What started as a demonstration of Dr. King’s vision of the “beloved community,” became a reminder of what Dr. King warned could destroy our nation: The triple giants of racism, militarism, and extreme materialism. All three of those giants were present that day at MOA and they set out to crush the spirits of “the little guy.”
I have been reminded repeatedly over the last several months in watching the tragic events unfold in Ferguson, Missouri, New York, Ohio, and all across this country—laws without justice are meaningless. Throughout our history, we have experienced the debilitating effects of laws being written to lock us out of access to opportunity; the ability to be paid for our labor; and to criminalize our blackness.
Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired
We are tired of our black boys and men, and even our women and girls, being slain at the hands of police officers, security guards, or vigilantes, with little accountability to boot. This sense of fatigue and exasperation with the status quo is reminiscent of the seeds that sparked the birth of the Civil Rights Movement and after much marching, protesting, and bloodshed, prompted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to write his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” King’s prophetic letter was written in response to 8 white clergymen who implored the protesters to stop demonstrating and disrupting “business as usual.” King responded by saying, we cannot and we will not wait for justice and freedom and rights we are entitled to under the Constitution.
We are Not Satisified with the Status Quo
That same spirit of discontent with the status quo and the unequal treatment of African- Americans under the law is what has birthed the national movement known as #BlackLivesMatter. This movement resulted from young people of color deciding that they could no longer tolerate the gross injustices within our systems and the high tolerance for police abuse and misconduct happening throughout the country. Much like protesters during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s, participants of #BlackLivesMatter, have stood on the front lines braving arrests, police violence, surveillance, chemical weapons, and hostility from those who are comfortable with the status quo. Yet, even in the face of such adversity, the young people have demonstrated remarkable courage to continue standing, marching, and fighting for our freedom. They are standing on the right side of history.
Here in Minnesota, young people came together under the banner of Minneapolis #BlackLivesMpls and began organizing events in solidarity with protesters around the country. In spite of Minnesota’s reputation as being “liberal and progressive,” our state has some of the worst racial disparities in the country across health, wealth, education, employment, infant mortality rates, home ownership, and criminal justice. And we are not immune from problems between police and communities of color, with some of our most racially diverse areas experiencing high rates of racial profiling, unjust arrests, and excessive force, with little political will to address these issues. It is a national embarrassment. Yet, rather than act with fierce urgency to reverse course; we remain in a state of “donothingness” as things grow worse for our most vulnerable populations.
Photo of Taye taken at Mall of America Demonstration
In light of these concerns, #BlackLivesMpls organized a nonviolent, peaceful demonstration at the Mall of America (MOA) in Bloomington, one of the most visible locations in the country. On December 20, 2014, 3,000 people from all walks of life descended upon MOA to sing, chant, and to remind the world that #BlackLivesMatter. Rather than welcome the demonstrators into MOA, we were met by police in riot gear. In spite of the demonstration being peaceful, roughly two dozen people were arrested, stores were shut down by mall security and police, and exits were sealed. What started as a demonstration of Dr. King’s vision of the “beloved community,” became a reminder of what Dr. King warned could destroy our nation: The triple giants of racism, militarism, and extreme materialism. All three of those giants were present that day at MOA and they set out to crush the spirits of “the little guy.”
Political Prosecutions as Retaliation
In the aftermath of the demonstration, the Bloomington City Attorney, Sandra Johnson, spoke to the media about wanting to “make an example” out of the protest organizers, and that she would not only bring criminal charges, but would seek “reparations” for the cost of overtime police and security. To the average person, Sandra Johnson’s misuse of prosecutorial discretion to “punish” protest organizers is disturbing, to say the least. Two days ago, she decided to charge ten “leaders” of the demonstration with misdemeanor counts ranging from disorderly conduct, to trespass, to public nuisance, and she is seeking tens of thousands of dollars in “reparations.” Much to my surprise, I was one of the ten people who were charged. Not only was I charged, despite being a civil rights lawyer, I was one of two people with the most charges, eight misdemeanor counts in fact. I can’t help but think that my outspokenness on issues such as police accountability and calls for reform played a role in Ms. Johnson’s decision to bring charges against me in an attempt to publicly humiliate me, to silence my voice, and to curb my advocacy for justice. Even my home address was included in the complaint, with no regard for the safety of my children and family in making such a public disclosure. This amounts to political persecution and is a gross misuse of prosecutorial discretion and a waste of taxpayer dollars. Thankfully, these intimidation tactics will not be effective in shutting down our movement. Our voices will only grow stronger in the process.
We are in a Metaphorical Jail
Although neither of the ten of us were charged physically went to jail for our alleged “crimes”, in many ways, it feels as though we are locked in a metaphorical jail for our willingness to stand up for justice and equality. I posit, the metaphorical ‘Bloomington Jail’ to which we have been sentenced is a microcosm of the condition of confinement in which African Americans are subjected to in the state of Minnesota and in many places around the country due to barriers at the intersections of race, criminal justice, and socio-economic status. We can’t breathe because of the persistence of racial inequality and oppression. We can’t breathe because of the constant denial of our basic human rights and human dignity. We can’t breathe when we are being told to just sit back and tolerate these deplorable conditions. We must decide that it is time to break free from our metaphorical Bloomington jail cells and demand equal justice and equal treatment under the law, just as Dr. King and others did during the Civil Rights Movement.
I applaud the young people across the country and in Minnesota who remain steadfast in declaring that #BlackLivesMatter and who refuse to give up. I urge them to continue the fight until our change comes. And the rest of us must join them. That’s what Dr. King would have wanted and that’s how we can really honor his legacy. All else is but a shallow, anemic celebration of his life.
Nekima Levy-Pounds is a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas Law School and the founding director of the Community Justice Project, a civil rights legal clinic. She is an expert on issues at the intersection of race, law, criminal justice, public education and public policy. Follow her on Twitter at @nvlevy.