For nearly two decades, Jason Sole had used his time and energy as a local organizer fighting against racist policing in the city of St. Paul, Minn. But even after a brief stint working within Mayor Melvin Carter’s office, he says, his community continued to suffer under an all-too-familiar status quo.
Last year, as buildings burned around him during demonstrations against the police murder of George Floyd, Sole found himself out on the streets, answering calls from community members who needed support during the uprising.
“It was madness,” he told Motherboard. Within days, Sole’s trusted friend and organizer Signe Harriday prompted the formation of a small group of longtime local organizers to streamline communications and facilitate mutual aid during the uprising. “We were just saying, let’s start figuring out how we love and support the community no matter what's going on,” he said. “And that was the start of it.”
What emerged from the chaotic uprising was an initiative called Relationships Evolving Possibilities (REP), an abolitionist, Black liberatory project that organizes communities to resolve conflicts and help each other—and hopes to make police intervention obsolete and unnecessary.
Instead of relying on coercive violence from police and prisons, REP advocates a vision of public safety where communities solve their own problems by showing up for each other, using the skills and resources they truly need.
To put this into practice, REP helps organize people into what they call “pods”—groups of residents typically already loosely in community with each other. Through ongoing trainings, REP teaches pods how to de-escalate situations, provide peer-to-peer mental health support, and practice other forms of transformative justice. If people in a particular housing complex go through conflict resolution training, for example, they could more easily address a noise complaint by communicating with each other face-to-face, rather than calling the police.
The pods establish connections across a diverse range of communities with different experiences. Sole, who is formerly incarcerated and currently a professor, is in pods with students and incarcerated people. Another core member, Roxanne Anderson is linked up with musicians and LGBTQ communities, while Harriday organizes with BIPOC LGBTQ+ artists, activists and healers to support community with respite and retreat on a farm.
Not every crisis or problem can be addressed within the pod network, however. In June 2021, REP rolled out a hotline called Revolutionary Emergency Partners that responds to “non-violent” emergency calls on Friday and Saturday evenings from 7 PM to midnight. Thanks to funding from grants and donations, the group can train volunteers to handle things like noise complaints, mental health crises, and neighbor disputes, and to refer people to other community services. Eventually, REP hopes to respond to calls dealing with domestic abuse, medical crises and anything involving active violence.
Despite popular claims to the contrary, such cases only comprise a tiny portion of the calls police respond to. According to a 2019 study, police officers currently spend only about four percent of their time addressing violent crime.
Abolitionist groups like REP have criticized police departments for amassing enormous power and resources while doing nothing to prevent harm in their communities—or address its root causes. “REP doesn't profess or claim to be the solution to all the harm and trauma facing and circulating in the community,” Harriday told Motherboard. “We lean on abolitionists past and present, who also didn't have a perfect next step plan but who nonetheless fought like hell for us.”
Unlike other anti-violence groups, REP’s work notably avoids any collaboration with police or government agencies on principle. This is in contrast with various “violence intervention” groups that have increasingly cropped up since the George Floyd uprisings, some of which have received funding from the Department of Justice and numerous city governments.
Many of these groups are non-profits who claim to approach violence as a public health issue, with a treatment that involves training outreach teams composed of people who are well-respected or trusted within a particular community. The teams are instructed to identify and provide support for individuals and groups deemed at high risk of violence and provide rapid response at the scene of an incident to de-escalate conflict.
But one primary objective of such programs, according to a memo from the Department of Justice, is to encourage close collaboration between these community-based organizations and police. In the Twin Cities, previous reports have shown that the Minneapolis Police Department and some non-profit intervention groups are in frequent contact.
There is also disagreement among these groups on what qualifies as violence in the first place. During last year’s uprisings, many state-funded violence interrupter groups did not attempt to stop police from using tear gas or performing violent arrests, but were criticized for attempting to pacify and influence demonstrators in New York, Minneapolis, Brooklyn Center, and many other major cities.
Cities are also increasingly promoting collaborations between police and mental health and social workers by embedding them within police departments. Critics of the model, including the Chicago chapter of Social Service Workers United, say social workers should not be aligned with systems and structures of power that criminalize and punish individuals for systemic problems, and argue social and mental health workers cannot simply replace police either.
“If all we do is replace police with social workers without eliminating these carceral aspects of social work,last year we will simply subject vulnerable people to cops by a different name,” the union wrote last year in an open letter. “This moment requires profound institutional reckoning.”
REP’s core members are similarly wary of such reforms. In 2013, Sole helped form the Minneapolis community ambassador initiative, a group that formed relationships with youth to reduce harm on the city’s streets. He said it functioned so well that the state of Minnesota wanted to give them funding, but that’s when the problems started. The city ended up “co-opting” the program to reproduce government functions, and encouraging the group’s members to go on ride-alongs with the police, he said.
Now, REP recognizes the value in remaining independent, taking inspiration and guidance from other abolitionist groups like the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective, CAT911, and MHFirst Oakland.
“We don't want to be a nonprofit,” Sole said bluntly. “We're gonna be able to say whatever we want to say, we're not gonna have that nonprofit jacket on us to where we can move how we want to move.”
REP isn’t the only alternative vision of public safety to come out of Minneapolis since last year. A recent ballot initiative proposed replacing the Minneapolis Police Department with a Department of Public Safety and eliminating the department’s minimum funding and staffing requirement. But on Election Day, the ballot measure was narrowly struck down in a 56 to 44 percent vote, with around 60,000 city residents voting in favor of the proposal.
REP hopes and expects that the electoral setback will inspire more people to try their do-it-yourself approach to community safety.
“I think because of how that amendment all went down, you're going to see more groups showing up in a REP kind of way,” said Sole. “People are gonna start figuring out their own safety mechanisms. After a while, you're gonna look at police call logs and say, ‘Man, a lot of y'all calls get diverted to groups like REP and other groups that are going to form.’”