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.