The mayor of Minneapolis reflects on a tumultuous few months

This spring, Jacob Frey saw his city become the epicenter of mass protests against the killing of George Floyd

It hasn’t been an easy few months for Jacob Frey. 

The 38-year-old Minneapolis mayor, a member of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, saw his city unravel this spring as demonstrators took to the streets en masse to protest the killing of George Floyd. Frey, who is more than two years into his first term, ran on a campaign to reform the police department, and he supports the structural changes that activists have called for. 

But on a Saturday in early June, he was booed out of a public demonstration in a tense moment that made national news. Asked by a woman standing on a stage before him if he would commit to defunding the police, Frey, in a baseball tee and a black mask hanging loosely on his face, shook his head. “I do not support the full abolition of the police department,” he said quietly to a hushed crowd which, with prodding from his interlocutor, erupted in anger.

“Go home, Jacob, go home!” the protestors yelled in unison as Frey exited the throng, his arms hanging limply at his sides. “Shame, shame, shame!” they yelled later. Reflecting on the episode a month later, Frey seemed calm and composed during his interview with Jewish Insider. “These issues are controversial and they’re tough,” he said. “But that’s what I love.” 

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

What’s going on in your world?

As mayor, the days are always incredibly busy. But when you have one crisis sandwiched on top of another sandwiched on top of another, it’s all around the clock. So now we’ve got, obviously, a homeless crisis on top of an economic downturn, a budgetary crisis on top of a public health emergency, and then, of course, George Floyd, so it’s all of those things kind of compounded on one another. 

The mood in the city was pretty tense not too long ago. What does it feel like now?

There is a sense of urgency to see clear action on everything from economic inclusion to deep structural reform to our police department to addressing our housing crisis. I have that sentiment along with them. There’s a lot of pain and anger and frustration that is not limited to the killing of George Floyd, but obviously includes it. And it’s our task now to harness all of that energy and channel it to something productive, which is what we’re working toward right now.

The Minnesota state legislature just announced some police accountability measures. Do you think they go far enough?

No, not at all. We can go through all sorts of different policy reforms, but culture eats policy for breakfast, and we need a massive culture shift in how our police department, and, frankly, police departments around the country, operate. Culture is about people; it’s about personnel. And so what we need is to have the ability to bring in the officers who have the right mentality, who are subscribing to our chief’s notion of integrity and service and compassion. We need the ability to get out officers that do not have that mentality, and right now we have major impediments in the form of the collective bargaining agreement and the police union contract. 

But for purposes of the state legislature, most importantly, there’s an arbitration provision which requires [that] instances of termination or discipline get appealed up to this arbitration. And around 50% of the cases get returned right back to our police department. So we can terminate and discipline someone, but that person oftentimes gets sent right back to the police departments to continue damaging trust with the community. We need the ability to terminate and discipline, and this is a major impediment. So that was the big thing that they did nothing on.

Where do you stand on police reform now? Do you still think that defunding the police is a bad idea? 

When people say the word defunding, there are some who actually want to get rid of all police and there are some who just want to have changes where we have safety beyond policing. So here’s where I am: If we’re talking about safety beyond policing, I’m all on board. If we’re talking about having mental health co-responders respond to calls as opposed to officers, or with officers, I’m all on board with that, and in fact, we have a mental health co-responder program citywide. If we’re talking about social workers, to the extent we can have social workers take some of the calls that police would otherwise do — assuming the incident is safe — absolutely. If we’re talking about decriminalizing addiction, again, I’m on board. But if we’re talking about just abolishing all police, all law enforcement — no, I’m not. That’s not something that — I mean, we still do need law enforcement to address and to respond to serious and dangerous incidents that take place in our city. 

Can you give a rundown of what happened in June, from your perspective?

There was a group of protesters that came to my home, and they asked me to come out. I came out to sit with them — and, of course, I’m very supportive of deep structural change. I called for the termination of the officers and for the charging of Derek Chauvin, I did that right away — and then at some point they called me up front. They asked me, would I commit to defunding the police, and I asked — you can watch the video — I asked what they mean by that because I wanted to make sure that I was being clear. And the response was, “We don’t want police. No more police. Get the police off the streets. We want no more police in our neighborhoods ever.” That was the response. And I answered honestly. These are difficult times and my first responsibility is to be honest and to do the right thing, and as difficult as it was, it was the right thing to do.

What was going through your head in that moment? Were you frightened, or nervous?

No. I mean, obviously, it was a tense moment. But no, I stand by my values, and I tell the truth no matter who I’m talking to. And I did. And if you can ground yourself in that, that’s all you can do. It’s what you do. And by the way, since then, the support I’ve gotten has been constant. The support from telling the truth, in that particular event, especially from our Black community, has been overwhelming. 

Were you surprised when they started chanting “shame!” at you? It seems so medieval. 

As mayor, you’re frequently a focal point and a target from all sides. The top two criticisms that you get are too much force/not enough force, or too many police/not enough police. In Minneapolis, we have a very activist-oriented and engaged community, so it’s not the first time I’ve been protested and it certainly won’t be the last. I don’t know about surprised. I mean, I was calm. I told the truth. I was calm and I told the truth. By the way, I didn’t leave either. I was there for 45 minutes afterward answering every last question that any reporter or activist had for me. I do not hide from difficult situations just because the optics are tough.

Did you sleep well that night? 

Yeah, I did. 

Any nightmares?

I’ll tell you what, I would not have slept well had I tried to obfuscate or avoided the question or lied. If you tell the truth, you try and do the right thing, you hold your head high and you can sleep at night — and that’s what I did. And sure, it was tough. It’s tougher for your family and friends to see a video like that. But the response that we’ve gotten from the vast majority of my constituents has been very clear, which is, you know, ‘thank you for telling the truth.’ What we hear is people are appreciative of the willingness to go into some of these situations and still be honest.

What was it like inside your house when you were called out?

I was talking with Sarah, my wife — she was also at our home at the time — and she is just a backbone of steel. She’s so tough and courageous and loving. And we were just discussing, all right, what should we do? We don’t presently have security right now. Or at least in any number. What should we do? And she’s like, you do what you always do. You go out there, you listen, you’re compassionate, and you tell the truth.

You and your wife are expecting a baby in September. How does it feel to be bringing a child into this moment in history?

As unfatherly as this may sound, my focus over the last couple of months has very much been on our city. Not only is Sarah pregnant — she’s working full-time, [and] she’s taking the bar exam in a week. And so she’s been studying non-stop, and I’ve been obviously working around the clock as well. Babies usually bring a sense of optimism, of hope, that the next generation will do things better than we have. And that hope, that sense of optimism, is clearly in the back of my head right now, but front of mind is getting through these crises, with a complete transformation to how our city does business.

Rahm Emanuel famously said you should never let a crisis go to waste.

In a way, yes, it is an opportunity to do things differently: to center Black and brown voices, to see through to true economic inclusion. If we utilize both this opportunity and the energy to reshape a system for the better, that’s an outcome that we can be proud of.

Jacob Frey Minneapolis Mayer
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey speaks on July 10, 2020 at a protest by the Oromo people over the unrest in Ethiopia. (Chad Davis/Flickr)

How do you unwind? You’re a runner, right?

I run. Ideally, I’d like to get out the door five times a week or so. I used to run professionally, like as my job, and now it’s really for emotional and physical well-being. Ideally, I get out the door five times a week or so. Not long, but enough to breathe and to sweat, and that certainly helps. I think better, I feel better, I make better decisions when I’m able to get out for runs.

What kind of precautions are you taking to avoid getting the virus, aside from wearing a mask? Do you get tested?

I’m actually going to get tested fairly shortly here. Some of our police administration got the virus — quite a bit of our police administration got COVID-19 — and so I intend to get tested myself. Right now, I’m one of the only people in the office. Much of our connection is done remotely through [Microsoft] Teams or Skype or whatever. And we have a plan that’s instituted at the office for how we still remain relatively socially distant. I’ll say that through certain courses of the pandemic, full social distancing was not possible. And so the likelihood of exposure was almost definite.

Are you saying you were exposed to the virus?

I don’t know that to be the fact. I’m just saying that, during a crisis like the one we faced, you do come into contact with people, inevitably. There were instances where, yes, we had to be closer together.

Like during the protests?

A protest would have been one example, to operating through the emergency operation center, or in the office. Yes, I did come into contact with people. Just to be clear, I’m not saying I was exposed. I’m saying the likelihood is high. 

You attend two Reform synagogues in Minneapolis. Are you a regular, and if so, has it been difficult not being able to go to services recently?

I didn’t go to Shabbat services every week or anything. My wife converted about a year and a half ago. She’s serious. She’s into it. I mean, I’m obviously proud of her and proud to have her as a member of the tribe, but it was not like any sort of pressure from either me or my family. She did so because she wanted to, and she’s informed, she’s well-read, and is very grounded in Jewish thought and philosophy, which I find pretty cool. And so, if anything, she’s been the one to encourage me to attend more often. 

It seems to happen sometimes that people who convert become more devout than their spouses.

That’s definitely the case here.

You’re the second Jewish mayor of Minneapolis, yes?

That is correct. I had previously for a little while thought I was the first, but no, Art Naftalin was also Jewish. Minneapolis, sadly, has a fairly antisemitic history. We have maps to the city that quite literally designate North Minneapolis as a slum for Blacks and Jews. This is dating back, you know, 70 years ago. And Minneapolis is not unique to this, but many law firms in the city — for instance, I believe, including the one that I worked for when I first came out here — previously did not allow Jews. 

Do you feel self-conscious about being a Jewish mayor of a city with that kind of history?

It’s funny. Before, I would say, last year, I had not thought of myself as much as a Jewish mayor. That’s just not how I would have thought of myself. Now, over the last year, the number of antisemitic attacks that we’ve been subjected to has been through the roof, whether it’s from the far right or the far left. Usually, it’s from some of these Donald Trump supporters. Most of them don’t live in Minneapolis. Minneapolis, as you know, is a very progressive city. But the uptick in antisemitic hatred, especially after I asked for Donald Trump to pay his bill, was through the roof.

So that’s changed your perception of yourself?

It has. I don’t know that it’s necessarily changed how I go about my day. I grew up, I would say, quite culturally Jewish but not very religious. You know, I’m not even convinced that my mom believes in God, but she believes firmly in bagels and lox on Sundays. You were there for bagels and lox on Sundays without excuse. And that sort of ethnic and cultural identity, I think, has come to the forefront more over the last year for me personally. I don’t know that it’s really had an impact on my governance, but certainly on a personal level, it has had an impact.

You came to Minneapolis in 2009, and you seem pretty settled there. But could you ever see yourself moving back to your native East Coast? Would you ever want to run for Congress?

I love Minneapolis. God bless congressmembers, and thank you for them, but that’s not my interest. One, because you can kind of work hand-in-hand with the community around a common idea, and it’s complex, it’s controversial. Oftentimes, the most difficult issues get left for cities to handle. And we’re seeing that right now, not just in Minneapolis, but around the country. I mean, you’ve got mayors just getting pummeled. They’re doing their very best — you see it in the news all the time, and these issues are controversial and they’re tough. But that’s what I love. Not to mention, I wouldn’t want to be in Congress just because we’re having a baby, and I don’t want to be flying back and forth between D.C. and Minneapolis. I want to be with my daughter and my wife.

It’s your birthday on Thursday. What are you planning to do?

Right now, nothing. You know, if I could grab a socially distanced beer with a few friends, I’d certainly welcome that. It’s not anything beyond that, though. I mean, 39 is not really a marker, you know? Gosh, before COVID-19 and before all of this — the summers in Minneapolis are extraordinary — and before all this, I was certainly looking forward to enjoying the full scope of summer, with events and activities and Pride Parade and Aquatennial, these big celebrations that we have, and just having this last summer where I don’t have a child and having any freedoms that are associated with that. And it clearly has not worked out that way.

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