MINNEAPOLIS — On a 40-degree Minnesota spring evening, the day after a jury convicted Derek Chauvin of the murder of George Floyd, a small crowd gathered outside the Hennepin County Government Center building to demand justice for Daunte Wright, another Black man killed, earlier this month, by police in a nearby Minneapolis suburb.
The scene was a large departure from the previous evening’s jubilation. Almost 24 hours earlier, at the same intersection, a much bigger and more raucous crowd had celebrated Chauvin’s conviction with loud cheers, laughter, tears, car honking and impromptu dance parties.
But on this Wednesday, activist Brandyn Tulloch was having trouble inspiring the crowd. Energy was down. “No matter how mentally drained I am, no matter how physically drained I am, I will never be tired of fighting,” Tulloch told the crowd, in an attempt to fire them up.
Maybe it was exhaustion after a year of expecting the verdict to go the other way. Maybe it was the weariness of having their joy and relief cut short by the news — on the same day as the Chauvin verdict — of the killing of a Black teenager, Ma’Khia Bryant, at the hands of police in Columbus, Ohio.
Despite the reprieve, there was sadness for those whose killers were never convicted. There was sadness that a guilty verdict required celebration in the first place, of the sort you would see after a sports victory. After all, a man was convicted of murdering someone, albeit in an incident captured on a video watched by millions — an audience for whom there was no certainty about the outcome.
Despite the elation many felt from the verdict, a palpable grief and tension still hung in the air.
“Terrorist organization!” someone in a passing car yelled at the crowd of protesters, who were chanting the names of those killed by police violence. The disruption was preceded by a large pickup truck creeping by and speeding away, leaving a black cloud of exhaust in its wake.
“We’re not going anywhere!” Jaylani Hussein, executive director of Minnesota CAIR, told the crowd.
Now that Chauvin has been convicted, what is the next step? Activists are planning to apply the same pressure in hopes of getting a conviction for the officer who killed Wright. But will the world be eager to move on from its reckoning with race and policing? Can activists sustain their movement’s momentum without letting complacency set in?
“We’re also going to be fighting to end police brutality,” said Hussein. “We’re going to hold police accountable, and they’re going to be afraid of us. We’re not going to be afraid of them.” The audience cheered.
“While we enjoy this moment,” he continued, “I call all of you to be in perpetual commitment in persisting for justice, because we need to demand justice.”
In the 11 months since Floyd’s death, people still haven’t focused on the right questions, activists worry. Instead of asking how someone could kneel on another man’s neck for almost 10 minutes, people should be asking why Floyd was arrested for passing a counterfeit $20 bill. Instead of questioning how an officer could confuse a Taser with a Glock pistol, as in the Wright case, they should interrogate laws that allow police to make traffic stops over dangling air fresheners.
“The next time they pull over an unarmed Black person, they should fear pulling the trigger,” Hussein said.
That same day, in North Minneapolis, mourners paid their respects at the wake of Wright, the 20-year-old shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop in nearby Brooklyn Center on April 11. The shooting, which occurred two weeks into the Chauvin trial, ignited a fresh wave of protests, in which the National Guard, already posted throughout downtown Minneapolis, deployed to the suburb to contain any unrest.
Wright lay still in an ivory white coffin in the sanctuary of Shiloh Temple International Ministries. Family and friends walked up to his body while the familiar organ notes of “Amazing Grace” filled the church. They caressed his hand and glimpsed his face. Some stayed by his side as long as an hour. They passed each other tissues to wipe away tears and to stifle sniffles as a montage of photos and videos from Wright’s brief life were projected onto a screen above the pulpit. There was Daunte, a proud father, holding up his infant son, Daunte Jr. There he was, smiling in his car while taking a selfie. There he was, putting up his dukes while his father, Aubrey Wright, playfully jabbed, instructing him how to fight.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who would deliver Wright’s eulogy the next day, told the audience, “As we got the verdict last night for George Floyd and people celebrated all over the country — as I was crying — the thing that bothered me was right down the road. It was Daunte Wright.”
Sharpton’s words echoed what many were feeling throughout the city, including those at Shiloh.
“I mean, what is real justice?” said Kim Griffin of A Mother’s Love Initiative, a group of Black women who have lost loved ones to gun violence. “We got accountability. Let’s say that.” Griffin’s son was murdered more than a decade ago, and even though his killer was convicted, she remains haunted by the grief, constantly envisioning the man her son would have grown to be. “You don’t ever really get justice.”
Meanwhile, a group of Black men carrying assault rifles patrolled the church’s perimeter, providing security for the wake. The militia, known as the Minnesota Freedom Fighters, formed after a call from the local NAACP to protect Black businesses from looting last summer. The group now bills itself as an “elite security unit.”
A member of the group, who goes by Wolf, expressed a mix of triumph and cynicism about the Chauvin verdict: “I was super happy because finally we got the little piece of justice that we were looking for,” he said. “But at the same time, I feel like it’s also just a ploy to shut everybody up.”
Members of Wright’s own family, consumed by grief, followed the Chauvin trial and wondered what it might portend for their own case.
Kristie Bryant had just gotten home from work when she heard that her nephew Daunte had been killed. “I’d seen it live on Facebook,” she said, before going to comfort her sister, Daunte’s mom, Katie Wright. “My heart is out of my chest. I’m feeling mad. I’m feeling sad.” But having seen the Chauvin verdict, she is more optimistic about the chances of conviction in her nephew’s death.
The next day, media from as far away as Australia set up dozens of cameras on Shiloh’s front lawn, and guests filed in for Daunte’s funeral. As shutters clicked and drones flew overhead, the Freedom Fighters once again patrolled the area, watching over the black SUVs parked out front and directing traffic. Inside, Sharpton encouraged people to keep up the fight for change.
“There’s a confusion in this country about peace versus quiet,” he said. “Peace is the presence of justice. You can’t tell us to shut up and suffer. We must speak up when there is an injustice.”
Democratic lawmakers from Minnesota including Rep. Ilhan Omar and Sen. Amy Klobuchar spoke about the need to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would institute a federal ban on chokeholds and qualified immunity for law enforcement.
Outside, Wright’s friend Malik Taylor spoke about how much he already misses him. “Daunte was a very caring person,” he said. “He liked to laugh. He just liked to have fun. That’s why me and him became close friends. He was a nice, genuine person. I’m hurt, bro.”
Five hours later, at the same church where Wright was eulogized, local activists gathered for a community healing event in the name of Floyd. Children shouted while gliding down playground slides. A DJ spun dance favorites like Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Let’s Groove.” People came by to collect essential items like diapers, toothpaste and bottled water.
It’s a place for “people to be human,” said Neda Kellogg, one of the event’s organizers. The goal is to simply let people be seen and loved, to create “communities instead of neighborhoods,” she said. The events started as a way for people dealing with the separation caused by the pandemic, and the spate of violence in the city, to come together.
Artists, some as young as 16, attempted to assert their power through poetry and rap. Essence Blakemore, a 21-year old student, stepped up to the microphone with poise. Though confident, she apologized for not naming her work, because she was “not really so good with the title.”
“We have to be the light and uplift if intentions are right,” she read. “Join the fight and raise the fist. What I know is I’m American and my America ain’t gonna stay like this. I’m America, and my America can’t stay like this.”
The crowd erupted.