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Amir Locke reminds us we cannot tire; we must continue to strive for a just society

Our community will have to be broken like a bone before we can heal, build new muscle memory and range of motion, and experience the awkward stiffness of doing things differently; equitably.

Students participating in a walkout demanding justice for Amir Locke on February 8 in St. Paul.
Students participating in a walkout demanding justice for Amir Locke on February 8 in St. Paul.

I moved to Minnesota knowing the state had a long record of police killings of Black men. Daunte Wright. George Floyd. Philando Castile. And so many more. Therefore, Amir Locke’s killing should not have come as a surprise. Yet it did.

I know that excessive force and racial bias are embedded throughout the justice system. After all, 56 Black men and 37 Native, Hispanic, and Asian Americans have died at the hands of Minnesotan police officers since 2000 — and this does not include the 119 white men and women. My surprise is due to the ineptitude to learn and change as a result of the previous deaths, and the inability to respond to desperate and pragmatic pleas for practices and procedures that prevent loss of life. Even though we have long known about the dangers of no-knock warrants, a SWAT team officer shot and killed a young man trying to catch a bit of sleep in the early morning hours just nine seconds after encountering him.

It is a volatile time in my new home state. It mirrors the temperamental nature of our country. We are all still reeling from the racial reckoning that shook our entire country in the summer of2020. We can no longer hide from the truth because the ways of the world are different. The global pandemic changed the pace of our life, forcing us to pay attention to atrocities like George Floyd’s murder with more deliberation. Handheld and body cameras graphically document the raw and real moments of excessive force and killings. These two factors impel us to personalize the realities of racism, just as televised feeds of the civil rights movement brought seething dogs, swinging billy clubs, and high-pressure water hoses into our living rooms — up-close and undeniable.

Those who have studied history know that after a period of racial embarrassment like George Floyd’s death, a patch of obligatory quiescence and public denouncements occurs. It is when many Americans quiet while their fellow citizens who are Black, Indigenous, people of color or white allies mourn. Then comes slight progress, quickly followed by blowback. People get tired of being somber and begin to defame the victim by digging up personal flaws that distract us from the systemic causes of the event. They bore of their guilt from complicit complacency because it is burdensome, uncomfortable, and exacting. Changes are proposed, yet action is limited. Talk is plentiful, yet commitments wane as people fatigue from the personal work required to enact durable transformation.

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And Amir Locke’s senseless death, a heartbreaking error, reminds us again that the problem of police killings of innocent lives still exists — incensed and bubbling — and the efforts to address it have so far proven futile. We have a choice — we can follow the same patterns that aren’t working for us, or we can make radical change. We cannot tire. Our work must start with purposeful commitments to a just society that will take decades to accomplish while simultaneously undoing decades of the racialized policies embedded in the threads of America’s fabric.

I moved here from Detroit to become president of the McKnight Foundation because I felt a calling to join the movement for social justice and inclusive economics from the place at the epicenter of our nation’s pain. The emotions coursing in the Twin Cities remind me of my hometown of Detroit immediately after the Great Recession. We thought it could not get worse, yet it did. Detroit had to break before it could experience a renaissance and begin to recover.

Tonya Allen
Tonya Allen
It’s possible Minnesota will need to break too. Our collective pain may get worse before it gets better. Light only arrives after darkness, peace after pain, and bounty after sowing. Our community will have to be broken like a bone before we can heal, build new muscle memory and range of motion, and experience the awkward stiffness of doing things differently; equitably.

Even amid pain and uncertainty, our community must lift out of the abyss and focus on designing the future, because we cannot afford to wait to co-create the society we all deserve. This future must go beyond the narrow question of whether a Black man can sleep on a friend’s couch without fear of being killed. This future must make available safe, affordable housing and jobs with living wages in healthy conditions, relish the democratic participation of everyone, and ensure all can enjoy the benefits of a thriving and sustainable economy and realize their aspirations.

The nation’s eyes are on Minnesota — eyes brimming with incredulity, hurt, and uncertainty. This is a time when CEOs, civic leaders and residents can unify their voices and efforts to demand, architect, and marshal this more equitable future. If we do the hard, uncomfortable work now, then hopefully, all eyes will be on Minnesota as we imagine, change, enact and lead the country toward justice; eyes shining with wonder, possibility, and American promise.

Tonya Allen is the president of the McKnight Foundation and serves as co-chair for the Executives’ Alliance for Boys and Men of Color.