Even as it reels from the continuing trial of Derek Chauvin, Minneapolis is again mourning the death of a Black man killed by the police. On Sunday, a 20-year-old father, Daunte Wright, was pulled over in Brooklyn Center, a suburb of the city. When police reportedly tried to arrest him for an outstanding warrant, he sought to reenter his vehicle. One of the officers, Kim Potter, shouted “Taser, Taser, Taser!” and then fired one round into Wright’s body. The officer has since resigned and will be charged with manslaughter.
In Brooklyn Center, the National Guard was deployed, businesses were boarded up within hours, and protesters have maintained a steady presence outside of the Brooklyn Center Police Department. To understand what’s happening on the ground, I called Toussaint Morrison, a prominent organizer in the area who has been helping lead marches in the Twin Cities. We spoke about why this time feels different, whether or not people believe the officer made a mistake, and what short- and long-term goals he and other protesters have in the wake of Wright’s killing.
Aymann Ismail: What is happening in Brooklyn Center right now?
Toussaint Morrison: The energy outside of the Brooklyn Center Police Department is high. I was down there, and it is people absolutely fed up. I can’t speak for everybody, but I will say we were all promised justice for George. And before we can even see justice for him, they add another name to the docket. Whatever energy people were preserving for whatever verdict was going to come out of the Derek Chauvin trial, it feels like that has been redirected toward the Brooklyn Center Police Department. Righteously.
What have you seen so far, and what are you expecting?
Two nights ago, I saw community members laying on the ground, crying. Sobbing loudly. I had to help a friend of Daunte’s write in chalk, “I love you, brother.” Because he was inconsolable. He couldn’t even gather himself to do it. People were still coming to terms with the fact that Daunte Wright had been snatched right out of existence, which for anybody that has gone through trauma, you know that it hits you in waves. And so that was my experience two nights ago. Last night at the vigil, it was the family still processing the loss and the public execution. You want to get a picture for what was on the ground yesterday? It was the entire area gathering hours after the Brooklyn Center Police Department had raised the blue line flag. Now if that doesn’t illustrate to you how this is going down—
Tim Gannon, the police chief, and Kim Potter just resigned. In a sense, they had to. Otherwise, I imagine if somebody were to kill somebody, and then raise a flag that solidifies their righteousness or their belief in that that life deserved to die, that’s really—when you saw the blue line flag and the fences outside the precinct, you knew that they knew they had fucked up. They know what they did. And they’re trying to double down. The whole thing fell apart real quick. That was less than 48 hours. Think about it right now. Today is Tuesday. In about 17 minutes, it will have been exactly 48 hours since Daunte Wright was murdered by the Brooklyn Center Police Department. [Editor’s note: Potter has since been charged with manslaughter.] It felt like two weeks in the past two days.
You’ve been organizing since the death of George Floyd. If you think that the last two days felt like two weeks, how does all your protesting and organizing add up?
I can’t say it doesn’t feel like it’s for nothing. Honestly, it just feels like it’s preparing us for the long haul. That’s what the work has felt like. The fact that these families will never see ultimate justice—they can’t get their people back. Daunte can’t be resurrected.
I expect it must feel a little bit like déjà vu.
But it happens in different ways. It is not the same as George Floyd. People boarded up their buildings within less than 12 hours after Daunte was killed. There’s three Humvees at a Speedway right now. So the city has an understanding of its complicity in the public execution of its own citizens. On the other end of it, the citizens of the city see what is going on. We see what’s happening now. It’s like, “This happened. And now we know what to do.” The original fist that went up in George Floyd Square got taken down because of winter. And then they put up a metal one. That same fist, the original one, got put up where Daunte was killed. We’re ready. We know what to do. We know how to heal. We know how to protest. We know how to mobilize. We know how to organize. We sure as hell know how to call a press conference. And so what the city has done is shown itself. In response, we’ve shown the city what we want going forward. And if they can’t meet the will of the people, then it’s going to continue to see the resignation of its long-standing officers. That’s going to change and evolve the culture of the area.
Is there something particularly wrong in Minneapolis?
What’s wrong with Minneapolis is the complete dismissal of its own problems and deeply embedded racism. There is victory and there is progress to be had with white spaces and white community members that are willing to talk about race, but in a predominantly white state, city, and community that refuses to talk about its racial issues, not only can there be no progress, there’s resistance to keep the comfort. In New Jersey, they have the saying: “Only the strong survive.” In Minnesota, only the passive survive. People do not talk about race here. And the more you don’t talk about race, the more electable you are. The inherent problem with Minnesota is the fact that the community perceives itself as nice and welcoming, when really it has one of the longest, deep-seated histories of racism. This is where sundown towns started. A sundown town is where the sun goes down and you’re not white, you go home—otherwise there’s going to be hell to pay. That started here. That’s what this is.
There were a couple of national protests—I saw one in D.C. and another in New York—but so far, it’s been relatively quiet compared to the national outpouring that we saw after the loss of George Floyd. Is that frustrating for you? Or do you think this movement is working in other ways?
That’s not frustrating for me. To see a human be choked out for eight minutes and however many seconds on that tape, that will evoke a different emotion than it will just to see bodycam footage and something happen so quick. The narrative is everything. And what people saw in George Floyd was unfortunately a slow, torturous, horrific public execution. He even had last words. With Daunte—the nature of the two, to me, are the same, but the way that they happened are not. It was swift. For Daunte, the community response has been boots on the ground, and pretty much everybody’s been in solidarity on this. There’s really no confusion here in Minnesota, but it’ll bring out different reactions. And I think everybody’s still dealing with George Floyd and paying attention to the trial. There’s a lot going on.
On the trial, do you think this will have any impact?
It won’t. Chauvin’s lawyer tried to sequester the jury, but the judge seems to be a keep-it-moving type of judge from what I’ve heard.
The Brooklyn Center police have said Wright was accidentally shot and that the officer thought she had her Taser. How has that been received there?
She was on the force longer than Daunte was alive. So I don’t know how you mistake one for the other. But let’s go back even further. Let’s say she actually thought it was a Taser. Let’s, in some freakish, strange, upside-down, Stranger Things world—let’s give her the benefit of the doubt. Why is she grabbing for that anyway? You’re out in suburban Minnesota. You’ll catch this man if you need to find him. There’s really nowhere to go. You got the license plates. The question is why did she feel the need to go for any weapon. For air fresheners? Why is that even the move? Regardless of what we think if it’s an accident or not, she shouldn’t have had her hand on anything, and you can see the look on the Black officer’s face afterwards in the bodycam. Like, “What the fuck are you doing?” I want to know what he thinks, without the protection of the blue line. So, no, I don’t believe her. I don’t think it was an accident. She’s a 26-year veteran who can’t tell the difference between a Taser and a gun? Then they shouldn’t be a police officer. She surely has no business being the president of the police union in Brooklyn Center either.
Some people who would give the officer the benefit of the doubt might believe that this had more to do with poor training than systemic racism. In your view, are there differences between the two? Is there a line between poor training and systemic racism?
I think that there’s a line between poor training and systemic racism. The racism of white folks is not going to be extracted from them or educated out of them through police training. Kim’s racism and Tim Gannon’s racism is not something that can be trained out of them within the walls of a police department. If anything, the question is how much is anti-Blackness amplified by being a cop? We can get to eradicating racism later, but you have to get to eradicating anti-Blackness and white supremacy within the walls of the police department first. Then get to the next level of work. Nobody can be inside of Kim’s mind and figure out what she was thinking or what she was doing, but do you believe that Kim’s potential racism has something to do with her pulling a gun on a Black boy? I’d say yeah. But then I’d go further and say, if that was a white kid stepping out of a car, would she have done that? I don’t feel that she would have. I really don’t think so.
On the first night of the protests, there were reports of looting and objects being thrown at the police. And that’s how the police justified using tear gas and rubber bullets. Has that tempered down now, or do you expect more of that? Have you heard from any local shop owners?
Well, I’m sitting in a coffee shop right now that had two windows broken. And there’s nothing on my end that I’ve seen or heard of where people are like, “Oh, no, the whole business has been taken, we can’t get it back.” Speedway’s got Humvees outside of them, National Guard’s here. Whatever destruction or vandalism that’s occurred, it’s just amplified window breaking. To call it “looting” is asinine to me. There was a Foot Locker and something else that got broken into. Nobody’s coming for gold. If anything, to me, we’re kind of used to this now, right? So George Floyd happened, destruction happens. Black gentleman downtown killed himself, people initially thought it was the cops, destruction happens. Dolal Idd, destruction happened. Daunte Wright, some destruction happens. You can draw a line between it. You can say some people just want to break something. And they do it anyway—they don’t need police brutality to do it. Windows get broken around the city all the time. Seats on bicycles get stolen all the time. It is what it is. But to highlight what’s happening here, to highlight any window breaking, it simply takes away from the fact that Daunte Wright was snatched right out of existence. His life was snuffed out. If people want to highlight the windows breaking or the “looting,” I challenge that. I challenge them with the question of, is that more important than the life of Daunte Wright getting stomped out by Kim Potter? People can ask that for themselves.
It’s decreased, though. It’s not crazy here. Some people are like, “Oh, it’s Wild West out in uptown.” And I’m like, “OK. No, it’s not.” Because I can remember the Wild West. It was a little less than a year ago.
What are the short-term goals for the protesters on the ground right now? What do they want to see? And what do you think will be a sign that things are moving in the right direction?
Step one was resignation. Step two is going to be charges. You got to have charges. [Ed. note: Potter was arrested and charged on Wednesday.] Here’s a strange thing. George Floyd was killed on a Monday. You saw the week amplify up into the weekend. You have to do something before the weekend hits, and everybody has time on their hands. Whereas in the midst of COVID you had a lot of people with a lot of time on their hands because everything’s closed. So these charges got to get brought, and after that, it’s up to the people.
What about long-term goals?
End qualified immunity. That’s the first step, and ending the statute of limitations. After that, we can talk about personal liability insurance. Those are the top three for me. Some folks are like, “Abolition now!” And I’m like, all right, cool. We can get there. But you ain’t going to get it all in one fell swoop. That just ain’t going to happen.
The police reform in Minnesota bills are again stalled. The governor has again pushed for them, but what do you think will it take for the police reform bill to pass?
I’ll tell you what I hope it doesn’t take, and that’s the life of another Black man. I don’t think this should take any more Black lives for this to get pushed through. What I think it’s going to take is, unfortunately for elected officials, it usually takes the livelihood or their careers. They usually push things when their jobs are on the line. And so it’s not necessarily for the people, it’s for their careers. So I know that a lot of politicians’—especially old white male politicians’—careers are on the line, and they’re going to push to keep their jobs. These are all things that Tim Walz could have done years ago. It didn’t take all this. It shouldn’t have taken all this. These are moves that he could have made before. These people only push it as far as the livelihood of their career and the health of their career. I hope that it doesn’t cost any more lives for it to be considered and pushed forward.
For more on the push for police reform in Minnesota, listen to this episode of A Word … With Jason Johnson.