always seen a change in times where people have said, “I no longer feel it adequate for me to sit and be silent and allow the law and order that exists to dictate my humanity.” That’s how we got our independence in this country. And that’s how black people ultimately got their liberation. And it is unfinished.