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Students stop to chant in the street during a Black Lives Matter rally heading north on Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis on Friday, May 1, 2015. Star Tribune

Inside Black Lives Matter: The very hard job of becoming the traveling church of civil rights

At the edge of Elliot Park, a young black man with nubby dreads speaks through a worn bullhorn that hardly works. He does what everyone does when handed the bullhorn — say a word or two, talk louder, shake it like a Nintendo cartridge, then keep yelling.

People hold up camera phones as if they’re at a concert, inching toward him.

On this morning, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced his decision to not prosecute two police officers involved in the shooting of Jamar Clark.

“We thought this would happen,” the man says. “We will never be stopped. We will never be silenced. Never be silenced!” The crowd patters with light applause.

“This doesn’t mean the war is over,” he says. “Victory is still ours. You gotta know that.”

The applause ratchets up with whoops and hollers as the man speaks of patience, perseverance, and faith, repeating the line, “You gotta know that,” sometimes emphatically, other times softly.

BLM addresses group

BLM addresses group Susan Du

Others jump on the bullhorn. It’s hard to hear them from where I stand, 30 yards away. Then a middle-aged black man in front of me yells out: “No, we need justice now!”

He’s struck a momentary tone of desperation.

At most Black Lives Matter Minneapolis events, the tone has been consistently strong-willed, celebratory, and forward-looking, as it was at Elliot Park before this outburst. Poetry is recited, songs sung, all with the sentiment of commitment and faith, unwavering resolve.

Now the crowd stares at the man. No one says anything. “We need it now, not later!” he yells again.

Everyone continues to stare. After a beat, another chant crops up. “No justice, no peace. Prosecute the police.”

Black Lives’ principal message is a belief in racial harmony. But it’s easier said than done. This is a revolution for which there is no playbook.

The notion of creating something that can be reasonably called racial tranquility can seem naively ideal. This utopia, this heaven on earth, is a far-off place, hard to imagine.

But these people believe. They’ve become the Traveling Church of Civil Rights in Minneapolis, with preachers at the ready to lift and reorient the spirit of the black community.

All the pastor’s children

The cops are sparse at Elliot Park, holding positions at the far edges. A blond officer sits deeply reclined in the passenger seat of an SUV. He looks at me and says hello. Surprised, I stare back. He breaks out a huge smile and waves at me like I’m a child at Disneyland, a little too excited and scared to wave back to Minnie Mouse.

A few days before, during a protest at the Government Center, police stood idly at the far corners of the event, waving and saying hello to protesters as if they were patrolling the State Fair. This is a striking change.

In the past they came in greater numbers, equipped with special batons that could double for baseball bats. “Just the biggest batons I have ever seen,” says Black Lives organizer Yolanda Hare of the police presence at the group’s two-for--one Mall of America/-airport protest before last Christmas.

Then there was the Fourth Precinct occupation, where officers stood in formation, refusing to answer questions and poking protesters to get them to move. When five people were rushed to the hospital after being shot by suspected white supremacists, police hovered around those who stayed to pray.

Like a lot of black people, I’m instinctively afraid of the police. They’re armed. They can lock you up. Or worse.

But the feeling is really the same with all authority figures. I was always a little more afraid of sparking the ire of my principal or coach than my white friends.

We deal with this in different ways. Some respond with anger. Others with pragmatism, applying the bandage of debased obedience to get to another day unscathed.

Still others build a holy man’s calm that allows them to stroll through temptation, resolute in their self-worth and principles. These are the young who organize Black Lives Matter Minneapolis. They don’t feel small around the police or government officials. Unlike me.

At the attempted light rail shutdown in St. Paul during the Vikings home opener last fall, I broke off from the group. Officers eyeballed me, the closest to me flinching as I made my way from street to sidewalk. My arms instinctively spread, my hands open as I moved more deliberately.

I’ve never felt like a threat before. I’m a smaller guy, a light appetizer for a middle linebacker. I would never think of myself as a threat to the police. To the state. To a government. To my government.

Instead of trying to communicate this during this millisecond stand-off, I quickly assume the role of the outgunned threat, slinking away, happy to have my life the same it was before crossing paths. I didn’t go to the protests for a while after that.

Back in Elliot Park, the air is one of general chill. Gathered are black, white, and the not immediately ethnically recognizable. They are young and old, couples with neighborly smiles, American Spirit smokers, and those in military boots, tattoos, and dreads. Old white people clench fists so tightly that it’s hard not to imagine them 50 years ago, standing up against a war or rolling on a mud-soaked festival field on enough acid to tranquilize a small bear.

These are the followers of Black Lives Matter Minneapolis, the group unofficially led by Hare, Michael McDowell, and Kandace Montgomery. They present the vibe of youth-group leaders, smiley and inclusive, too young to be this unflappable.

If you were to sketch a stereotypical young black man, it would be McDowell — lanky, athletic looking, dark. He favors all--black clothing and wears big--rimmed glasses over soft eyes and a softer voice.

McDowell is one of the principal organizers of a group that knows no formal hierarchy. He darts about crowds with impish smiles and warm hugs, as if he’s a pastor’s son greeting everyone at a church potluck.

The events and speeches, to equip black people to fight off the urge to sit out the fight, end up feeling like sermons, each speaking to a specific circumstance or political reality, presented in parables.

Montgomery helps lead meetings. She moved from Maine to Minnesota to work as an organizer with TakeAction Minnesota, a group that pushes racial and economic equity. She’s more forceful than McDowell, with an ability to command a room and maintain focus instead of getting lost in the history and heft of black Americans.

They collectively work toward their objective. But how to go about getting it done, exactly, is a cause for tension.

An explosive example came near the end of a meeting at Zion Baptist Church in Minneapolis. The session was wrapping up when a woman declared a need to get rid of black leaders. They’ve been successful not because they champion the black community, she reasoned, but because they’ve calculated how to navigate a white world.

She dropped names, invoking a house Negro vibe. What Black Lives needed was a cleansing of such parasites.

Another woman jumped in to say that many black people are dealing with a lot already. A crusade to flush out heretics would not help. The conversation was passionate, back-and-forth, spawning mini-discussions.

The women were like clergy at the Council of Trent — gathered in agreement that there is a God, that there exists a time for racial serenity, but unsure of what the next steps are.

“The tension is what makes Black Lives Matter Minneapolis so beautiful,” says Montgomery. “We authentically wrestle with those things because of our commitment to black lives. We come up with much more creative solutions to our problems this way.”

Montgomery’s mother “kinda hates” this work. Her daughter is typically able to soothe her. Still, Montgomery was tested after the Fourth Precinct shooting, when she couldn’t get Mom off the phone with a simple “don’t worry.”

“It’s not easy work,” says Hare, a north Minneapolis native. Her black experience came with white parents, parents who disagree with Black Lives’ tactics. “They’ll say, ‘People hate you, you’re getting in the way of their commute, and that’s not gonna change people’s minds,’” says Hare.

She grew up very close to her parents, who spoke to her openly about dating, understood hair things, and supported her. Hare is resolved to have the patience to see someone — white or black — all the way through.

Montgomery admits the group is seen by many as aimless. The problem, she believes, is that there’s a message. It’s just not being heard.

But that message is not so succinct. In this era of Obama’s hope and Trump’s making America great again, the group has a singular point: “Black lives matter.”

Yet hope and greatness are both positive and positively vague. To believe that black lives matter, one must first get people to believe that those lives have been diminished, leading to police brutality and gaps in education and employment. It’s not an easy sell.

“Yeah, that’s right, you nigger”

Among the more serious conversations McDowell had with his mother growing up was how to interact with police.

“Don’t have your hands in your pockets,” she would warn. “Don’t wear a hoodie. Please don’t run.”

In high school, he lived in Lino Lakes while attending the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Arts. His walk to the bus was a mile each way, a gauntlet of verbally charged brutality.

“People would slow down and honk their horn and yell out, ‘Hey nigger.’” He would keep walking home.

Recently, in downtown Minneapolis, he was approached by an apparent homeless man, drunk and asking for cash.

“I’m sorry, sir, I don’t have any on me,” McDowell said.

“Well fuck you, nigger,” the beggar taunted. “You nigger. Yeah, that’s right, you nigger.”

McDowell took out his phone and began to record, asking the man to repeat himself. But even the homeless man had the wherewithal to veil his contempt.

“You have a nice day,” the beggar said to the camera. “Don’t get into any trouble.”

McDowell’s involvement in Black Lives was ultimately spurred by the case of Darren Wilson, the cop who shot Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

“I was pissed and I was hurt with everyone else when the Darren Wilson non-indictment came in and felt to my core the blatant disregard for black life,” he says. “I had a deep gut reaction to the trigger of it. I felt I had to act.”

McDowell, who’s prone to behaving both like a pastor’s kid and the guy who calls police “pigs” on the internet, periodically leads Black Lives meetings, but tends to defer to women.

In the patriarchy-flipping world of radical black activism, the women hold the cudgel. Montgomery is queer with braid-dreads and glasses that look like she’s had them since 10th grade. She commands the respect of any room she’s in.

She appreciates how women are very much in charge. “It’s great to recognize that women do most of the work in our homes and our movement, for that to be actually lifted up and to be honored,” she says.

They hold the same roles that black women have always held at home after church or at Thanksgiving dinner. They are quiet and reserved with everything in order. The men are left to do the mindless and physical.

At one meeting, two young guys got into a scuffle. They tangled in shoving grips before others calmly split them. The principal aggressor defended himself loudly, claiming the group needed to stop worrying about his actions and worry instead about the white people.

The rest of the room was entirely calm. Montgomery leaped to keep it that way. First, she instinctively blurted out the decision to move the meeting to a “new space,” then led the group through breathing exercises and jokes. Everyone eagerly moved past the tension.

“Center on what we are here for,” she said. “I know that is hard and might be a struggle for us. I have a feeling we can still get work done today.”

The female regulars seem to possess this extra layer of resolve. But they are still belittled by black men. One meeting was dedicated to misogyny and patriarchy. On cue, a man raised his hand to ask why the topic was women.

“What about Jamar Clark?” he asked. “We’re dying in the streets.”

A woman countered with a tale from the Fourth Precinct occupation after the shooting. She’d asked a group of men how they were feeling about general safety. But she was scolded for being weak, possibly for just speaking up, for asking a question and wanting answers from men.

The men carried on in conversation as though she wasn’t there.

Her tale was followed by others, noting how backward it was for men to fight for equality, yet so quickly, even pridefully, snap down on black women.

The guy listened to every word without interruption, said he felt he needed an explanation, and did little else but listen for the rest of the meeting.

The blackness of yah, sure, you betcha

Being black in Minnesota is about stomaching little things. It’s not so much sinister as it is a lack of familiarity.

The first memory I have of feeling sad because I’m black came at age 6. Another kid was being pushed on a swing by his older brother. I saddled up next to them and nodded hello.

The little boy looked at me and did a double-take. “Wait,” he said, looking up at his brother, “so that’s a nigger?”

The older brother, perhaps all of 9, knew something very inappropriate had been said. He shuffled his younger brother away while the smaller boy kept asking, “What? Is that a nigger or not?”

I walked to my mom, who shot me a what-the-hell-happened look. I didn’t tell her. The kid didn’t know what he was saying; he’d heard it somewhere. But that blatant unfamiliarity didn’t seem to change as the years went on.

I was recently in the customer service line at the Roseville Target. I’d bought a pair of khakis that I didn’t try on, which consequently didn’t fit at all. At the head of the line, a high school-age white girl was helping a black girl of similar age.

The white girl asked the black girl if she had a receipt. She did. The worker then asked if she had the card used to purchase the item. She didn’t.

The white girl suddenly raised her voice, as if announcing her predicament to the rest of the customer service section. “I’m sorry, I can’t help you.”

The black girl turned and panned the room. She calmly explained her situation, so quietly I couldn’t make it out.

Then came another burst from the white girl. “I’m sorry. Even if your mom did buy this and you have the same last name, I can’t give you cash and would need to get a manager or someone about store credit.”

The black girl took a step back. “Okay, I can get my mom. It’s not a big deal. I just thought I would ask.”

She walked away in silence.

Yes, working customer service in high school sucks. I remember being 16 and clocking in, knowing every moment would be the suckiest. So when I see a young, clearly disgruntled employee at a restaurant or department store, I get out of their way.

But I have no way of avoiding this girl. There are khakis in play.

I smile and begin with “Hey,” but the girl barks before another word can emerge from my mouth.

“You have your receipt, right?”

“Yeah.”

I hand her the receipt. She snatches it from my hand.

“Where’s your card?”

She doesn’t greet me. Her tone is resentful, as if she doesn’t believe I or the black girl can grasp the concept of returning purchases. I admit that I snapped back. “Of course,” I say, half-yelling.

She got quiet. I immediately felt bad. Is she just a cranky high schooler? She puts through my refund.

I pivot away and stop a few steps from the counter. A middle-age white woman follows me in line.

“Hey! How’s it going? What can I do for you?” the girl asks politely, as if greeting her aunt. They’re soon discussing the weather, and how the girl has enjoyed the unseasonable warmth.

On more occasions than I can count, I’ve been entirely ignored or curtly greeted at stores and restaurants, only to watch the same worker greet a white woman with enthusiasm. Servers will address me plainly, almost resentfully. Then, as I stand three feet away, they’ll greet a white man with a huge smile and a “Welcome to whatever!”

I combat this by hiding my blackness. I smile, ear to ear, like a moron, making nonstop eye contact with waiters and administrators so as to not seem threatening.

I get it. When a white person sees me coming, I am an exception. They imagine exceptional things — usually bad things -— will accompany my presence.

That Target girl was exasperated by the prospect of having to talk through transactions with two consecutive black people. The sight of the white lady was a clear relief to her.

No whites allowed

I trail behind McDowell as we walk into a meeting. Behind us is an unmistakably white woman heading our way. Black Lives Minneapolis meetings are for people of color only.

I freeze, admittedly horrified by the specter of turning away a sympathetic white person. McDowell holds the door open for me, but blocks the woman’s entrance. He politely asks her why she is entering. She’s here to attend the meeting, she says.

McDowell informs her that it’s people of color only. The woman says she’s with a sympathetic organization. McDowell softens his feathery voice to explain that no one who identifies as white is permitted.

I don’t quite hear the end of it, or what she says as she leaves, because I am looking down, wish--praying that this doesn’t become a thing.

McDowell watches her leave, the discomfort clear. He doesn’t look at me and we say nothing.

Though we are black, we are Minnesotan.

Inside, a black man walks in with what looks to be a white woman. Her skin is alabaster, but her hair and eyes are dark. Maybe she’s Native American?

She follows her boyfriend to a seat. The assembly’s eyes dart in her direction, at once filing through our biases and throwing them overboard. No one says anything.

McDowell begins the meeting with a warm welcome.

“I love being with you guys. This is my favorite part of the month,” he says. Everyone looks at the white woman. Still, no one says anything. The meeting goes on.

Halfway through, a black woman rather abruptly stands up and pronounces: This is a people-of-color space only, so we invite anyone who doesn’t identify as a person of color to leave.

The room falls silent and still. No one looks at anyone. Finally, the woman reaches for her coat and her boyfriend stands. The room exhales. She is white after all.

I fully understand the irony: A group based on inclusion is excluding people because of their skin.

But it’s awesome. I have never felt so good as a black person.

There’s food and fellowship. We talk about black stuff in the blackest way, leaving our black filter at the door.

White judgment, because it’s seemingly everywhere, is this storm cloud in black people’s minds. By contrast, this is like the blackest, happiest Christmas. It’s a clean hit of unburdened existence.

“It’s one of the most liberating experiences of my life,” says McDowell. “The Black Lives Matter movement is very much centered around loving your blackness and loving yourself in the face of all of this oppression. Healing too.... It’s very beautiful to be a part of it. I feel very empowered, also very grateful and humble.”

For the win

Like a bunch of black Joseph Nicollets, Black Lives is composed of cartographers hoping to find a New World. Sure, civil rights work has plenty of precedence. There are aspects of the centuries-long fight that remain the same. But much has also changed.

I hear far more blacks express qualms with tactics than whites. My brother, for example. He believes the message is getting lost in the weeds. The protests have left people talking about how much it sucked to be stuck in traffic, to shop during the holidays, to fly to see loved ones at Christmas. Instead of associating protests with the plight of the black community, the immediate association is one of brashness, inconvenience, petulance.

The group is in a tough spot. If they believe black men can be killed without punishment, should they stop to think about inconveniencing shoppers or the precise etiquette of MLK/Gandhi disobedience?

The means should be, in the words of Dr. King, “as pure as the ends.” But when the end is staying alive, it can outweigh thinking through how pure the means are.

Standing in the middle of the State Fair may not be as sophisticated as boycotting buses in Montgomery, but it is civil disobedience. It’s also a little rough around the edges.

Perhaps that’s why the White House recently received a petition, signed by 100,000 people, asking the president to declare Black Lives a “terrorist group.” It’s a fool’s assertion, of course. The group neither advocates violence, nor has it been officially charged with any violent acts. But such is the country’s racial divide that blocking a freeway or occupying a mall can be viewed on par with ISIS.

Moreover, these tactics have brought success. Hennepin County will no longer use grand juries in police shootings, since they rarely go against the officer, no matter the circumstances. Gov. Mark Dayton vowed to veto a bill to reopen a private prison in Appleton after activists claimed it would further the mass incarceration of black people.

Minnesota is also putting $100 million toward economic and education programs to shrink racial disparities. All come with at least a partial nod to Black Lives Matter.

During a panel hosted by Minneapolis Councilwoman Alondra Cano, Black Lives activist Adja Gildersleve accepted the microphone with a sly, truant smile.

“I was just in the suburbs,” she said, “and it was so weird to walk in the suburbs, seeing white folks just living their lives all happy. Like, everything is normal for them. I’m like, ‘What the heck?’ Because, as a black person in this movement, I’m gonna be real, I face a lot of depression.

“There’s a lot of work. It’s not fun for me to be out on the line, shutting down highways. Shutting down the airport. Shutting down the Mall of America. Having cops brutalize us as we do this to fight for our lives. Like, that is not fun. It’s a lot of trauma that we have to go through to fight for what we believe in, which is our lives.

“It will ultimately affect everyone’s life. When we fight for liberation, it’s going to be everyone’s liberation.”