Magazine March 8, 2021, Issue

Minnesota Nasty

A Minneapolis building, burned in the rioting that followed the killing of George Floyd (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Minneapolis is a nice city no longer.

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Minneapolis is a nice city no longer

Crime, homeless encampments, riots, crime, loopy left-wing government, crime, litter, violent protests, imperious left-wing activists seeing off mainstream liberal Democrats, boarded-up shops downtown, a vicious social-media-driven politics of personal destruction, crime, crime, and crime, to say nothing of the crime — today’s Minneapolis is where Minnesota Nice turns into Minnesota Nasty.

Let’s talk about the crime first. Everybody does.

“We’re moving,” says one longtime resident of downtown Minneapolis. “Prior to COVID, I walked to work every day and walked home. You couldn’t pay me enough to do that now — and it’s only a mile. It’s a changed city.”

That certainly is the experience of the 553 people who were shot in Minneapolis last year, the highest casualty figure in a generation. Robberies, assaults, thefts, carjackings, and the like are up across the city. The city council voted to partly defund the police department — and then promptly hired a private security firm to protect its members. And then, in mid February, it voted to allocate millions of dollars to . . . hiring new police officers, although they’re going to start asking them whether they have sociology degrees. 

Social justice is hell on the poor, reports the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

Violent crime climbed in almost every part of the city, but it continued to exact the heaviest toll in poorer neighborhoods. . . . On the North Side, the Fifth Ward saw violent crime climb 36 percent over the five-year average, with homicides, robberies and aggravated assaults like shootings and stabbings going up. The neighboring Fourth Ward to the north saw similar increases, with the exception of robberies, which fell 21 percent.

In south Minneapolis, the Sixth and Ninth Wards, which stretch from the edge of downtown to Powderhorn Park, also saw a steep increase in violence, particularly in the number of assaults and robberies. The Ninth Ward had 16 homicides in 2020, after never recording more than four in any of the previous five years. 

Meanwhile, more affluent neighborhoods sometimes went weeks without a violent incident.

A three-agency task force trying to combat rampant carjackings in the Twin Cities made 46 arrests in three days, producing 69 felony charges. Most of those arrested were released almost immediately — the jails have been emptied out by COVID-19 precautions. 

A Minneapolis television anchor waiting for a train was struck so hard in the head with a brick that he went partially blind, assaulted by a man with a lengthy arrest record who was enraged because he “perceived that victim was homosexual,” as the police report put it. In neighboring St. Paul, a 21-year-old transgender resident was stomped half to death by a mob of a dozen men (and a few women) in a convenience store after a minor traffic incident. Gay and lesbian Minneapolis residents report being particularly worried about the city’s crime — social justice is hard on them, too. 

What the hell happened? 

Here’s a funny little lesson from the Democratic presidential primaries in 2016 and 2020: People like Hillary Rodham Clinton and Joe Biden win primaries — but Bernie Sanders wins caucuses. And Minnesota is a caucusing state, with the intense face-to-face politics inherent to the practice sometimes degenerating into brawls — a “raucous caucus,” in Minnesota-speak. That is precisely the kind of politics in which Sanders’s partisans thrive. 

In Minnesota, the socialist from Vermont from Brooklyn has, to an underappreciated extent, won from losing. One of the many organizations that sprang from the rubble of Senator Sanders’s presidential campaigns is Our Revolution MN, a nominally nonpartisan left-wing outfit that has learned to work the caucus system and exploit the low turnout in off-year municipal elections to take over Minneapolis. 

“A relatively small number of people can control the caucus system,” says one longtime officeholder, a lifelong liberal and member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party who is dismayed by the city’s radical tilt. “For years, it was a system that worked. It’s only in the last few years that it has been a problem.” The newly empowered radical Left does not have much interest in Minnesota Nice, and that has helped to drive the moderate progressives out of the Minneapolis political ecosystem, leaving the field to the radicals. “Part of what’s going on is a change in behavior, with people being rude to each other. The polarization isn’t helping. People who are more in the middle don’t want to be involved. Now, we have public hearings where people show up and scream, ‘Shame on you! You’ve . . . effed up the city,’” the former officeholder says. “Oh, gosh.” 

Minnesota’s political establishment has since time immemorial been dominated by a partnership between center-left and far-left elements. In the 1940s, the Republican Party was actually in a stronger position in Minnesota than the Democratic Party, but both were outgunned by the larger, better organized, left-wing Farmer-Labor Party. In 1944, a deal was brokered to join the two left-liberal parties in a single new entity, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party, its platform guided by a “Fusion Committee” chaired by Hubert Humphrey. 

The state GOP went into a long, steady decline: No Republican presidential candidate has won Minnesota’s electoral votes since Richard Nixon’s 49-state sweep in 1972; no Republican currently holds statewide office or has been elected to it since Tim Pawlenty was reelected as governor in 2006. Republicans, still strong in the rural areas and in some conservative suburbs, have managed to defend a position in the state legislature, controlling both houses as recently as 2018 but currently in the majority only in the state senate. As in many other states, Minnesota Republicans represent a lot of the territory but relatively few of the people: More than half of the state’s population now lives in the Minneapolis–St. Paul metropolitan area, and those diehard Republican-voting Norski farmers out there in the godforsaken tundra become politically more irrelevant every year. 

Minneapolis still has a two-party system — it’s just that the two most relevant parties are DFL factions: at each other’s throats, to be sure, but technically within the same party. The radical faction has the upper hand. In 2017, three DFL incumbents on the city council were beaten by left-wing challengers from within their own party. In one ward, the DFL candidate lost the first phase of voting to a Socialist Alternative challenger but in the end won the race thanks to the vagaries of the state’s ranked-choice-voting system. The Green Party won one spot on the council as well. That election was, in the words of one local political observer, a “watershed.” 

But those Sandersistas were not quite the beginning of the story, either. When the left-wing senator Paul Wellstone died in an airplane accident, his funeral turned into a political rally, and his survivors were determined to do a lot more than name a building after him. They formed an organization called “Wellstone Action,” since renamed “Re:Power,” to train radical activists to pursue real political power. “I knew Paul Wellstone well,” says Vin Weber, a former Minnesota congressman admired by conservatives for his work with Jack Kemp and Empower America. “We never agreed on a single thing.” Wellstone Action, he says, was nothing if not effective: “I have to give them credit. For a monument, they gave him an entity aimed at training and mobilizing political activists, which they did very effectively and efficiently. And they hold the Wellstone view of the world, not that of mainstream Democrats.” 

In Weber’s long-term view, this represents one important phase in the political evolution of the city. “In the early 1970s, Minneapolis had a ‘nonpartisan’ city council, but there was a Republican majority. When I was in college, the mayor was an independent conservative who was on the board of Young Americans for Freedom.” That man, Charles Stenvig, a Frank Rizzo-ish policeman-politician who left office in 1978, was the last non-DFL member to be elected mayor of Minneapolis. 

Without an effective Republican opposition, the battle in Minneapolis has been Left vs. Lefter. “They’ve been organizing this for 20 or 30 years now in the city and taking it out to the suburbs,” Weber says, “and with less success trying to take it into rural Minnesota. There are no moderates, not even any traditional liberals left in the city of Minneapolis. There’s not a single statewide Republican elected official at any level of government. Every cycle for the last decade, the rallying cry in Minneapolis has been, ‘We need to replace the progressives with the ultra-progressives’ — they actually use that phrase, and that’s what they’ve got. The idea was to get to the left of the liberal Democrats, and they’ve done it.”

The transformation of Minneapolis already was well under way before two great radicalizing traumas arrived in the forms of Derek Chauvin and the novel coronavirus. These have interacted in unpredictable ways: There would have been protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police in any year — as there should have been — but the consensus in Minneapolis is that it was the epidemic and the lockdown that really made them into the rolling parade of violence and lawlessness that marched through the city. With Chauvin going on trial in March, downtown Minneapolis remains boarded up in anticipation of more rioting and looting. 

When Minneapolis was thriving, the entertainment district in the city’s core attracted both residents and visitors, and the tax dollars their merrymaking threw off became an important source of city revenue. That has died off. The immediately pressing economic question for the city is whether that business was gutted by the epidemic, in which case it may recover, or whether it was terrorized away by the riots and the crime wave, in which case it may not recover. 

“If you took Hubert Humphrey and plopped him down in Minneapolis today, he wouldn’t recognize the place,” says Annette Meeks, a former Republican Party leader and head of the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, a conservative think tank. “It’s not the social upheaval — it’s just the rank craziness.” At the top of the hit parade of crazy are efforts, well under way, to completely abolish the city’s police department. The city’s charter commission kept a police-abolition measure off the ballot the last time around, ruling that the city charter has to be amended before such an action is taken, but a petition drive has been launched to make that happen. “They need 12,000 signatures to get it on the ballot,” Meeks says, “but they’re going for 20,000, overachievers that they are.” 

Meeks paints a bleak picture of Minneapolis’s political environment: The Republicans moved out and fell into obscurity decades ago; the caucus system and ranked-choice voting create complexities that favor committed full-time political activists over civic-minded volunteer leaders; boutique radicalism has replaced such old-fashioned livability issues as park maintenance and crime; and the new breed of leaders can win by grandstanding on cultural issues rather than concentrating on the difficult work of seeing to it that the city is run well. On top of all this, Meeks says, is a shocking new viciousness as the manners and style of social media move into the real-world political space. 

“It’s survival of the fittest,” she says, “and the radicals won.”

She points to former three-term mayor R. T. Rybak, who upgraded his gas-electric city vehicle to plug-in hybrid after attending a climate-change conference, as an example of the old school. He was, Meeks says, “a liberal’s liberal.” But he also dedicated much of his time as mayor to reducing crime and balancing the budget. “If you had told him that he had to be careful driving his Prius because there’s no police, he’d have laughed you out of the room.” 

When Rybak left office, he was replaced by Betsy Hodges, a Bryn Mawr graduate who worked as a fundraiser for Progressive Minnesota and is now best known for publishing a kind of Maoist self-criticism confession in the New York Times in 2020, headlined “As Mayor of Minneapolis, I Saw How White Liberals Block Change”:

White liberals, despite believing we are saying and doing the right things, have resisted the systemic changes our cities have needed for decades. We have mostly settled for illusions of change, like testing pilot programs and funding volunteer opportunities.

These efforts make us feel better about racism, but fundamentally change little for the communities of color whose disadvantages often come from the hoarding of advantage by mostly white neighborhoods.

If there is one thing Minnesota Democrats can count on, it’s this: You ain’t never woke enough. Somebody can always out-woke you. Running for reelection, Hodges finished third in a field of five in 2017 and was replaced by Jacob Frey, the doorknob currently serving as mayor, a white-shoe radical lawyer who was buffaloed into letting rioters run amok and burn down his city. He tried to finesse his way to a third-way solution in the face of demands to defund the police but in the end signed a budget imposing millions of dollars of cuts on the police department in order to appease the Left. 

The department now has hundreds fewer officers than it says it needs to do its job. With violent crime soaring, the city council unanimously voted to approve funding to hire more officers — but three of its members are working on a plan to abolish the police department entirely, replacing it with a new “public safety” agency that would provide social services in addition to law enforcement with progressive characteristics. A left-wing coalition comprising groups ranging from the Sex-Workers Outreach Project of Minneapolis to the Minnesota Youth Collective (“founded by young, queer, female-identifying people who practice intersectionality in organizing”) is working on a ballot initiative to the same end.

So where does that leave Minneapolis? 

A  great deal is going to depend on the upcoming trial of Derek Chauvin. In February, the New York Times reported that Chauvin had offered to plead guilty to third-degree murder in the death of George Floyd but Attorney General William Barr had scuttled the deal, believing that that agreement was too lenient. (Federal sign-off was required because the deal would have included an assurance that Chauvin would not be brought up on civil-rights or other federal charges in the future.) The trial is imminent, and the outcome is uncertain. 

Thirty-Eighth and Chicago, the intersection at which Chauvin pinned down Floyd with his knee, remains closed to traffic. It won’t reopen until after the trial, if it ever does. Office workers downtown already are being told not to come to work during the trial. The state already has budgeted millions of dollars for security and anti-riot measures, and the National Guard will be called out to protect the courthouse precincts. 

If there is yet another round of riots, Minneapolis may take a long time to recover. Or it may never recover. Cities such as Detroit and Newark never really recovered from the riots of the 1960s, and probably never will. Even in Minneapolis itself, the once-thriving commercial corridor along Plymouth Avenue was utterly destroyed by the 1967 riots, and it never came back. The shopping and dining district around Nicollet Mall, recently spruced up with a $50 million revitalization project, is boarded up. The number of Minneapolis establishments that were torched in the riots is shocking: the ice-cream shop on Cedar Avenue, the chiropractor on East Lake Street, travel agencies, mobile-phone shops, grocery stores, an advertising agency, a dentist’s office, a barbershop, gas stations. Retailers from Kmart to jewelry shops were looted. The list goes on and on. A city doesn’t just bounce back from that. 

Downtown Minneapolis is home to the corporate headquarters of Target (8,500 employees) and US Bank (5,000 employees), as well as a large Wells Fargo office (7,000 employees). One major corporate defection could have devastating consequences. 

And Minneapolis today is a hard sell as a long-term investment. People with a taste for urban life will put up with all sorts of shenanigans in New York City and Los Angeles and other megapolises; at the other end of the spectrum, residents can exercise a relatively high level of control when things go badly awry in small towns. But midsized cities are neither fish nor municipal fowl: Sometimes, they hit a sweet spot like Austin’s or Kansas City’s — and, sometimes, they end up with the worst of both worlds. That’s a real danger for Minneapolis, which has long prospered in no small part on the strength of its lively cultural scene and livability. Even when the plague is conquered, rampant crime and the aftermath of the recent lawlessness will hinder the city’s cultural recovery. And people will have to ask: Do you really want to live in a city with San Francisco’s homelessness and Fargo’s weather? Do you really want New York City’s crime with Milwaukee’s theater, Los Angeles’s governmental dysfunction with Columbus’s restaurants? How many variations on the theme of Cleveland are Millennials able to sustain? 

It’s a familiar story. Everybody knows where the road to Portland ends: Portland. 

Portland was once a thriving and quirky second-tier city and is now a dreary, backward, ugly, dangerous, tedious little burg of no interest except as a sobering cautionary example. Philadelphia was once celebrated as “an American Paris.” Detroit was one of the wealthiest cities in the world. 

Minneapolis’s new radicals came to conquer and may be king for a day. But they won’t be the first of their kind to ruin a city by trying to rule it. 

In This Issue

Articles

Features

Books, Arts & Manners

Sections

Letters

Letters

Readers react to commentary on the federal legalization of marijuana, Zionism, and academic credentials.
The Week

The Week

That light you may have seen in the night sky, brighter than Halley’s Comet, steadier than the aurora borealis, is the Lincoln Project blowing up.