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.

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Lesson Learned: The Necessary Power of an Outside Strategy

By Vina Kay and Jake Virden

The question on the table had to do with how to define appointments and representation of the Community Advisory Committee (CAC) for the Calhoun-Harriet Master Plan. There was some agreement that the CAC process would be better with more voices from underrepresented communities involved in the planning. How could the MPRB authentically build the relationships necessary to invite that participation?

As consultants from Voices for Racial Justice and Hope Community, we were offering some strategies that involved communicating among political appointers (including City Council members and Parks Commissioners) to coordinate appointments, allowing staff input in the appointment process, and engaging with us and other partners as community organizations with strong community relationships.

Then we offered an additional suggestion, one that grew out of conversations with our community partners: making it part of the CAC charge to address the renaming of Lake Calhoun, named after vice president and outspoken supporter of slavery John C. Calhoun. For a few seconds, the room was filled with awkward silence.

One commissioner said that would make it impossible to support the CAC composition we had been discussing. A high level staff person said that it was important to consider, but how could we best offer the space for that conversation. Another commissioner thought it should absolutely be part of the defined process. There were practical questions, like whether the MPRB could do anything about the name in the context of the Master Plan.

In all of the back and forth, one thing was clear. We were no longer talking about the CAC composition and appointment process. We were talking about a larger, historically charged issue.

A few weeks later, nine African Americans were killed during a Bible study at their church in South Carolina. Among the wounds this violent act opened up was the symbolism in South Carolina and other southern states of the Confederate flag. Leaders of all political affiliations are now calling for Confederate flags to be taken down as public symbols, recognizing how very alive and real racial hatred remains in our country.

And the movement to rename Lake Calhoun, which has been simmering for years, woke up again. But this time, the movement grew from grassroots communities, from people with a stake in the issue because they enjoy the lake but not the contradiction. It grew from the outside, not from inside around a large board table. Now the conversation about a name change is alive and growing – because of that community drive.

So we have learned a lesson in our work to develop an inside-outside strategy. Sometimes the right strategy is an outside one.

As people working and organizing with communities of color in Minneapolis, we know that we need a name change for Lake Calhoun. But we also want so much more. We need a deeper conversation about how our country’s historic system of slavery still impacts us today. We want to challenge the racism that continues to ground so many public decisions and practices. We want to see the name change as part of a larger commitment to address inequities in our parks system and in other spaces. The growing community demand has the possibility of delivering the name change and more.

Had the drive for renaming Lake Calhoun come from that inside table, we might have gained a more immediate win and the satisfaction among leaders of doing something big. But we would have lost something greater. We would have lost the chance to engage in deep truth telling by the voices of communities most impacted by our legacy of racism – a process that can be transformative and affect how we collectively confront our history rather than deny its real impact on our lives. We would have lost the opportunity to grow something with deeper roots in the rich soil of a community-led process.

The outside strategy that is quickly emerging also belongs to many, rather than a few. This core principle of organizing – of the power of many coming together for change – has always fueled the most revolutionary and transformative movements. Of course, the eventual partnership of elected leaders will be necessary. But when those leaders answer to the demands of the people, we are all better for it.

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Racial Justice Organizer Training: An Evolution Story

On October 28, Voices for Racial Justice celebrated our new name and the many partners who share our commitment to building a racial justice movement in Minnesota. We also recognized our journey to the organization we are today.

The story of Organizing Apprenticeship Project’s birth and evolution is one that inspires me as one of vision and change. The roots of our organizing training were the vision of local organizers who wanted to create a solid training program and space for new organizers to develop and grow. They recognized that having a mentoring relationship and that learning by doing were the most effective ways to develop the flexible skills that organizers need.

The training program practiced that organic, learning through experience approach itself when it responded to what organizers of color were saying: they needed the skills to advance a racial justice analysis, even within the organizations where they worked. Too often, they were the only people of color in an organization, and they needed the support and framework to organize authentically with communities of color. OAP’s ability to ask itself hard questions and to intentionally grow into what was necessary – a racial justice organizing training program – has inspired the racial justice movement we are all part of today.

We shared a video at the Parkway Theater that tells this story better than I can – through the voices of some of the early leaders of OAP. We have been on an important journey of growth and change. I know that our next 21 years will take us further along this path toward racial justice in a way that embraces each other and our many voices.

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