In 2017, Phillipe Cunningham ( a DePaul University graduate ) made history when he became one of the first openly transgender men to be elected to public office in the United States. He defeated a two-decade incumbent to become the city councilperson for Minneapolis' Ward 4.
Now, Cunningham's city has made history in a decidedly uglier and more controversial way. On May 25, George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, died when white police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd's neck for almost nine minutes. For many, it was the breaking point for a year already turned topsy-turvy by a pandemic as well as by recent racial incidents involving Georgia jogger Ahmaud Arbery and gay New York City bird-watcher/editor Christian Cooperresulting in protests and riots across the nation.
Cunningham talked with Windy City Times about the Floyd incident, reactions from the LGBTQ community and his own feelings.
Windy City Times: As of today, May 30, what's the state of things in Minneapolis?
Phillipe Cunningham: As of today, what started off as riots being the language of the unheard turned into white supremacists and some anarchists taking advantage of some Black grief and trauma to wreak havoc, destruction and violence. I'm not saying that oppressed folks aren't participating; however, it has been seen that the folks initiating the destruction and fires are actually white. There's suspicion that they're anarchists or white supremacists.
WCT: And the National Guard has been brought in?
PC: That's correct. They have been brought in and 500 people were deployedthe largest deployment in Minnesota history. And there's a huge protest planned for today, and they're planning to ramp that up to 1,700 throughout the Twin Cities [St. Paul and Minneapolis] and the suburbs.
WCT: What has been your emotional journey from the time you heard about what happened to George Floyd?
PC: So I'm Black and trans-masculine, and I navigate the world being seen as a Black man and am treated as such. When I saw the video, a ton of trauma came up and I was so angry. I was angry as a Black man in America, and I was angry as a city councilmember; I have put in hours and hours and hours of work trying to make the smallest change within the institution of policing in this city. When I saw thatknowing that efforts have been pretty futileseeing the video absolutely enraged me. But it also confirmed that we need an alternate form of public safety outside of policing.
WCT: What would be an example of that?
PC: It's actually something I've worked quite diligently on. There's the public-health approach to public safety, in which violence is treated like a major disease that spreads, and that can be corrected and treated. It can go interpersonally and generationally; for example, children can see their parents [committing violence] and become violent themselves.
The City of Minneapolis works with John Jay College [of Criminal Justice] on what's called the National Network of Safe Communities. They have, for example, the Group Violence Intervention system [which involves team formation, data gathering and message conveyance]. Then there's a bedside intervention system in which if someone is shot or stabbed, there's a trained person to immediately treat the trauma of the person when they are at their most vulnerable as well as to prevent retaliatory violence.
So that's what I'm working on. I had to fight to get $50,000 put into a $1.6-billion budget for domestic-violence intervention. Domestic violence is the number-one reason for 911-initiated calls in the entire city.
WCT: What has the local LGBTQ community said about everything that's happened this week?
PC: Yeah. Trans and queer business owners are concerned about their spaces, but they're also concerned about getting justice and others' safety. We have a very large queer and trans community here, so they're, like, "That's our people out there." So that's what I'm hearing: People concerned about their own businesses but also about safety and justice.
WCT: Officer Derek Chauvin was arrested May 29, as you know. There are some people who feel that he should not be the only officer arrested. What do you think about that?
PC: I agree, 100 percent. So that is the bare minimum that can happen. The other three officers [on the scene] should also be arrested and charged and convicted. As elected officials, we are calling for the governor to take authority over the case, and that attorney general have prosecutorial authority. These officers should be held accountable.
WCT: There are people who even think the paramedic should be charged as well.
PC: It's bizarre, but not unexpected, where the paramedics defer to what police do or want. For example, we had an issue in which people in custody were being drugged with [the sedative] ketamine, and the only people who have that are paramedics [seen, for example at www.buzzfeednews.com/article/azeenghorayshi/ketamine-police-minneapolis-report ]. There has been a problem with paramedics in this city.
WCT: There have constant incidents with Black people and the police, but in more recent years there have been situations with people such as Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Laquan McDonald. Even earlier this week, Tallahassee police shot and killed a Black trans person, Tony McDade. What do you say to people who have lost hope in the system?
PC: What! I didn't know about Tony.
For those who have lost hope, I would say, "I don't blame you." When we look across the country and see all the efforts and initiatives that have taken place over the last decade or soincluding President Obama's 21st-century policingthere's no evidence that any of them worked, in terms of changing police behavior or culture.
That is why we need folks to get behind alternate systems of public safety. When folks are in distress and are in need ( overdoses, mental-health crises ), we should have more appropriate systems in place that don't escalate violence or perpetuate a cycle of criminalization.