BY CODY BENJAMIN | MAY 31, 2020
MANKATO, Minn. — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. opined in his famous 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail that there is no such thing as a perfect time to protest racial injustice.
“For years now,” King wrote, “I have heard the word, ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant, ‘Never.’ We must come to see … that justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
Nearly 60 years later, Southern Minnesota did not wait to demand justice following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Within three days of the 46-year-old black man’s death at the hands of a white police officer, both Mankato and St. Peter had joined a national wave of resistance. Roughly 80 miles from the street where Floyd’s neck was pinned down by Derek Chauvin’s knee, thousands marched over bridges, into parks and through city squares, braving the COVID-19 pandemic to call out police brutality, systemic racism and the senseless loss of another darker-skinned human being.
It started in St. Peter, home to not even 12,000, where 500 people lined both sides of Highway 169 with handmade signs of solidarity. Justice for George. No Justice, No Peace. We Believe Black Lives Matter.
Organized by Indivisible St. Peter/Greater Mankato, a progressive community group, the gathering opened with a silent vigil, then included brief remarks from four guests: Indivisible’s Yurie Hong, South Central College’s John Harper, local pastor and NAACP president Maurice Staley, and Bukata Hayes, of the Greater Mankato Diversity Council.
Most of the protesters were white. Some of them were older. But they all stood quietly, buoyed by countless honks of support from passing cars and semis, in support of the same thing: Overdue racial equity.
“As much as we all want justice for George Floyd,” Hong told the crowd, “the better thing would be for him not to have needed that justice in the first place. The better thing would be for him to be alive today.”
Less than 24 hours later, Chauvin had been arrested and charged with murder. The three officers who stood by his side while Floyd repeatedly groaned for help — “Please … I can’t breathe” — remained free.
And so the next day’s demonstrations, in neighboring Mankato, were just as momentous.
At least another 500 people, this time more diverse, with a heavy college-age representation but also lots of families with children, spent hours traversing the town, signs in hand. Normalize Being Black. Silence Is Privilege. Enough Is Enough. Many posters, hastily designed on cardboard, listed nearly a dozen of the black men, women and children who’ve had fatal encounters with police since the riot-spawning 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
So many of those victims prompted separate responses of anger, grief and action. But the frustrating cycle of tragedy and outrage, Hayes says, doesn’t diminish the importance of staying vigilant, of doing it again for Floyd.
“Any time it happens, we have to stand up and be seen,” he explains. “When it was Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Jamar Clark, Philando Castile, on and on and on, you still have to be there. You still have to show up and speak out … I always believe it’s good to show solidarity with folks up in the Twin Cities or wherever it might be. That, for me, has been reassuring to see here in our region, that there are folks who want to be a part of a solution.”
This time, he adds, the injustice just might be clear enough to ignite some hearts.
“It’s always, ‘Well, he was resisting,’ or, ‘She was resisting,’ or he did this, or they did that. There’s always, ‘Somebody had a cellphone, somebody had this, somebody had a toy gun.’ Those who wanted to be comfortable could sit in that gray area. With this case, where is the gray area?”
Mankato’s Friday protesters asked the same question. After marching near Minnesota State University, Mankato (MSUM), the group parked itself across Veterans Memorial Bridge, above the Minnesota River. (It was the same spot where, a day earlier, several people had been spotted waving “Trump 2020” flags. President Donald Trump, of course, had just tweeted, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts!”, recycling a line from 1960s race riots while generally classifying protesters as “THUGS.”)
With the city’s towering silo mural — a tribute to Mankato’s diversity and Native American heritage — as the backdrop, Friday’s crowd greeted traffic with chants commemorating Floyd.
Say his name! … George! Floyd! … Say his name! … George! Floyd!
Before long, the contingent marched on both sides of the street to nearby Washington Park, where Mayor Najwa Massad and state Rep. Jack Considine observed the demonstration before offering their support. One protester reminded everyone that kids were present, promising a safe and peaceful environment. (The only PG-13 moment may have been when a passing car could be heard playing a YG song with some explicit lyrics about Trump.)
Then, a young black man and MSUM student, offered several remarks to the encircled crowd through a megaphone.
“Some people are sick,” he said. “Some people don’t understand. They don’t want to put themselves in somebody else’s shoes because it’s uncomfortable, because they’re not used to it. It does not matter. How you were raised is not who you are. You can be better than what you were raised as.”
“It took riots and fire for them to notice,” he continued, alluding to more destructive protests in the Twin Cities. “Do you know where fire comes from? The devil. But that’s what it took … But we still gotta pray for ’em. The man up there knows what’s going on. And He knows what’s gonna happen in the end. But still march. Still put your heart into all of this. Speak your mind! Don’t be silent. Because the moment you are silent, you’re not with us. And if police stop you out here, just put your fist up and say, ‘I … can’t … breathe.'”
Hundreds of voices echoed, with fists raised high: I can’t breathe! … I can’t breathe!
A day later, Gov. Tim Walz authorized in Minneapolis and St. Paul the first full use of the Minnesota National Guard since World War II in an effort to combat increasing violence, most of which he suggested was the work of out-of-state agitators and white supremacists looking to overshadow original protests.
Hayes, who spoke at the St. Peter vigil, works in Mankato and was present during initial protests in Minneapolis, says it’s the peaceful demonstrations that will advance the truly important causes the most.
“Part of this looting is honestly taking away energy and focus on, ‘Let’s make sure we get justice for George Floyd.’ That bothers me to my core, because I see the opportunity.”
As head of the Greater Mankato Diversity Council, Hayes is already in touch with the City of Mankato for next-step initiatives, like a community journaling project that’ll address Floyd’s death. (“I’ve gotten so many messages of, ‘I’m devastated; tell me how I can help.'”) He shares Dr. King’s Christian faith, using it as the bedrock for his activism. (“Christ said, ‘They will know you are my disciples by how you love.’ Revelation 21:1-4 … ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes.’ To me, that is one of those things that, metaphorically, applying it today, we want to see each other as valued, as real, as complete, to be free of some of those -isms that plague our communities.”)
Most of all, though, he hopes the adrenaline rush of his cities coming together in a time of crisis isn’t just a passing breeze. Hayes, like so many other black men and women his age, has seen generation after generation of civil rights efforts. He was 18 when Los Angeles erupted over the police beating of Rodney King.
For America but especially for cities like Mankato and St. Peter, where protest is the exception rather than the norm, he prays for people to wrestle with these issues not just when hundreds of others are literally marching along.
“Are we only showing up when the cameras are on?” he asks. “Are we showing up to vote? Are we showing up to be a part of community-building efforts? … We’re showing up now in this moment of crisis, and we are on the offensive. What about when it’s time to clean up? What about when it’s time to do the unseen work? So many people show up now but won’t be there when it’s an 8 o’clock meeting in the middle of February and no one even knows you’re meeting.”
Until then, the marches and chants and collective cries for change will go on. In Mankato. In St. Peter. In Minneapolis. In Atlanta. In Chicago. In Detroit. In D.C. In Philadelphia. All across a nation whose bloodied history with persons of color dates back not a few days, not a few years, not a few decades but literally to its birth.