In June, prosecutors chose not to press charges against police officers who shot and killed Jamar Clark. One month later, Philando Castile was shot and killed by a police officer, and something in Minnesota’s spirit snapped.
Governor Mark Dayton had to admit disappointment in his progressive state.
“I’m heartbroken for Minnesota,” he said in early July, after Castile died. “I’m forced to confront, and I think all of us in Minnesota are forced to confront, this kind of racism exists.”
Protesters camped out in front of Dayton’s house for three weeks. Over one week in July, they shut down major highways twice.
That seemed to split white liberals. On Twitter and in the comment sections of news stories, people who self-identified as white wrote that they were sympathetic to the Black Lives Matter cause, but they didn’t understand how closing highways is productive.
I asked Filsan Ibrahim what she thought of those comments. She’s the 27-year-old Somali American who was in the last Otherhood installment.
“Don’t read the comments,” she said at first, with a laugh. “But the fact that you’re talking about it. The fact that you’re bothered — that’s why we’re blocking the roads. The fact that our lives are daily, destructed, disturbed, and you can go on and never be affected by it — that’s why we make you uncomfortable. Because we’ve been uncomfortable our whole lives. And the fact that you’re feeling this now, makes it all worth it. Because there’s no debating it now.”
And that’s where I got the idea for the latest installment of the Otherhood podcast. It’s about feelings, and the unexpected power they can have.
“I wanted to risk myself and I wanted to stand with the white allies on the front lines.”
On Saturday, July 9, about 8 p.m., hundreds of people stormed onto a highway ramp on I-94, the crucial stretch that connects the two downtowns of the Twin Cities. They stretched out across all lanes of traffic just three days after Castile's death. From a truck, organizers shouted directions to the crowd.
“I believe the call went something like this,” Charmaine Chua says. “White allies, we're asking that you link arms and take the front lines of this blockade. You will most certainly be arrested. But we are asking that you risk yourselves and put your bodies on the line for us. And black and brown folks, we recognize that you are much more at risk from police brutality.’”
The call went on to tell black and brown people they could stay in the middle of the circle, where they were not be as likely to be arrested. At that point, Chua had to think a bit about where she was supposed to go. She’s Chinese, from Singapore, and has been living in the Twin Cities for seven years as a graduate student in political science at the University of Minnesota. She knows that, like “white privilege,” there's also a kind of Asian privilege, and that police don’t treat Asian Americans the way they treat African Americans.
“There was certainly this sort of dilemma for me, because I wanted to risk myself and I wanted to stand with the white allies on the front lines,” Chua says.
But if she got arrested in the US she could face deportation, so she stayed in the middle. There were more white allies than she expected. They linked arms and formed human chains two and three people deep that protected hundreds of black and brown protesters.
I asked Chua, who has been involved in protests for years, if she had ever seen organizers in the midst of a demonstration take time to explain why people of certain races should play certain roles.
“Actually, no,” she says. “I had never before, I think prior to this last protest, heard organizers so explicitly talk about positionality in the thick of a moment of protest."
Charmaine was surprised at how she felt, behind the wall of white allies.
“I felt really safe in a way, and really grateful that I was able to both participate in the protest and show solidarity, but that the protest structure could recognize that I was at risk in a different way," she says. "I think that I would have left the highway much earlier if there hadn't been that call that was made,” she says. “Because sometimes in the heat of protest, it can be pretty chaotic and you don't always know what the level of risk you're putting yourself in really is.”
By Sunday morning, more than 100 people were arrested and 21 officers were injured. Forty-six people who were arrested on I-94 were charged with misdemeanors; one man was charged with second-degree riot while armed with a dangerous weapon.
There is risk in protesting, but there is also risk in not taking action. Jamal Osman knows that because he lived it. In Somalia.
“Police was like the most scariest thing you could think about,” Osman says, recalling the country he fled as a child. “People really, really run away from police.”
Back then, Osman learned a hard lesson: When there are people in a country who fear police and nothing happens to address that fear, it means that law enforcement has gained too much power and the country itself is sliding out of control.
Osman’s family moved to the Twin Cities when he was 14. He remembers sitting in an orientation session soon after. The person teaching the class said not to fear police — that police were there to help when you’re in danger.
“The instructor was like, ‘Don’t run away from the police. Call the police. You run to the police,’” Osman says. “And we had so many questions about it. That’s the police!”
In the years since, police have stopped Osman often, for seemingly flimsy reasons, he says. But he chose to believe in America because he was able to build something from nothing here: a healthy family, a nice home and a job at a social services agency helping others find jobs and homes. He's 32 now, and he’s happy. When he smiles, the dimples show in his cheeks.
“I appreciate how beautiful Minnesota is,” he says.
But if Minnesota allows police violence to continue unchecked, Osman says, it will be heading down a path he thought he left behind.
“There was a time Somalia was just one of the beautiful countries of the world. It started like this,” he says. “If the police get away with overusing their power, what does that lead to? Imagine all the other countries that have dictators — how do you think they get there? By having too much power and people just ignoring it. And we shouldn’t let our society get to that level.”
This is a fear I’ve heard from many refugees and immigrants. My mom has said it. They’re scared that this country is becoming like the places they were grateful to leave behind.
“If we don’t stand up, if we don’t unite, then anything can happen. Chaos,” Osman says. “This is the time a true leader should start. We should have someone like MLK or Gandhi. This time, it’s like we’re kind of missing that leader.”
Chaos, incidentally, is why Jamal doesn’t support protests that close highways. Someone in all that jammed traffic could be trying to get to the hospital, he says.
“I just hate chaos,” he says. “That’s not what we should be doing.”
And even when they’re not on highways, Osman doesn’t feel like he can participate in protests. He’s worried if he’s arrested and gets a record, he won’t be able to find a job and support his family. So he reads and watches the news voraciously. He has to turn off the TV, though, when his 9-year-old daughter, Jannah, comes in the room. She has too many questions about what she sees.
His daughter is innocent, Osman says. When he was her age, he had lots of responsibilities, like herding goats. In America, when you’re 9, “you got to tie their shoes,” he laughs.
And really, that’s the way he likes it. He would prefer his daughter stay spoiled and innocent. He doesn’t want her to know about the fear and hate she’ll have to confront in her own way some day.
“I would close her ears and eyes and say let’s go to the mall. Let’s have fun,” Osman says. “Eventually she’ll grow up and learn on her own.”
Young people are finding the power to speak in “mixed company.”
Many immigrant parents can’t or don’t like to talk to their kids about race in America. Mine didn’t. And it can be a problem, because you still feel everything happening around you. You just don’t know what it is or what it means.
Awale Osman (no relation to Jamal Osman) recognized this problem. You might remember him from the last Otherhood episode — he’s a friend of Filsan Ibrahim’s and a bit younger — just 23. In 2015, Osman helped create a Somali-only debate club at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.
If you’re not familiar with debate, it’s basically arguing fast and well about complex things in stressful, short spurts. The Somali Debate Initiative, as it came to be called, is a place where high school students can learn to articulate their feelings and make an argument in a safe environment.
“For us, the Somali Debate Initiative has provided a platform for our students to workshop their identity and work through these particularly challenging feelings that come from experiencing all these different kinds of traumas,” he says.
Osman’s says he’s passionate about how debate can help other Somali Americans like him learn to argue their points of view in the context of “our westernized decision making process.” And then he adds: “That’s actually a really nice way to say [in the context of] white supremacy.”
A debate program administrator, Genesia Williams, watched students in the Somali Debate Initiative learn the concepts to describe things that happened to their families. For example, they talked about being displaced by the aftershocks of colonialism across the world. And she thought, “I wish that we would’ve had a resource like this when I was younger.”
If she had a resource like that, Williams says she might have realized sooner that her own African American family members are refugees of a sort. They fled violence in Chicago when she was a child, for the promise of safety and better opportunities in Minnesota.
The “promise of Minnesota,” as Williams calls it, may not be true.
Philando Castile’s death shows they’re still living in a place where they have to worry about their brothers and fathers being shot by police. But at least they can learn to say what’s true, and know how to argue for the truth.
So Williams designed a debate spinoff called the Advocacy Unit. It’s essentially a class that helps high school students understand what they’re feeling, put it into words and construct an argument for what they want to happen.
“We just asked them the question, ‘What’s happening in the world? How do you feel about it?’ And when we heard them say a concept, we’d say, 'The thing you’re talking about is impunity,' 'The thing you're talking about is racism,' ‘The thing you're talking about is prison reform,'" Williams says. "It doesn’t give them more access to the concept. It gives them the power to speak about it in what we might call ‘mixed company.’"
The pilot class began the week after Castile died. Williams asked a friend to help, an undergraduate named Dua Saleh. She’s a Sudanese refugee who came to the US when she was 5 and, now 21, has curly hair, a small frame and a fierce spirit. She says the students say things that shock her.
“This week they said freedom is an illusion. I did not say this. A student did,” she says.
The teenager was talking about Castile, and how he was living right, but still died. Saleh had been thinking about that, too, but she hadn’t put it into words.
“To know that you can be murdered after complying with every systemic rule and regulation that has been pushed onto you by a society that hates you already, it’s absolutely astounding. And that’s terrifying. Because there’s no place you can escape to. Even the place that the entire world sees as one of the most liberated nations. You can’t escape inhumanity.”
Saleh and Williams can’t help feeling hopeless sometimes. So when the student said “freedom is an illusion,” Williams asked, “Is the world bleak? If it's bleak, is there anything we can do?”
“And one student said any action that we take could never be hopeless," Williams recalled. She asked him, “Does that mean we can make hope?”
The student replied, “Yes.”
“So I'm going to have to rely on the strength of the faith of the student and say, ‘Yes’,” says Williams.
This is the second part of a two-part Otherhood episode set in Minnesota. Share your thoughts for us to share in the podcast by leaving a message at (802) 526-4763, or (802)-52-OH-POD. And please subscribe to our podcast.