Stricken after watching the video of George Floyd dying under a cop’s knee, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey made a late-night phone call.
His aide Jennifer White was still awake. Their talk, he would recall, was one of the most “emotionally packed” conversations of his life.
Noting the sadness, anger, frustration and pain of watching the footage as a Black woman, White shared her thoughts on how he should draft his public statement about a Black man dying as a white officer knelt on his neck.
“I kind of advised him to lead with his heart and to really speak from that place of honesty,” said White, a senior policy aide overseeing public safety, criminal justice and police community relations.
As Floyd’s death set off national protests over the systemic oppression of Black people, Frey has tried to navigate his role as a white mayor of a city where Black residents are reeling over racial injustice and police brutality.
Aides pushed for him to have a visible presence in the Black community in the days following Floyd’s killing and worried about losing Black approval. In the months since, Frey has solicited advice from Black leaders and staffers, read about the multigenerational harm of racism, and vowed to expand his connections with Black constituents.
For Frey, race was not front and center for much of his political career. He was elected in 2013 to the Minneapolis City Council representing a mostly white ward spanning downtown and Northeast, where he advocated for housing policies to reduce segregation but did not have to confront racial justice in a broader way until the 2017 mayoral campaign.
“I knew from the campaign trail and all of the debates, which centered a lot around racial equity and police accountability, that Jacob Frey was underequipped to tackle many of those issues,” said civil rights activist Nekima Levy Armstrong, who ran against him. “One of the reasons had to do with his lack of exposure to the native-born [Black] population.”
As mayor, Frey said, he has spent more time on the mostly Black North Side than anywhere else outside of his own Northeast neighborhood and City Hall. But after Floyd’s death, he knew he had to do more.
“The approach that we took in the days and weeks following George Floyd’s killing was to center our Black and brown communities as much as possible,” Frey said. “I don’t know how many calls I made in that first day to make sure we were reaching out.”
The morning after Floyd’s killing, Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo summoned a group of Black leaders to City Hall, including heads of the NAACP and Urban League, pastors and civil rights activists. North Side activist Al Flowers recalled that when they asked Frey, who walked into the meeting toward the end, if he would support the chief in firing officer Derek Chauvin right away, “the mayor said yes.”
Later that night of May 26, Frey went to an hourlong community listening session hosted by Black media outlets. And in the days after, Frey made a point of calling a list of Black leaders, first to apologize. He heard from Black citizens that “it’s important for me to both understand my responsibility and also not make this about myself.”
In some of his most difficult moments, Frey said, a source of strength was local NAACP President Leslie Redmond praying for him over the phone. He described counsel from her and activist Spike Moss as “blunt and inspirational.”
White, for her part, was determined that Black residents see the mayor in person, not just on TV. As aides discussed getting Frey out into the community in the weeks following Floyd’s death, White texted policy director Heidi Ritchie, “Yes it was my rec to get him out ASAP. Ilhan was out last night w NAACP. He’s gonna lose Black community support if he doesn’t.”
She’d hoped that Frey could visit North Side volunteers who were trying to protect the neighborhood from vandals and looters. But the chaos of the riots delayed those plans. Later, at the suggestion that she help on community engagement, White texted Ritchie: “I’ve been pushing for [Frey] to get out since last week to no avail. ... And after this human rights stuff comes out, we are going to lose Black community support,” in a reference to the state Department of Human Rights launching a civil rights probe against the city.
White wound up accompanying him with youth violence prevention coordinator Sasha Cotton on a visit to 38th Street and Chicago Avenue, where Floyd was killed. On a separate visit to the memorial, Frey shared an impromptu hug with Flowers — the first person aside from his wife whom he had embraced after months of social distancing.
In the days after those memorial visits, Frey went to the riot-stricken areas on W. Broadway on his own, toured the destruction on Lake Street with state legislators, went to a community roundtable hosted by U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar and visited resource and grocery pop-ups in north Minneapolis.
Frey said he’s learned more about intergenerational trauma lately by reading “My Grandmother’s Hands,” a book by Minneapolis therapist Resmaa Menakem that explores the long-lasting psychological damage of racism.
And he has had “I don’t know how many conversations” about Floyd’s killing with Black staffers, executive assistant Marcus Singleton and senior policy aides Shauen Pearce and Abdi Salah.
Pearce was initially skeptical about working for Frey because she hadn’t seen economic inclusion and racial justice prominently in his promotional materials early in the mayoral campaign.
But she saw him absorb input from Black residents to name those issues as a priority.
“One of the critical aspects of economic inclusion and certainly for racial justice is for non-Black people to expand their networks with Black people, and he actually does that,” said Pearce.
Some Black leaders were especially pleased with the mayor’s participation on a recent panel at Shiloh Baptist Church, where he described his thoughts behind calling for the officers to be fired and criminally charged right away instead of waiting for an investigation.
“Even though he knew what the other side was saying to him — ‘Don’t make a statement, hold back, wait ’til more information comes out’ — he was convinced,” said Bishop Richard Howell, one of the Black pastors who responded to Arradondo’s call to come to City Hall the morning after Floyd’s death.
“It seemed like it was a moment of redemption that a white mayor would have the nerve to say what he said to a Black audience. And I can’t tell you how good it felt.”
The outreach seems to be working, with 60% of Black voters having a favorable view of Frey, compared with 49% of white voters, a Star Tribune/MPR News/KARE 11 Minnesota Poll found this month. In interviews, Black residents said Frey’s unwavering support of Arradondo — the city’s first Black police chief — engendered goodwill in their community.
Still, some are not impressed. Oluchi Omeoga, a co-founder of Black Visions Collective, said the mayor tries to cultivate relationships with people who share his views on public safety. The collective has pushed to dismantle the Police Department, which Frey and some prominent Black leaders have opposed.
“He’s not talking to a diversity of Black folks — he’s only talking to a specific demographic of Black folks,” Omeoga said.
The mayor has also drawn detractors who describe his outward empathy with Black causes as performative.
“He says really nice things that put a Band-Aid on it, but I think he bit off more than he can chew,” Near North resident Megan Duncan said.
She doesn’t like when he conveys his emotional distress over the killing, saying, “George Floyd is dead. What do I care about how you feel? Do something. Be the mayor.”
And some Black entrepreneurs are angry that the mayor has not done enough to help them recover after riots damaged many minority-owned businesses. Frey is “failing us again and again,” said Abe Demaag, who thinks the mayor should not run again.
Demaag’s Furniture City on Lake Street was damaged in the riots. He faults Frey for not coming up with a vision for rebuilding and not reaching out more to business owners in the neighborhood.
Redmond, the NAACP president, generally supports the mayor but said there’s more to be done. The city’s Black residents were in a state of emergency even before COVID-19 and Floyd’s killing, she said, and “the rest of his term I want to see resources poured into the Black community. I want to see specifically a plan of action.”