Thursday, June 17, 2021

international

Minneapolis activists fuel up and prepare for long fight for racial equality


MINNEAPOLIS - When protests broke out here last summer after George Floyds killing, Pimento Jamaican Kitchen was one of the few restaurants on its block that remained open. It became a community hub, feeding the hungry, distributing necessities such as diapers and serving as a gathering spot for activists.

So it was only natural that people flooded the popular restaurant when former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murdering Floyd. Yes, they gathered to cheer Chauvin's conviction on murder and manslaughter charges, but they also knew it was but a brief respite before they would again be raising their voices in protest over the killing of another Black American at the hands of police.

"Everybody took a collective breath last night," Pimento owner Tomme Beevas, 41, said the day after the Chauvin verdict. "It was just one battle in a larger war."

The next day many of those people gathered to mourn at the funeral of Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man who was killed April 11 by a suburban Minneapolis police officer during a traffic stop. As the Chauvin verdict was being read, Columbus, Ohio, police were at the scene of a fatal police shooting of 16-year-old Ma'Khia Bryant. Another Black man, Andrew Brown Jr., was fatally shot by a sheriff's deputy in Elizabeth City, N.C., last week as police were attempting to arrest him.

While the Chauvin trial verdict is viewed as a victory by activists, many in Minneapolis are emphasizing that the conviction of one White officer - however rare - does not mean the fight is over, nor does it erase what they see as systemic racism in policing or other areas of American life. Police have fatally shot at least 275 people this year, including 57 Black people, according to data collected by The Washington Post. At least two Black people have been killed by police since Chauvin's conviction.

Justice for Floyd is not final, either. Three other former Minneapolis officers who were at the scene that night - Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao - are awaiting trial on charges of aiding and abetting murder and manslaughter in Floyd's killing. Prosecutors also are expected to try to reinstate third-degree-murder charges against each before their trial in August.

Although the Justice Department on Wednesday announced an investigation of the Minneapolis police department, a Post review in 2015 of such probes determined that they have mixed results.

It's amid that backdrop that many activists said the battle for racial equality and justice has a long way to go. A report from the Pew Research Center in October found that 65% of Black people who believe they do not yet have equal rights say it's not too likely or not at all likely that the United States will ever achieve racial equality. White people are much less skeptical, with the majority predicting that the country will reach that goal.

Black Minnesotans in particular have seen Floyd's story repeated too many times to think the conviction of one police officer signals lasting change.

"We thought Jamar Clark was a bookend. We thought Philando Castile was a bookend," said Dara Beevas, Tomme Beevas's wife. "George Floyd wasn't even a bookend."

She was referring to a 2015 case in which a Minneapolis police officer fatally shot Clark, 24, in the head after he allegedly struggled with officers who were responding to an assault call. Castile, 32, was fatally shot by police the following year during a traffic stop by an officer who thought he matched the description of a robbery suspect. The officer, who said he thought Castile was reaching for a gun, was acquitted of all charges.

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Protesters have been marching on behalf of Wright since the night of his shooting, and continued to do so even on the evening of Chauvin's conviction. While the number of protesters has waned recently, aggressive police tactics - including the use of chemical irritants and rubber bullets - injured dozens of protesters and journalists in the volatile early days of the demonstrations.

As demonstrations broke out in suburban Brooklyn Center, where Wright was killed, Tomme Beevas's nonprofit, Pimento Relief Services - an outgrowth of his restaurant that began last summer - organized events to distribute food and facilitate activities aimed at helping people take care of themselves.

Beevas considers serving food, including the popular jerk chicken and coconut bread at his restaurant, to be a form of ministry. If people are hungry, he said, they will not have the energy to press forward in their fight.

That fight is made all the more important to Beevas, a Jamaica native, as he prepares for his soon-to-be-born son. He said he worries that his child will live with a target on his back.

"It's still jarring that I can't convince my wife that we can't protect him, regardless of our degrees, our successes or our pedigree," Beevas said. "We're still raising a Black son in America."

Activists said that type of fear takes a significant toll on their mental and physical health. The burden is heightened by the feeling that there are few opportunities to take meaningful breaks from their advocacy, they said.

Joi Lewis, chief executive of Joi Unlimited, a coaching and consulting firm, is among several people who offer healing activities - from meditation to dance - to the activists who pass through Pimento's doors.

That healing is necessary, Lewis said, because traumas on the city's Black community compound. For example, the Minnesota National Guard was called in as the city prepared for potential unrest following the Chauvin verdict, causing anxiety for residents as who passed armed troops and Humvees on their streets.

As residents and activists press for tougher charges against the former Brooklyn Center officer who shot Wright, Lewis said they wonder what new tragedy awaits them.

"While we are marching for liberation," she said, "oppression is still happening at the exact same time."

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Origami birds with small inscriptions hang from the ceiling. Flowers, dried and preserved from last summer, lie in a glass casing. A 9-year-old's drawing with the words "Take your knee off our neck" hangs on the wall.

The pain of Floyd's death, encapsulated in mementos left last year by people from across the country, are on display inside the Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center building at the intersection of 38th and Chicago, where Floyd was killed.

Mileesha Smith, 30, is often there. Although the room is full of reminders of the tragedy, she said she does not dwell on the past.

"When people are like, 'What's next?' I'm like, 'Let me know, so I can figure out what I'm going to do after that,' " Smith said.

Her days are filled with Black Lives Matter work, so much so that she has not furnished an apartment she moved into this month. When Wright was killed, Smith said, "it was like deja vu."

"I was never so wrapped up with the [Chauvin] trial," she said, because like others, she views the fight for equality as much bigger than that.

Smith described her life and those of other Black Americans as constantly being dragged down by forces of racism that pervade all areas of their lives, from education to housing and the criminal justice system, to the subtle and not-so-subtle attacks that come from individual interactions with people.

She and Monnica Williams, a therapist and expert on racial trauma, described the mere act of being Black women in America as like living in a war zone.

"You're constantly on guard for bullets. You're constantly looking for land mines so you don't step on them, and at the same time, you can't avoid them all and you're constantly getting hit," Williams said.

Before the Chauvin verdict arrived, the Rev. Jia Starr Brown said she was prepared for the heaviness of loss. An associate pastor at the First Covenant Church in Minneapolis, she has a long history of activism and plans to have a long future of it, too.

When the verdict came in, she issued a sigh of relief and opened her arms to what it gave her: "fuel for the journey," she said, to continue her social justice mission.

"Go and celebrate and smile and give thanks to God for this verdict," Brown said. "And then let's get up in the morning, and let's continue the work. There's so much left to do."

Published : April 26, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Marisa Iati, Silvia Foster-Frau, Kim Bellware