Early Tuesday afternoon, as the country awaited the jury’s verdict in the trial of former Police Officer Derek Chauvin, Titilayo Bediako was leading a food drive in North Minneapolis.
“We don’t need white America to see us in terms of tragedy,” Bediako, the executive director of the We Win Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to the academic and social advancement of Black youth in Minneapolis, told Yahoo News. “We need to be seen at all times. ... Black folks have been here forcefully since 1619, and it’s 2021 and we are still trying to get the same rights of everyone else.”
For Bediako, who has lived in the Twin Cities area most of her adult life and has participated in food drives for more than a decade, serving others is what she calls the “real work” needed to address racial inequality in America. Her organization, in particular, has served more than 5,000 young people since it began in 1996 through after-school programs, mentorship seminars and more.
“People are able to tell us what they need and we give it to them,” she said.
Bediako is one of the many Minneapolis-area community leaders who have dedicated themselves to uplifting the most marginalized communities in and around the Twin Cities area. The North Minneapolis community, in particular, has the highest concentration of Black residents in the city and was a “food desert,” activists say, even before the main grocery store in the area was burned down during last summer’s protests over the killing of George Floyd.
For many Twin Cities residents, Tuesday’s guilty verdict epitomized the emotional whiplash of the last 10 years in which short-lived moments of hope give way to ever-present fears and frustrations.
“My stomach was tight as I [awaited] the verdict, and as soon as I heard [Chauvin] was guilty I felt like it dropped,” Minneapolis-based therapist Jamil Stamschror-Lott told Yahoo News. “A sense of relief was shortly followed by a sense of fear that there may be some retaliation for Black folks. I thought I should take my daughter out of her daycare for the day just in case some white nationalist wanted to attack Black and brown babies.”
Since 2017, long before Floyd was a household name, Stamschror-Lott and his wife have been working to build affinity groups to collectively address the trauma of racism in the Twin Cities. They hold these sessions often at reduced rates or no cost at all so there are few barriers of entry for a population often stigmatized about addressing mental health.
As trauma therapists, Stamschror-Lott and his wife, Sara, created Creative Kuponya, an art- and movement-based therapy practice that celebrates Black culture. Kuponya, which means "healing" in Swahili, is at the center of their work. In recent weeks, phone calls, emails and requests to the practice have more than tripled, Stamschror-Lott said, because of the emotional toll in the community since the start of Chauvin’s trial.
“You can't end or dismantle racism [alone],” Stamschror-Lott said. “That's what we really need to begin the process of healing. [Black people] are always just trying to hold on.”
Stamschror-Lott hosts group sessions of both adults and the youth in the community regularly and admits he’s “still a little on edge.” As of Wednesday afternoon, he said he felt as though he was “waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
Tuesday’s guilty verdict for Chauvin was the first time in Minnesota history that a white police officer was convicted in the killing of a Black man, underscoring the challenges that lie ahead. Data shows that Black people are 22 times more likely to be killed by police in Minneapolis than white people, despite Black people making up just 20 percent of the city’s population, according to Mapping Police Violence, a site that tracks police killings. (National statistics show that Black people are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white people.)
The COVID-19 pandemic has only amplified the racial disparities in Minneapolis, a city that ranks second to last when it comes to racial equality in the entire country. The median Black family in the Twin Cities region earns $38,178 a year, which is less than half of a white family’s annual income of $84,459, according to data evaluated by NPR. In the U.S., only Milwaukee has a worse income inequality gap.
Last May, following Floyd’s murder, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said at a press conference that “being Black in America should not be a death sentence.”
But Floyd’s murder was far from a singular event.
Philando Castile, a 32-year-old Black man, was killed in July 2016 by an officer during a traffic stop. The officer was eventually acquitted.
Before Castile there was Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old Black man killed by police in 2015 during a confrontation at a birthday party. The killing set off protests outside a local police precinct that lasted 18 days. The two officers at the center of this shooting were also cleared.
Besides Chauvin, the only other time a Minneapolis police officer was charged and indicted for killing a civilian came in 2017. Justine Damond, a white Australian woman, was killed by Minneapolis Police Officer Mohamed Noor, who is Black. Damond had called 911 about a suspected prowler, and Noor, who responded to the call with a partner, shot her in an alley in what he admitted was a mistake. He was convicted of third-degree murder and sentenced to just over 12 years in prison. Damond’s family settled a civil lawsuit with the city for $20 million.
For many community members, it’s hard to ignore what they see as a clear contrast in how justice has played out in those cases.
“When Minneapolis gave $20 million of our money to that family [and the other families got significantly less], that showed us a white life meant more than a Black life,” Bediako said.
“We had COVID, we had George Floyd and Daunte Wright [and others],” Stamschror-Lott said. “It’s just been endless. This has been the experience of Black folks in general. It's just been endless tragedy.”
“This is why it's important for us not to be just so reactive, and be proactive,” he added. “We have to play on offense too.”
On Monday, many of the young people in Bediako’s program were on the offense, joining a walkout at more than 110 middle and high schools across Minnesota to protest racial injustice and the deadly interactions of Black residents with police officers.
"This walkout is about making a statement to not only the school districts who do little to nothing about racism but also to greater Minnesota," Jerome Treadwell, president of the NAACP Youth Division in St. Paul, told Kare 11 News.
Last summer, there was an explosion of protests globally after the death of Floyd. His murder, in addition to the killings of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, became the rallying cry for a movement.
But nearly one year later, less than 15 miles from where Floyd died, 20-year-old Daunte Wright, a Black man, was killed by police at a traffic stop earlier this month in Brooklyn Center. The white female officer, Kim Potter, who killed Wright claimed she had mistaken her gun for a Taser. She was arrested last week and charged with second-degree manslaughter. As of Wednesday afternoon, she remained out on bond.
While President Biden called Tuesday’s guilty verdict of Chauvin “a giant step forward in the march toward justice in America,” the city of Minneapolis returned to normal on Wednesday. For many in the community, that meant waiting for what they fear is the next, inevitable tragedy to occur. For activists and entrepreneurs like Bediako and Stamschror-Lott, the work of addressing racial inequality goes on.
“We will continue to bring about healing to the community so that our trauma and biases does not get the best of us,” Stamschror-Lott said. “We don’t want to continue to transfer trauma to others in our community. We have to do the work of the healing now.”
While heartened by the Chauvin verdict, Bedaiko knows from experience how much remains to be done to address systemic inequality.
“We keep working for the benefit of our people,” she said.
Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News, Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images, Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images
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