Many of you know that I live in North Minneapolis. The latest Black Lives Matter protests in response to Jamar Clark being killed by an MPD officer this last weekend have been occurring only a few miles from my home. I’ve followed various BLM movements as they responded to other police killings of citizens of color, but it really hits at a different level when it happens in your very own community, at your home.
I stood with my community last night as they exercised their right to protest. This was the first time I visited the police precinct in my community, but my friends, neighbors, and community members have been standing united to challenge, be heard, and protest for the past five days now (at the time of my writing this). I don’t write this post to brag about my brief presence, but simply to report on what I witnessed. During times like these, the media, appropriately so, is scrutinized for biases that seem to relentlessly hang on both in broad daylight and subconscious dark corners. I’m no journalist, but I want to share my experience for what it was.
This was simply my own story of standing in solidarity with my neighbors. In writing this, I am making a conscious effort to not speak for the other members of my community who have their own story to tell. For me to tell their story, when they are capable of telling their own story and have already been doing so, would be a violation of their story. I would encourage any readers to reach out and find ways of hearing other stories of not only this specific incident but of ongoing fears residents of color have of police officers. As I witnessed the police officer in charge last night, it is always appropriate to take a posture of listening. Please find more ways to do this.
The protest was peaceful and cold when I arrived. Everyone was bundled up like true residents of the North Star State. Campfires provided heat and a speaker provided beats, specifically Where is the Love by the Black Eyed Peas. A large group had gathered around the speaker bouncing, dancing, and singing. There was a collective camaraderie that was welcoming and warm, and yet the juxtaposition of acknowledging the actions that drew and maintained the crowd were still real and sobering.
Soon Jayanthi, a local artist, took a microphone and began leading the crowd by singing in the way that she so beautifully has many times before. I have a lot of respect for this woman’s prophetic voice of wisdom and graceful use of talent.
While I was standing near a group sharing an open mic, a smaller line of community members had formed along the police barricade outside of the front door of their fourth precinct. These individuals had a megaphone and I was curious as to what they were saying. They were hurt, grieving, and mad… not simply about Jamar Clark but about the general negative attitude towards North Minneapolis from the MPD and the abuse felt specifically by black residents. Although their words felt hurtful at times, some might certainly label them as “disrespectful”, it also felt like I was witnessing a necessary therapeutic outpouring of expression, to an equally necessary audience. The four or five police officers, adorned in riot gear, awkwardly shifted stances as they guarded their post and avoided eye contact with the community members. They stood at least 15-20 feet behind the barricade. They didn’t talk to us, they didn’t acknowledge us, they smirked and whispered amongst themselves. It was a very visible representation of “us vs. them”.
Then, an African American officer of some kind of higher rank came out wearing a normal uniform, armed only against the cold. He began to address the individual community members at the barricade. This gentleman stepped right up to the barricade (close enough to reach across and shake hands), introduced himself to those in front of him, and although I couldn’t hear their conversation because the megaphone had been replaced with pure and simple vocal chords, I could tell that both sides were starting to defuse, just a little bit.
I overheard the community member who had previously been using the megaphone shake hands with the officer and thank him for treating them like humans and for listening to them. I watched, and overheard occasional snippets as the officer moved up and down the line of individuals queued up at the barricade listening to their concerns and answering them with legit attempts at respectful explanations. From what I could hear, most people wanted to know about why the tapes hadn’t been released or why the officers who shot Jamar were still getting paid while on leave. One community member wanted to talk about how the community was losing trust in MPD’s presence and appreciated the public, yet candidly void of media cameras and footage, conversation he was allowed to have at the moment with the officer who was listening.
And the more the conversations went on, the more both sides seemed to relax. The police dressed in riot gear awkwardly ignoring the crowd started to take off their helmets. They inched forward so that they were closer to the crowd, one even started a brief exchange with a community member about how great it was that McDonald’s was now serving breakfast.
Shouldn’t this be how the police always treat concerned community members? Regular uniforms, unarmed, engaging in honest conversation? Intimidation is a significant barricade to honest conversation and trust in any environment, between any two groups.
About this time three gun pop pop pops could be heard going off, and so quickly, tensions flared again. Community members started running from a corner of the precinct that I could not see with their hands up. Once everyone calmed down just enough to realize that the gunshots had been used by the police on the crowd, community members started looking for reasons for why. (I should note the MPLS Police are using rubber bullets, still scary.)
Many concerned community members ran up to the listening policeman just behind the barricade while contending “We were being peaceful!!”. They wanted to know why his subordinates were shooting. There were a few minutes of chaos as people tried to figure out what was happening and what had prompted a policeman to shoot rubber bullets into the crowd. Soon, we saw that somebody had unfortunately spray painted the side of the precinct. The community member who was on the microphone when this all happened, immediately issued a rebuke over the loudspeaker towards the individual guilty of the graffiti and for the whole crowd to hear. He warned that the next time you want to do something like that, tell one of the other protesters so they can stop you, “the media is only going to show that [graffitti] now”, they won’t care about how peaceful we’ve been.
Although the crowd was mad about the officer firing his gun, and many were expressing their anger by erupting into more chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot!”, many I could hear and observe were also disappointed that one of their own had made a foolish choice to graffiti since they knew how the media would spin it. The crowd was very capable of thinking reasonably and quite capable of regulating itself.
I left the protest more hopeful after watching what I saw. I’m glad to have experienced the community members regulate themselves, which is in line with other trustworthy accounts of similar incidents from friends. I’m hopeful after having seen the officer lead by listening and treating those in this community with respect. I hope other police officers can learn from him, I hope there are others like him, and I hope more will listen to my community as we attempt to establish a new trust.
But the protest continues. Release the tapes.
Read Rachel’s follow up: I’m thankful for my Northside community, not stupid for living here