We are in a golden age of mayoral confrontation. In New York, Bill de Blasio can’t go for an afternoon stroll in his beloved Prospect Park without being upbraided by the vocal citizenry. This is healthy and good—or at least it’s preferable to the nasty recorded outburst between Chicago Alderman Raymond Lopez and Mayor Lori Lightfoot, in which the city’s executive first declined to answer the alderman’s questions about how the city planned to protect the neighborhood he represented, and then snapped that the legislator was “full of shit” for daring to ask questions about public safety—an accusation met with more than one “fuck you” from the irate Lopez. Back in New York, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said “we need a new mayor” during a memorial event for George Floyd—an interesting word choice from a man who is second in the line of succession for the Big Apple’s top job. De Blasio was lustily booed at the same event.
Mayors are convenient figureheads for the country’s slow-rolling civic crackup. Their villainy is easily established, since they are enough in charge to be accountable for the failures of police departments and city bureaucracies. Their villainy also can’t be easily disproved, because a mayor is not in charge enough to affect any overnight systemic or sociopolitical change on the scale activists demand. Then again, perhaps no human being at any level of government possesses such extraordinary powers. To actually abolish policing in a major U.S. city would be a radical and unprecedented experiment, one that could only be undertaken with obsessive inquiry and care, and only with unmistakable democratic legitimacy behind it. No currently serving big-city American mayor has been elected on a police abolition platform; at this exact point in time, it is impossible for any mayor to responsibly commit to what amounts to a hardline and generally unpopular demand.
Mayor Jacob Frey of Minneapolis boldly alluded to this fairly obvious reality in a widely publicized face-off last week. Frey, dressed in a casual yet sensibly somber gray shirt, made his way to the front of a crowd of several thousand Black Lives Matter protesters and approached an activist who appeared to be leading the march. He was presented with “a yes or no question” as to whether he supported police abolition, a cause made salient by the Minneapolis Police Department’s killing of George Floyd.
“He’s up for reelection next year. And if he says no, guess what the fuck we’re gonna do next year?” the woman exclaimed. Frey would not bend. “I do not support the full abolition of the police,” he said—which was all that the city’s chief executive was allowed to say.
What followed wasn’t a dialogue or an attempt to change the mayor’s mind. “Stop wasting our time; get the fuck out of here,” the march leader ordered. The crowd broke into chants of “go home, Jacob”—the mayor, reduced to just another millennial white schmo, showing little apparent emotion as activists continued to scream at him.
A past winner of the Austin marathon who boasts a personal record of 2 hours, 16 minutes at that distance, Frey grew up in Virginia and first moved to Minneapolis after finishing law schools in 2009. Frey, who is straight, is the founder and organizer of Minneapolis’s Big Gay 5K, a pro-marriage-equality running event that debuted in 2012. Before ostensibly presiding over an incident that will forever symbolize all of American racism in the early 21st century, the second Jewish mayor in Minneapolis history was largely known for ambitious housing equity and climate change policies, although the killing of Philando Castile, which took place before his term in office, put police reform on the new mayor’s agenda as well—under Frey, body cameras were mandated while allegedly violence-engendering forms of police training were discontinued.
An idealist and a technocrat, a hopeful coalition builder and a competent optimist, the now 38-year-old Frey epitomized the young Obama-era liberal—someone who believed in problem solving and bridge building and the ever-advancing march of progress. His rise made sense within a city where multiple models of progressivism had been able to flourish, even as generational tensions began to flare.
Congressman Keith Ellison, who is now Minnesota’s attorney general, responsible for prosecuting George Floyd’s killers, represented the congressional district where the Floyd killing took place. A left-populist who became the target of ire for his early yet lengthy associations with Louis Farrakhan, Ellison proved himself to be someone who could be ideological without being an ideologue. His successor, Ilhan Omar, is far more sharp-elbowed, but Frey was one of the first to endorse her when she ran for Ellison’s vacated seat in August of 2018. Perhaps this was an act of self-preservation: Frey’s closest competitor in the 2017 mayoral primary was Raymond Dehn, a progressive state representative whose campaign brought together a group of budding young leftist organizers, including Omar and some of her future top staffers.
Democratic Party politics in Minnesota is famously a grassroots affair. The Democratic Farm and Labor Party chooses its candidates using an idiosyncratic caucus-convention-primary election model during which hands must be shaken and voters must be engaged eye-to-eye. A talented politician doesn’t need a ton of name recognition, or even much of a traditional resume, to shoot up the ranks—basic human relatability can still be decisive, and candidates are frequently punished for seeming overly desperate or inauthentic. Omar went from being a low-level activist in the DFL to a member of Congress in the space of about five years. Frey was elected to the city council within four years of getting to town and became mayor in under a decade.
The fractious face-off between Frey and the BLM marchers was therefore consistent with how politics is often practiced in Minneapolis. Little wonder the mayor believed this hostile crowd needed to be engaged, and that he decided it was best not to lie to them about what he really believes. How much will he suffer for his honesty? One of Frey’s potential opponents in next year’s mayoral primary is Minneapolis City Council member Jeremiah Ellison, Keith Ellison’s son and a police abolition hardliner who is apparently supportive of antifa, the hazily defined and kinetically minded extremist tendency.
The Frey clapback video exposes a very real fault line separating an earlier generation of liberals—ones who find their inspiration and purpose from the distant era of just four or five years ago—from a less patient and proudly less pragmatic type of activist. Next year’s Minneapolis mayoral election will likely be a test of competing visions in a place whose local political dynamics have been gaining in national and even global significance. Voters will either choose the reassurance of someone who checked all the boxes, appeared where he needed to appear, and was no less dynamic than he needed to be during an earlier and altogether rosier era of comity and possibility, but who refused utopian promises—or else they’ll choose the exhilaration of the unknown, and the promise of an adventurous and almost intentionally traumatic confrontation with existing reality.
While the Minneapolis mayoral race will be an early clash between these progressive visions, it is unlikely to be the nation’s last. The country’s liberal mayors certainly aren’t through getting screamed at. In Seattle, activists recently flooded City Hall to demand the resignation of Jenny Durkin, who is fresh off of acing the coronavirus test but whose police department has also frequently deployed tear gas against protesters. Demonstrators have now seized an “autonomous zone” in Seattle’s downtown, an area that includes a police precinct from which the forces of law and order were forced to beat a tactical retreat. Perhaps Frey can take comfort in the fact that, for now, his city’s showdown between a familiar liberalism and an uncompromising left will be able to wait until election day.
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.