What I Saw at the Black Lives Matter Protest

I’ve been thinking about writing this for a long time. I’ve held off until now for one reason: I thought the internet didn’t need another story about Black Lives Matter. It’s already saturated. If Trumping is simply engaging in behavior that absorbs the attention of the media, Black Lives Matter was Trumping long before Trump was.

I have a Google Alert that updates me anytime someone writes about the BLM movement in Minnesota. And I get lots of alerts. Often multiple times a day. But I don’t get STORIES. Instead, I get news briefs, five hundred words or less. “X was arrested, Z began discussions with Y, Q was arrested at the Fourth Precinct.” That’s all. I’ve never seen a story about Black Lives Matter that was more than a clinical report of the latest developments or an abstract think piece by an out-of-stater.

Usually, I’d be okay with that. I mean, that’s what we want, right? We want objectivity. We want the facts. We definitely don’t want a biased narrative imposed over the reality of what actually happened.

Today, Minneapolis police chief Janee Harteau released a video statement in response to the impending decision on the indictment of the officers who shot Jamar Clark. Take a look.

That professional little PSA you just watched? That’s not objective. That’s not just the facts. That IS a biased narrative imposed over truth.

If the Minneapolis police department hadn’t released this video, there wouldn’t be any reason for me to write this. But they did, and here’s their version of the protests – at least according to the video.

Protestors throwing Molotov cocktails. Protestors tossing rocks. Protestors lighting fires. Protestors smashing car windows. Protestors vandalizing walls. Protestors, GOD HELP US, gathering in large groups in the street.

That’s their version of the protests…three weeks of coordinated public outcry neatly compressed into exactly TWENTY SECONDS of threatening footage. And you know what? That’s as close as many people in Minnesota – the thousands of people who will watch Harteau’s speech over the next week –are going to get to the protests. That’s just about all they’re going to see. Those twenty seconds, those six clips of video slapped together like photos in a bad scrapbook. And those twenty seconds will define the BLM protests in their mind (probably) forever and ever, unto the end, amen.

So, in response to Police Chief Harteau’s version of events, here’s what I can tell you about what I saw at the Black Lives Matter protest. Am I the most informed or relevant “reporter”? Hell no, but when the powers-that-be leave truth behind in the favor of blatant propaganda, refuting that propaganda is anyone’s game. Am I biased? Hell yes, but so was that video.

I went to the protest in late afternoon, the day after five protesters were shot by white supremacists who showed up with masks and handguns.

I parked up the block, and changed from my work clothes into the most inconspicuous jacket, sneakers and hat that I own. I was nervous. I wanted clothes that would camouflage me, and I wanted shoes that I could run in if I needed to.

The shoes worked fine, but nothing really camouflages a scared-looking white girl walking alone around a Black Lives Matter protest. I stood out like a sore thumb. People gave me odd looks as I walked by.

But as I slipped through the frayed edge of the crowd into its center, I realized I had nothing to worry about. I’d come to see a protest, but what was happening was a party. There were little circles of people crowded about tiny firepits, chilling with camp chairs and woodpiles like they were at a state park.

There was a dancer performing on the makeshift stage set up for speeches. Drums and feathers and pure exuberance. I smelled Cajun spices wafting past, eddying from the food van set up near the stage. I didn’t want to eat, but I could have if I wanted to. All the food was free. (And of course there were vegan options, because how could a food van covered in hand-painted flower power designs NOT have vegan options.)

Kids ran around, getting underfoot like kids always do. I bumped into an old friend from my days at Minneapolis Community and Tech, so we stood on the sidewalk and chatted for an hour or so. He told me about his nonprofit work and asked for advice about writing grants. I told him about some hip hop I was into and my new job.

Occasionally, men walked by with leashed pitbulls, the dogs’ thick necks straining eagerly against their collars. I knew why they were there. They made me feel safe.

I hung out and chatted for a while longer, listening to music and smelling the weed (there was a lot of weed). Then I got cold, so I went home.

Anti-climatic, right? Yeah. It was. Nothing happened that shouldn’t have happened. It was a peaceful protest, with people who were making the best of the long, cold job of trying to ensure justice is served.

The stuff you see in Harteau’s video happened. The Molotov cocktails happened, the vandalism happened. But you know what happened more? People sat around fires and talked about nothing in particular. People ate good food donated by other people with generous hearts. People hung out. People danced. People took classes in non-violent civil disobedience. People sat their asses down on the street and waited for justice.

Believe whatever you want about Jamar Clark’s death. Believe whatever you want about the goals that Black Lives Matter pursues. But don’t believe that the things you see in that video are the whole truth (or even fifty percent of the truth) of what happened at the Black Lives Matter protests.

***

If you want to read more about race issues in the Twin Cities, check out my interview with Toussaint Morrison, a local rapper who’s not afraid to call out the inequalities he sees in our cities.

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