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‘We didn’t know it was like this’: Five Minnesotans on what it’s like to be Black in the state — before and after the killing of George Floyd

A year after Floyd’s death, the five share — in their own words — their experiences. What has changed. And what hasn’t. 

George Floyd Square, photographed on Sunday, May 23, 2021.
George Floyd Square, photographed on Sunday, May 23, 2021.

On May 25, 2020 — a year ago today — George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police. Floyd suffocated under the knee of former officer Derek Chauvin as three other officers stood by. One bystander filmed the death — and shared it for the world to see. 

That footage, showing each minute that Chauvin’s knee was pinned against Floyd, led to protests that seized streets and unrest that burned businesses. Derek Chauvin and the other officers at the scene were fired and arrested. And in April, Chauvin was found guilty of unintentional second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the killing of George Floyd. Chauvin now faces up to 40 years in prison.

Yet that extraordinary series of events, played out over the last year, started with an ordinary one: a Black man living life in Minnesota, headed to the corner store. 

A year after Floyd’s death, MinnPost asked five Black Minnesotans to share — in their own words — the experience of living in the state, before and after the killing: what has changed and what hasn’t; the extraordinary and, more important, the ordinary; the kind of things that might be on their minds as they head to the corner store.

 

Lee Henry Jordan

Lee Henry Jordan
Filmmaker, 64. Born in Los Angeles, raised in Allenville, Arizona.
Moved to Minneapolis in 1976.

 

The foundation I stand on is the legacy that has been handed down to me by my parents, my grandparents. I realize that I am the fifth, maybe sixth generation in my family removed from slavery. It puts it in perspective. I know, me walking around as free as I am, at one point in time, someone in my family did not have that same freedom. I step out for those who couldn’t, I’m in these places for those who couldn’t. You can look at me if you want to. But I got news for ya; I ain’t going nowhere. And that comes from the ancestors. It is how I get up every morning and do the things I need to.

***

I’ve had at least three incarnations; from colored to negro to Black and now African American. So, like, four. And yet, somehow, still holding on to everything that I am, and at the same time learning more about who I am.

***

Now we actually have that opportunity with the freedom to be able to walk into spaces that we normally weren’t able to walk in before. And then when you get there, sometimes we forget about the ancestors, and that there might be some energy that’s still in that space. And they haven’t had a chance to connect with someone until someone like them shows up. That’s the reason I go to these spaces because I need to actually connect with that energy and find out the next steps of what I need to do. Because whatever it is, they got it to this point and were stopped. So now they can maybe connect with someone and take it a little further. It’s my responsibility because I am the legacy they left behind, the blood that they left behind, the soul that they left behind. In my mind, it’s up to us to connect to that and to take that energy and move it forward.

***

I’m definitely a Minnesotan, no matter where I visit. I was sitting at a table and I heard someone saying “Ya, ya,” and I looked around and I thought to myself, “Now, who?” and I realized it was me. There is something that kind of turns when you are in a space for a long time. Unless you are set and sure, you can kind of lose yourself. That’s an important part of who you are [as a Black person], of being able to hold on to a legacy that is ours. In order to do that, sometimes you have to go into dark places.

***

I have a friend of mine from Canada and he calls me his ‘American friend.’ I thought to myself, “That’s how he sees me.” But, around here, I don’t quite get that. That’s why it’s important for things like Juneteenth and Rondo Days. To, first of all, pay homage and honor to the ancestors and the legacy that we have. So when you join us in these Black spaces, if you feel uncomfortable, then I’m sorry. Then maybe you should come back later. Because we need to actually enjoy the space that we’re in. … I’m a firm believer that the energy in a place, if you are not connected to it, you might not be able to understand it. But if you have the blood of the ancestors in you and that energy speaks to you, listen. 

***

We all need to stay woke. This is a turning point, not only for our culture but for America, period. 

***

In order for us to get there [racial harmony] requires every single step towards that goal. [If Chauvin is lightly punished or walks] to me, it can’t be seen as a step backward. Maybe a step standing still for a minute. And standing still for a moment, because you just got hit with something. All of a sudden you realize that, once again, a part of this hatred, as far as I’m concerned, and lack of empathy and concern and all the other compassionate words that we would use to be human, they are not always in everyone that we see. But you do your best to gather yourself around the people that match those emotions and those feelings and that power so that you can go, “I feel safe today. We’ll worry about tomorrow, tomorrow. But I feel safe today.”

***

To borrow something from the Scriptures: Why cast your pearls before swine? Why give the most precious thing that you own, which is your time and your dignity, to somebody that, you know, is not going to do any good whatsoever. There is a process you have to learn to survive stepping out your door.”

***

To me, yes, there has been a change [since Floyd was killed]. Yet, the biggest room there is, as we all know, is room for improvement.

***

There is a change that is in the air and enough of us that know, enough of us who are woke — and I do love that term. I’m a woke Negro. Not just a Black man, a woke Negro because that’s what it says on my birth certificate. So that’s how long I’ve been woke. It says “Negro” on my birth certificate. It was the time. I am pleased with that fact because I know how far I’ve come.

 

Toshira Garraway

Toshira Garraway
Founder, Families Supporting Families Against Police Violence.
Born in Chicago. Moved to the Twin Cities at age 16.

 

I never experienced racism until I moved here. There are some nice things. It’s hidden, and you don’t notice it. I think white people who aren’t racist, unless their family is point-blank with it, it’s really hidden here in Minnesota. It’s hidden but still very violent. There is a lot of hurt that’s happened in the community to minorities. Black people are the top of the list for brutalization but it still happens to Natives and Asian people here. It’s really hurtful because we’re human beings, too. My father moved us here thinking that it was a better life. We didn’t know that it was like this.

***

Minnesota has really shown me how harsh human beings can be. Like I said, it’s hidden. I’ve met some of the best people in the world. But I’ve seen some of the harsh things, primarily from the police. I don’t know when it’s going to stop or what it’s going to take to stop it. But it has to stop. We can’t keep allowing people to be evil like this.

***

When you walk into restaurants around here, you can feel it. I was in a restaurant in Edina and I could feel the two women sitting next to me. My date, he felt it. We didn’t say a word to them. They didn’t say a word. But I could feel it. I was having a great time with him. … But it was something I could feel. … Later we talked about how they were just glaring at us. … I will be honest and say also, the love is strong also. There are certain white people who see it, too, and know that it’s wrong. They know that racism and police brutality is wrong, they are not asleep, they are awakened, and they are standing up for human life. There is some hate out there you can feel. But I’ve also felt a lot of love from white people here as well.

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I would say the change is that I feel that more people’s eyes are open to the truth. Prior to George Floyd, some people turned a blind eye to what was happening with police murders. I feel there were some people who clearly didn’t know because the system has been so strategic in keeping the murders covered up as much as they could. … There have been almost 500 murders in the last 20 years. Five-hundred bodies. And yet, people don’t know the almost 500 names. It’s not just the police. They have a system behind them that helps them cover up murders of Black and Indigenous people here in the state of Minnesota. George Floyd is just the face of that. But just like George Floyd is the face of many bodies, Derek Chauvin is the face of the many more police out there that have killed people. 

***

We live in the Twin Cities. It’s not that big of a place. Everybody knows everybody. That means that these officers are among us …. I know people were not hearing me or understanding what I was saying when I was going around, nine, 10 years ago saying, ‘Hey, the police are killing people.’ But they didn’t get a chance to see it. Now, with George Floyd, since they saw it with their own eyes, I don’t have to explain as much. I still have to explain because they only truly have seen George Floyd. A lot of people still minimize the severity of what’s really going on because they didn’t see the rest of the murders.

 

Ken Scott

Ken Scott
Engineer, 53. Originally from Alabama.
Moved to Minneapolis 17 years ago for work.

 

I live on the lake (Bde Maka Ska). I like to walk around and talk to people. Some can be really rude to you or act like you are completely invisible. The way I perceive it is, I feel tremendous sadness for them. It takes energy to pretend someone is not there. It takes energy to focus on the incorrect answer to someone to say something rude. It takes a lot of work to do that. So I feel sad for them in the sense of how they are destroying their existence, their soul, their spirit, their freeness. When you walk past me and say, “Hey, how are you?” and I say, “Hey, how are you?” that’s easy. That’s free. That’s how your body flows. For me to say, “Hey, how ya doin?” then you make a decision as to what you are going to say to me based on what you’re looking at, that takes work.

***

I’m sitting in my middle seat [on a flight from California to Minneapolis]. This group of women was coming back from some trip together to Minnesota. I said, “Do you want to sit together?” They say, “No, no,” and she sits on the aisle seat, another sits on the window seat and I’m in the middle. This is kind of weird, you were on this trip together, just sit next to each other. But, whatever. So she then says, “Yeah, we’ve got a third person and we’re trying to figure it out. Maybe she can come sit with us.” I said to her, “Well, what do you mean?” She said, “When everyone sits down and if our seats are better she’ll come back here and you’ll move up there.” And I said to her, “This is my seat. I’ll move if I choose to or not.” This is a conversation in which someone is trying to make you think that you are insignificant: I can just tell you to sit wherever. These are the attempts at wanting to make you feel less-than.

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In order to make you think that you’re insignificant, they have to first think that you’re significant and superior in order to try and make you feel you’re not. Otherwise, you’re ignored.

***

Anytime someone is doing that, they have an issue within themselves. They feel inferior to you and they do not feel confident in themselves being around you. As a result, they would prefer to drive you off to some other location away from where they are. That’s it in a nutshell. When you saw me drinking a cup of coffee and eating a pecan pastry on Hennepin Avenue, you’re talking about the most diverse street in the entire state. The people sitting next to me should be all types of ethnicities. But because they have felt self-policed, made to feel not at home, they stay away from areas that aren’t four to two miles from where they live.

***

About three weeks ago, I said, “Ya know what, I think I’m going to upgrade to this mansion on the lake.” One of these modern type mansions that is like a box for a small family. It’s got a pool out front. And it’s been on sale for over a year. Here comes the racist part: I call the realtor and I said, “I like this property; this is my property; I want it. When can I come to see it?” 

She said, “Well, I can schedule a viewing for you, but we have to first verify your finances.” 

Now, I’ve bought a lot of properties. I have property in Malibu. I have property in Vail. I have property in Florida. I have property in Alabama. I have never, never toured a property and showed any kind of financial statements. 

A couple of my friends who are Caucasian were like, “I’ve never heard of that.” 

Whenever the realtor asks me if I am going to send my finances, I email her back, “Let me know when I can see the property and buy it.”

***

My belief on it is this — that you will always have individuals that feel inferior, that feel threatened, that feel less-than, and those individuals will always try to make other individuals feel less-than. If you look at George Floyd. I’m thinking about myself; I’m 6’3”; George Floyd was about 6’6”-6’7,” like 3 percent body fat. I’m thinking, “This guy is ripped.” This is one Black man one talking about the size of another Black man. Can you imagine what Chauvin was feeling? So when I say to you, “Who is superior?” People of color are being brainwashed to feel inferior, physically, emotionally, morally, in fact when they are superior.

***

When you sit outside in the summertime, white people are literally rubbing oil and baking their bodies like bacon to get the color that you have. … Your skin color is what they are trying to attain. Now tell me, who is inferior and who is superior? All you have to do is pay attention. Anyone who is trying to implant booties, implant lips, darken their skin, darken their hair. I mean, I can go on and on and on. … But you still believe that you are inferior.

***

That was just a travesty. That Chauvin guy is a sick person. People should have some sadness for him. I know that George Floyd passed away. I get that. But, in the same token when I talk about walking around the lake and feeling bad for these people, people should feel sad for that man. That man is sick. Do you understand what I mean? Just sick. 

***

Life in Minnesota is the same now as 2019. George Floyd was just added to the list.

 

Andre Boone

Andre Boone
Aldi store associate and digital marketing student, 27.
Born and raised in South Minneapolis. Moved back to Minneapolis from the Netherlands in 2020.

 

The racism takes two forms: on the everyday level, which mainly takes the form of just walking around, especially as it gets closer to night, everyone’s like super wary of you. That’s one thing I had to get used to coming back here. In the Netherlands, nobody ever gave me a second look. I got the luxury of being anonymous. Like, I’m just a dude.

When people did address me, it was like, “Oh, hey, sir.” Or, one time, I was leaving my place and a man asked me if a car that was blocking his was mine, and if I could move it. The car was a Lamborghini.  Another time, I was leaving a building and walked by people who were waiting outside of a storefront. They asked me if I was the owner and when the store would open.

***

I had to readjust. A week ago I was walking and I passed a white couple. I’ve learned through living here to keep good peripheral vision. I can look straight ahead and very distinctly perceive stuff that is going on in my peripheral. And I could see both of their eyes. They were both talking or whatever, but they both stopped and looked at me. Or, If I walk up to someone on the corner and say, “Hey, what’s up with this bar?” they run away like I’m trying to ask them for money or something.

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There is this coffee shop I like, but when I step out to have a cigarette, I feel uncomfortable being out front, because people look at me crazy, so I go to the back. A woman came out and was heading to her car over by where I was smoking. I move and she gets in her car. When she leaves I move back to over to where I was smoking. 

She lowered her window and said, “What are you doing here?” 

At first, I said, “None of your business.” She said, “You’re following me.” 

I said, “I’m smoking my cigarette before I go in and get my coffee.”

 She said I was following her and threatened to call the cops. So it’s the people that are the problem. 

***

Do I see myself as a Minnesotan? No. An American? Yes. 

***

When someone says what your nationality is here in America, you know they’re basically asking you for your race. So, many times being on the road over in Europe, we’d be going over a border checkpoint going into like Croatia, right? And they ask, ‘What’s your nationality?’ I would say, “Black.” And each time they would be like, “No, no, what country were you born in?” I was touring with British dudes and they were like, “Yo, why do you keep saying Black?” And I told them that in America, nationality is another way of saying race or ethnicity.

***

The reason I won’t claim being Minnesotan is because I don’t fit in here. I’ve never fit in here. This isn’t my community. I’ve said this to people over in Europe; I’ve been so out of my element my whole life that I’ve realized that being out of my element is my element, so I just have to become comfortable with that. But at the end of the day, I’m not going to stay here. My brother went to the South and I’m going to go with him.

***

I don’t want to make it seem like only Blacks! Black on Black! Only Blacks in our part of town! And all that. I just want my community for once in my life. You feel me? I just want my community for once in my life. That’s what it all comes down to. And wherever I gotta go or whatever, it could be half Black, half white, it could be this and that and this. But I’m just really sick of being a black sheep.

***

Since coming back I’ve been kind of depressed, man. … Coming back has been a weird reverse culture shock. To go from people thinking I own businesses and pushing a Lambo to here, the whole, “Oh, get away from me,” and that whole thing. It’s been so hard to process the Floyd shit, honestly. Cuz, like, I put the focus everywhere else. Everybody’s like, “Oh, we’ve got to get the cops out of here.” But what about the people who thought it was cool to call the cops on him for a fake $20?

***

People are less in denial. … That’s probably the main difference; people don’t really have an excuse to be in denial any more. Before, you used to debate on whether or not the police were being a particular way towards Black people with everyone.  …  I think the change will be lasting because what happened will never be forgotten, including the stuff that happened in the aftermath, which I saw as in some ways inevitable. 

 

Angela Hooks

Angela Hooks
Executive director for Black on Black Development and Entertainment, 52.
Born in Oklahoma, moved to St. Paul at age 5. Raised in Roseville.

 

You grow up fast seeing what the world is really like. Your parents can’t explain it to you or really prepare you because you won’t get it until you actually go through it. My parents did. They said, “We’re moving somewhere and there is going to be more white people than us.” I mean, they tried. But I actually didn’t get it until I went to school and someone asked me why my hair doesn’t move like theirs. And that happened to me all the way through adulthood.

***

We moved to Roseville, where the racism just completely escalated from being in the inner city of St. Paul. That was such an eye-opener for me on how the world really operates. As well that there was no “Minnesota Nice.” I had to prove myself. I moved there in sixth grade. I had to first prove that I wasn’t this horrid Black, good-for-nothing, contagious out to do all the worst things they had been bred to think.

***

I became valedictorian, student council president, captain of my soccer team, Snow Queen. I had to just really prove myself. It put me in a really challenging place when I would go back into St. Paul …  to the family barbecue, or to Thanksgiving, all my cousins would be like, “Are you letting these white people think you different? Why do you even care what these white people say?” But that’s where I was, that’s where I had to integrate. No kid in school wants to be alienated. And it’s hard to teach people something [racism] that’s been embedded in them forever. It’s hard for them to change that. They have to visually and physically and emotionally experience that, whatever your parents taught you, I’m not that. My mom always told me, “If you want a B, do A work. So guess what you are going to have to do for an A?”

***

Even my teachers were racist. I don’t even think they knew it. They were just like, “We don’t know how to teach you. We don’t know how to accept you. We don’t even know how to take you because you are proving all of our judgments and prejudices wrong: This has to be a fluke.”

***

I love the Vikings. My mom is a diehard. She forced us — with the exception of one brother who is a Packer fan. Like, where did that come from?

***

I’ve traveled the world. I’ve seen the difference. Minnesota has a unique quality of making Black people — I won’t even say minorities — feel unwelcome. I feel every other ethnicity is more welcomed here. I feel that about Minnesota in particular.

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I can’t deny that I am a Minnesotan. I lived in New York City for 12 years. …. I came back permanently because I said, “I am a Minnesotan and what is happening in my home yard is just heart wrenching.” I have so many friends who graduated college and said, “I can’t do this,” and they are living happily in other states. I couldn’t do it. Everywhere I went, I always represent Minnesota. “Where are you from?” they would say. And I would always say, “Twin Cities.” And I would sometimes get remarks like, “You live out there with all them white people? How can you do that?” You know? If it wasn’t the snow, it was the snow. Ok? You are covered all the way around. You’ve got snow on the ground and snow in the office. And you’ve got to survive that. 

***

I saw so many other things in other predominantly minority cities that I couldn’t believe. I was like, I don’t have to worry about what my hair looks like at this job interview? You know? I have to do that in Minnesota. But I still feel a connection with Minnesota. I feel like Minnesota is such a good place to live. It is a good place to live. But it doesn’t mean that there are not any issues or concerns about who gets all the benefits of it being a good place to live. I don’t think that Black people do. We have the resiliency embedded in us. We say, as a culture, “I’m going to get past this. This is not going to make me leave or give up on the possibilities for my children.” And, quite frankly, I want a better representation of Minnesota when it rolls off someone else’s tongue from outback, you know? 

***

There has definitely been change because of the conversation of racial equity, systemic racism in our justice system. Those conversations are not taboo anymore. They have in fact been placed in the spotlight. It appears the only thing we have to decipher now is: Is this something for white people to jump on the bandwagon so that they can feel comfortable as they go through their day, or is this sincere? But there has been some change because the focus is there, it’s part of our conversations. In many of our social structures and institutions, there was a glass ceiling, that just wasn’t a possibility to entertain what Black people wanted. And the action has to accentuate the words of our politicians, of the corporations, of our county social services, of our governor, of our department of corrections commissioner, of our attorney general. It all has to align — the conversation with action.