Trust, Power, Justice, and the Beauty of Protest

On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, our staff at Voices for Racial Justice sat down together for our usual weekly staff meeting. But rather than follow our planned agenda, we shifted course. The night before, five protestors at the Fourth Precinct had been shot by people who had arrived at the peaceful protest wearing bullet proof vests and carrying guns. Reports indicated that they identified with an online white supremacist group.

The weight of racism sits heavily on us at Voices every day – our work centers on addressing institutional and structural racism. Our strategy is grounded in the value and necessity of community organizing and creating the creative spaces and policy tools that support that work. Most days, even with the weight of our mission, we find inspiration and energy to do the work from so many partners in the struggle.

On that day, we found inspiration from community leaders working tirelessly to raise awareness and push for policy change at the Fourth Precinct. Many of us had already seen the beautiful and powerful community being built there in solidarity for a better vision of racial justice. We decided that our team would cancel our other commitments and head to the Fourth Precinct to join the march that afternoon.

The ribbon of people marching from the Fourth Precinct to City Hall that afternoon stood for something together. We marched in the hope for a more just society, one where a black man is not more likely to face police brutality and even death than other members of our community. We marched for the urgency of this vision. Protest grows from this belief in the goodness of community, and even in the necessary tension that leads to change, this underlying love is the grounding for action.

This is what city leaders, police, and others failed to see in their demands that the Fourth Precinct occupation end, in their refusal to release the video footage related to Jamar Clark’s killing, and in their claim that a fair and impartial investigation is underway. They have failed to see the larger vision.

Nothing is fair and impartial. We have heard from numerous city leaders that the release of the video footage will impede a fair and impartial investigation. Yet people of color and indigenous people know that fair and impartial investigations have never truly existed for our communities, and especially for black men who have been the disproportionate targets of police violence. Some might argue that this system is the best we can do and that a process like the grand jury that Hennepin County has announced will be the next step after its investigation promotes fairness. At Voices, we believe we must do better – but we do not claim that impartiality is possible. Every process, every decision is framed with a particular lens. We choose the lens of racial justice because a history of structural racism means that we must be intentional in our questions and process if we are to break those structures down.

Transparency builds trust. The fear of opening up the process to public view is a continuation of the dominant narrative that some perceptions are more valid than others and that the public should trust those eyes over our own. Video documentation has helped the broader public see for ourselves how to interpret the kinds of exchanges that have resulted in so many deaths of black men and other people of color at the hands of police officers. Releasing the videos in the case of Jamar Clark will allow others to be a part of interpretation. What if Mayor Betsy Hodges, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, and all the other players simply said yes? Although few of us know what those videos contain, the timely release of those videos would have and possibly still could open up the conversation to one that is a step toward greater community trust. That trust will not come easily, but this is a start.

Protest is messy, necessary, and beautiful. The call by Mayor Hodges, Council Members Blong Yang and Barbara Johnson, and Congressman Keith Ellison for the occupation of the Fourth Precinct to end failed to grasp the urgency and necessity of that action. The kind of change that is necessary to break down the barriers to racial justice will be uncomfortable. It will be tense. But if our elected leaders who seek to lead for racial equity do not also embrace the necessary tension that pushes us there, they miss an important opportunity. Rather than stand in opposition to that challenge, how about standing in the stream of powerful organizing and be taken to a different place because of it? Surely the 18 days of protest at the Fourth Precinct were messy and uncomfortable. But they were also beautiful and powerful – and created the space for a community to have a voice in the way that our democracy should support and even demand.

One evening during the Fourth Precinct occupation, I witnessed several African American men standing at the front of the station and facing a row of serious looking police officers. They were separated only by a waist high metal fence. Yet those men stood firm and directly asked the officers the kinds of questions they could never ask on the streets of North Minneapolis, for fear of the kind of fate that met Jamar Clark. Why do you keep stopping me? What have I done? What do you see in me that makes you want to attack, to kill? The officers were, of course, armed. But the African American men standing there, in that moment, were as well – with the protection of the First Amendment and the power of the people behind them.

Share

Youth Organizer Spotlight: Maimouna

Youth Organizer Spotlights offer a chance to learn more about the youth who participate in our Youth Cultural Organizing Training (YCOT) — and be inspired by the energy, power, and wisdom they bring to our racial justice organizing community. 

Name: MaimounaMaimouna Shariff Mohammed           

Age: 18

How do you self-identify?

I identify with the pronouns she/her, multicultural, Somali, African-American.

Tell me a little bit about yourself:

I was born in Minneapolis, I used to live off of Como, kind of next to Dinkytown. My parents got married two years before they had me, so I was born in ’97, they were married in ’95. Both my parents used to teach at a Muslim private school and I went there for several years. I switched schools between afro-centric schools and public schools and private schools. I had two brothers, one passed away in 2013 and so it’s just me and my little brother Ahmed now.

How is your story or the story of your community connected to why you organize?

Definitely being multicultural, having to deal with microagressions from both of the communities that I am from, kind of drove me to find a community. And when I finally found that community and I started recognizing racial injustice and the disparities between many different people, especially in Minneapolis—I didn’t realize how many white people there were in Minneapolis—I saw how the conditions are so bad here for people of color. It didn’t hit me until I started working over South with Youthfarm and not seeing enough kids of color doing positive things. I realized there’s a system in place so kids don’t want to do positive things.

Is there a particular story you go to, that reminds you why you organize?

Most definitely, working in Powderhorn, I saw a lot of racial profiling, especially from the police on little kids of color, regardless of how old they were, whether they were with parents, regardless of what they were doing there. It was just a lot of microagressions and they’re just kids in the park trying to play basketball. They’re not menacing, they’re just little brown kids trying to have fun. And seeing a lot of that, and seeing a lot of racial profiling over south, and just the disparities is really what drove me. I decided I’m going to do something about this and I’m not going to sit by and watch this go down.

What does power mean to you?

Power to me is recognizing that you can make a change. Knowing that you can go out and make something happen, and watching the chain reaction of what you did, is powerful. Power is saying, I’m not putting up with this no more and we’re about to do something about it, and then you can say I helped do that. We did that. That’s what power is.

What does building power mean to you?

Solidarity. Definitely with other people of color. That’s power building. Networking with other organizations and just being there for people, and sharing our narratives. 

What do you think is necessary to build solidarity? What do you need from someone trying to build solidarity with you?

Trust. Definitely. I feel like especially in Minneapolis in the Somali community there’s been a lot of distrust with people, because people, quote unquote, are being hired by the FBI to sell Somali boys to the prison system and just different things like that. I feel like I need to trust people to be able to be in solidarity with them and recognize that they’re actually there to help me, and they’re not doing that shady, undercover “we’re gonna get you.”

What were your expectations from the training?

I was definitely expecting to build networking skills and I did—I connected with some really great people.

What is something that surprised you?

The arts and culture piece really surprised me, because when I think of training I think of sitting in an office space and brainstorming for three hours, but being able to have sessions with drawing, and poetry and other things was really surprising. I didn’t know things like that were not considered serious, that it was just on the side instead of this is a part of organizing; this is a part of your narrative.

What was your biggest take-away?

I learned a lot of new things, a lot of things that were there but I didn’t recognize. Like with hearing different narratives about struggles of being undocumented, that really hit home for me. I never experienced how hard that is, because I’m privileged to be a citizen here. Learning about the food desert over North, and being off of Broadway a lot and recognizing that there are fast food restaurants on every block. Mostly I took away that there are different solidarities in building power with other people. Knowing that people who may not have the same struggles than you, care about you and want to see you succeed. That kind of power building is something I took away.

How have your views changed as a result?

I’m more open-minded and I’m more cautious when approaching issues, and I learned that there are some things I don’t get to speak about and I won’t because they don’t affect me. I’m going to sit down and listen, and take away what I can do to help this person, to help my fellow brown people.

What is your favorite part of organizing?

Seeing the end-result of things I do. Being able to work here and see the behind-the-scenes organizing and all the little things that we do here that are a part of organizing.

What do you think is the role of art in organizing and movement building?

Being able to share your narrative and having it be embraced by other people. Personally I didn’t consider myself an artist and I still have trouble doing that. But when we were in the poetry session in that space, and the poetry I wrote—I surprised myself, I was like damn, I didn’t know I had it in me. The fact that it was provoked by being in this training, helped me recognize that this is a part of organizing—being able to share your story with other people and being able to build that power and solidarity and just knowing that people care for you.

How are you implementing what you learned this summer during the YCOT?

Definitely at school, a group that I was a part of, we are an official Black Student Union. Using the organizing tools I learned like relationship building, power-mapping, and all those different technical things helped me get this group started. Also, starting an internship here (Voices for Racial Justice) I feel like now I’m a real organizer, like I work here, I’m involved in campaigns, and I feel like what I’m learning is different. I’ve also been going to a lot of different events like for Indigenous People’s Day, and all these other events in solidarity to learn and connect more. After I took this training I reached, and started doing things I normally wouldn’t do and events I normally wouldn’t go to.

What are some different ways you have been involved in organizing?

With Youthfarm I organized on how to get more kids in Powderhorn involved in our programs. Knowing that we’re in a community with people of so many different ethnicities and cultures—seeing them not involved, is something that I decided to organize around. I also helped with events and worked with Laye (YCOT alum) organize a protest in solidarity for the girls in Boko Haram. Just connecting with people at protests I think is another slight organizing piece I did before the training. But now a lot of the conversations I have with people I took from the training around being more conscious in what I say and what I do, and how that affects people.

What do you think is the connection between actions, organizing, reflection—how are those connected?

Definitely reflections are the most important pieces for me. That healing space—I remember with the Black Liberation Project we did that Whole Foods protest and then after we went and we reflected, and it just felt really powerful to just be able to sit back and listen to others about how they felt about it and being able to share how you felt about it. That one day was what showed me the connection between all three, because we did action, and then we reflected, and I’d never done that before, so doing that really showed me the impact of healing space. To be able to do something really, really real and then sit back and be in your feelings about it.

What’s the role of healing, of opening healing spaces in organizing?

Healing spaces make me realize, damn these people care about me and I didn’t even know them, and the fact that they want to hear what I have to say…just creating healing spaces for sharing your narrative and listening to other people’s narrative and resonating with that. Healing spaces in organizing is what prevents burn out. It’s knowing that you have that community of people to fall back on when you think you’ve been going at it too hard, that there are people there to motivate, and hold you, and help you.

Share

Youth Organizer Spotlight: Puma

Youth Organizer Spotlights offer a chance to learn more about the youth who participate in our Youth Cultural Organizing Training (YCOT) — and be inspired by the energy, power, and wisdom they bring to our racial justice organizing community. 

Name: PumaPuma

Age: 17

How do you self-identify?

Black I guess, I’m also Latina but I feel like I don’t know enough necessarily to truly identify as that.

Tell me a little bit about yourself.

Well I am a half Nicaraguan half black girl who grew up in super white Coon Rapids with a Muslim stepdad and a Christian mom. I grew up in that crazy dynamic of so many people, coming from different spaces. Then I moved out to Arizona and got a rude awakening about how not Latina I was. But I also got immersed in a culture where I could partially be myself, where I didn’t have to be white necessarily, where I could be something that was brown but I couldn’t necessarily be black in those spaces. Then I moved to Minneapolis and I was with lots of kids from different backgrounds but still didn’t know—still wasn’t aware of my blackness to a certain extent. I could still be me but that was just because I was around people who just liked me. But now I’m here and I’m black, I guess.

How is your story or the story of your community connected to why you organize?

I guess well for me, when I grew up in Coon Rapids I faced a lot of racism. There was a lady who kept getting her house broken into and she just swore to God it was me, the 8-year-old little girl that was breaking into her home and so she set up a camera in the window out looking the kitchen. Set up a camera there for me, and all the kids in the neighborhood told me it was for me and then they all couldn’t play with me anymore and they were all white kids. No one would play with me, and I only had one friend, one black girl and then I moved away from her so yeah, that’s a big part of why I organize. And also, I guess I organize for my brothers, like, my brother who’s ten years old, I see some self-hate you know, he’s just not very proud of being Muslim, or being black and so yeah I do it for them. My community I feel like is the North side community. I’ve never lived there or anything, but I feel like those are where my people are, so I also organize for my people who are not able to organize for themselves.

What does building power mean to you?

Building power to me means building connection, culture and community. Like if you have, if you’re emotionally connected to the people around you that’s very powerful, because once you have, like Dr. Kai Greene says—once you have the emotions of somebody you’re able to move them and so, yeah to me that’s power. Being connected to people, because there’s power in people so when you’re all together it’s like, intense, yeah.

What were your expectations from the training?

I guess I didn’t really know what to expect, like I thought, I don’t know—I didn’t really have any ideas I just knew it was about to be some revolutionary radical stuff going on and it was that.

What surprised you?

How put together everything was, how everything had substance. There was, I never felt like I did anything that didn’t make sense to why I was doing it or I didn’t learn from it. So, me coming from the nonprofits that I come from, everything is a half-assed job—we just get the funding for it so we just go through the strokes—but with Voices for Racial Justice we have a set plan with people who are able to do these jobs.

What was your biggest take-away?

That in order to be a helpful person in the movement and in order to do what I’m doing right, I need to know things, I need to have knowledge and I can’t only be driven by emotions and that I need to have things set in stone to back myself up, and back my people up, so that for sure.

How have your views changed as a result?

That I guess, that I used to think that it would be easy to dismantle white supremacy, not easy, but that if I got enough people to be down with me, and if I was down with enough other people that we could just do it. But it kind of, I guess I kind of got a little discouraged when I realized how connected it is, how strong white supremacy is, how it’s built into our worlds like, everywhere. You know, there’s anti-blackness everywhere. So it just showed me that I’m living in a warp, a spiral I guess.

What do you think is the role of art in organizing and movement building?

To be intersectional and inclusive of all people that are oppressed, I think. But essentially there are no rules I guess, to speak your truth and tell your story and to be able to tell the story of people—accurately tell the stories of people who are not there to tell it themselves.

You’re an artist—how is art different than a conversation would be? How are you able to reach people in a different way than just talking to them?

I think, well I guess I’m an artist but I’m really just a writer. But with visual art, you can see, you can make someone see what you feel and then once you can see, just like you can make people see what is happening, you can make people feel those emotions. I think with writing, you can also make people see, just the way you word things, the way you put it on the paper.   It’s all about making people visualize what you feel and also feel what you visualize, what you see.

What is the most challenging part of organizing?

Getting enough people to care I think—getting enough new people to care cause you can have events and you’ll always have the same thirty people show up, because they care, but trying to reach out and get the attention of other people and make it relatable and tangible enough for them to want to show up. And it’s just the balance of making things fun, making it accessible, but also making it have substance for what you’re trying to do, and I think that’s a really hard part. Getting people involved.

What is your favorite part of organizing?

Building with people that I love, building with people that love me, building with people that love what we’re doing. Being, feeling that power inside of yourself. I don’t think there’s anything bad about power when it’s evenly spread out. But just feeling that power inside of yourself and seeing the power of the people around you, whether that’s a direct action, or a kick-back chill or talk. You know, just seeing that we all are so intelligent and have so much experience and it’s all right here in our city. You walk past people and never think of that and it’s the most cliché thing, but it’s so real and you just don’t really know who somebody is.

What does power mean to you and when do you feel powerful?

I feel most powerful when I’m with my people, like people who feel me, people who see the same things I see and yeah, feel me. Power to me is doing the right thing. It’s a powerful thing to do the right thing and whatever that means—well not whatever that means to you because a lot of things could be the wrong thing—but power is just being for the people. There’s so much power in building lives and making sure that people live a happy life. That’s a powerful thing to risk…to burn out your body for other people, but you shouldn’t. You have to remember self-care, self-love.

How do you practice self-care?

I’ve actually—that’s been like a topic in my head of how can I be better at self-care because I feel better when I’m feeling like I have an air about myself that just feels warm and good. But mostly I just try to take a break from Twitter. Twitter is just the best worst thing in my life, it tells me everything that’s going on, but typically everything that’s going on that I care about is everything that’s going wrong in my community and with my people. So—take a break from social media. I like being alone in my bed, relaxing, that’s how I self-care. Being with my friends, black love, getting together with all my friends and just chilling talking trash, just doing us.

 What is our responsibility to include healing in organizing?

I think that having those spaces open for people, and first and foremost letting people know if you’re not ready, then you’re not ready, and that’s fine. And that if you need help, and you need love, need closeness, we have to… people should let you know but at the same time we have to open the space for people to be comfortable enough to let people know you’re going through something. Just making sure people know what’s about to be some real tough work, triggering and then how we can heal ourselves after, and really just keeping spaces open, I guess.

Are you implementing anything you learned this summer through YCOT? If so—in what ways?

I think that the comic session was really inspiring to me. It just made me realize how you can really make something through art—that if I made a super dope comic about a bunch of black superheroes—who’s not going to read that who care about black people, or in my community? People are going to read that. So I’ve been doing little doodles with words—statements that mean a lot to me that have to do with ‘wokeness.’ Yeah that, and then the part of knowledge, that you need more knowledge, and just learning something once is not going to keep it there. We have to be walking intellectual soldiers in this game of social change, because if we don’t have our shit together, then nobody’s going to care. We’re just babbling emotional fools, you know.

 

Share