Photo: Victoria Pickering/Flickr

Community activists serve as protectors of local businesses and fellow protesters. Ava DeSantis writes that ongoing police violence demonstrates why this community protection may be preferable to a police presence, as activists argue.

George Floyd grew up in Houston, Texas, in an area of the city called “the Third Ward.” The Third Ward was home to gang violence and extreme poverty. Floyd was an athlete, who was recruited by South Florida State College to play basketball from 1993 to 1995. After being arrested for theft and drug possession, Floyd became involved in Resurrection Houston, his local ministry. As Floyd’s friend Ronnie Lillard explains “While he was embracing his own life change, he was looking around at his community.” 

As an activist, Floyd spoke out about gun violence in his community. He was arrested again on May 25th, 2020, for attempting to buy cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. The arresting officers murdered George Floyd outside the store where he was arrested. 

After watching video footage of George Floyd pinned to the ground, handcuffed, and calmly suffocated for eight minutes by a Minneapolis Police Department Officer, many Americans question the notion that the police exist to ‘protect and serve,’ as their slogan promises. Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd,  has called for the arrest of the officers involved in his brother’s death. He also spoke about the protests, saying “I understand and I see why a lot of people are doing a lot of different things around the world. I don’t want them to lash out like that, but I can’t stop people right now. Because they have pain. They have the same pain that I feel. I want everything to be peaceful, but I can’t make everybody peaceful.”

Community activists protect local businesses and protestors

75 American cities have held protests responding to George Floyd’s murder and police violence in their own communities. In Minneapolis, community activists mourn the loss of George Floyd, while serving as protectors of local businesses and fellow activists. For example, a small business owner in Minneapolis, Tomme Beevas, turned his restaurant into “something like a Fort Knox fortress”  to remain open and feed protestors, who have participated in direct actions for the 6th night in a row. 250 volunteers now guard the black-owned restaurant, because as Beevas said: “We know that the police will not be there to protect us.”

The community protection of local businesses and protestors suggests that there is a viable alternative to policing. While the Minneapolis police threaten and attack black protestors and allies, community activists guard local businesses and infrastructure and provide food and aid to protestors. The protection the community has provided, contrasted with the escalations perpetrated by the Minneapolis Police Department, cast activists demands to defund the police department in a favourable light. As the official Black Lives Matter movement website explains, “for Black people, law enforcement doesn’t protect or save our lives. They often threaten and take them.” 

Failure of violence to address the concerns 

Two police cars in Brooklyn, NY, were driven into a crowd of peaceful protestors. In Atlanta, GA, police officers forcibly removed two unarmed black citizens from a car and fired Tasers at them. In Minneapolis, officers, alongside the National Guard, drove through a residential neighbourhood shooting paint canisters at citizens who were not inside their homes. This violence fails to address the concerns of activists, protect, or serve any American community. 

While police continue to attack unarmed citizens, community organizers are doing their best to protect their fellow citizens from police violence. They are providing protestors with water and milk to prevent the worst symptoms they have from tear gas irritation, and they are also protecting local businesses. 

In Minneapolis, the American Indian Movement Patrol (AIM), a community organization originally formed to protect Native American Minnesotans from extrajudicial police violence, was given permission by Mayor Jacob Frey to protect Native land during the protests, due to the failure of first responders to aid the community. 

Victoria Pickering/Flickr

AIM members now independently protect community businesses and housing after curfew. Frank Paro, co-director of AIM, told The Intercept “[The violence] is the result of the Minneapolis police murdering that young man.” 

A representative of the ACLU spoke about these efforts to the Minneapolis StarTribune, explaining “At the end of us making sure that we’re standing up against the senseless, reckless and inhumane taking of our brother’s life, we still want to make sure that our grandmas, our aunties, our uncles, our nephews are gonna have banks to go to, grocery stores to go inside of and shop, and we’ve noticed is a very well-orchestrated, well-coordinated intentional attack against black businesses and we made a determination that we will no longer allow these insidious rubes to come into our community.”

Minneapolis organizers also work to clean graffiti from and sweep water out of damaged local businesses. 

Simultaneously, the National Guard, deployed in the city, has driven through residential neighbourhoods in tanks and other military equipment, shouting “Light ‘em up!” and firing paint canisters at residents.

What do activists want?

Asked by a TIME Magazine reporter why he was protesting, a Minneapolis activist named Marjaan Sirdar said: “What I’m pushing for is the dismantling of the police department.” This demand is similar to the stated purpose of an activist group called Reclaim the Block, which is currently circulating a petition calling for the Minneapolis City Council to “vote for a $45 million cut from MDP’s budget as the City responds to projected COVID-19 shortfalls” among other demands. 

These demands seem increasingly viable in the wake of Minneapolis’s community response to the violence in their city. Black Lives Matter protestors across the country demand justice for police violence against the African American community. AIM and other community groups in Minneapolis demonstrate that there are alternative ways to protect and serve minority communities in America.

The implication of community members taking it upon themselves to protect protestors and local businesses is clear: distrust for the police runs deep. And the police responding to these protestors with tear gas, rubber bullets, and attempts to run them over with precinct vehicles further illustrates why this distrust is warranted. Activists want to free their communities of a police presence, and Minnesotans are currently demonstrating that community activism can serve as a safer alternative to policing.

Ava DeSantis is Gen Z Voice at The Pavlovic Today. She has a background in political science and history at George Washington University.    

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