The death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer felt like a “tipping point,” Minneapolis community organizer Marjaan Sirdar tells TIME.
Sirdar has lived in South Minneapolis for over a decade, and long worked as an organizer and activist among the city’s black communities. He has been involved in many outreach efforts against racial inequality and police brutality in the city.
“This hit harder, this hit different. The leaders of this city have ignored us,” Sirdar tells TIME. “This is a town that lacks [the] political will to provide security for black and brown people.”
On May 25, Floyd, 46, was killed during an arrest over an alleged forgery at a Southside grocery store after an officer pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck despite Floyd’s pleas for assistance, and repeated exhortations that he could not breathe. An additional video seemingly of the arrest has shown two other officers also kneeling on Floyd’s body.
This killing, which was filmed by onlookers and circulated online, has led to widespread outrage, and protests through the city and the country.
“This has been brewing for years,” Owen Duckworth, a community organizer with Minneapolis racial justice and equality advocacy group The Alliance, says. “A lot of black folks are scared. The moment is raw for a lot of people and that’s when you see the uprisings that have happened.”
A first protest was led by the Racial Justice Group, a grassroots organization in Minneapolis, on May 26, the day after Floyd’s death. Though this protest was peaceful, ensuing rallies have grown more violent — on Thursday night, demonstrators broke into a police precinct in and set it on fire.
Other protests across the country have broken out in states including New York, California, Tennessee and Colorado.
But Miski Noor, an activist and member of the Black Vision Collective, a social justice organization in Minnesota, says that a “narrative of rioting and looting” doesn’t address systemic issues apparent within the Minneapolis police department (MPD) or protesters’ grievances thereof.
“What needs to happen is that the police need to acknowledge the harm they’ve done to the community,” Noor says. “These protests are the community grieving,” Noor continues, adding that they have now “taken a life of their own.”
Sirdar, who joined Racial Justice Group’s rally on Tuesday but has not attended protests since, also believes that the ensuing protests are not the result of an organized plan.
“Those are rogue protests, they’re not planned [rallies],” Sirdar says. “[But] when our DA refuses to prosecute killer police and our city council refuses to hold the mayor accountable, they give people no choice.”
Community organizers have been supplying protesters with water, protective equipment as well as milk — to bathe the eyes of people hit by tear gas, which has been deployed by police on multiple occasions across the last few days. They have set up a small area for peaceful prayer, and have also organized groups to undertake clean-up projects in impacted areas during the day.
William D. Green, a history professor at Augsburg University in Minnesota, says that Minneapolis has long failed its citizens of color and those in poverty, citing a longstanding history of racial inequality.
“What I saw on film conveyed that problems within the [police] department had not been addressed. It was all too familiar,” Professor Green says. “This is about the city and the state’s responsibility to its citizens of color and poverty.”
According to a 2019 report by the Minnesota NAACP, the unemployment rate for black people in the city’s metropolitan areas is more than twice the rate for white people. Black residents across the city bring in half the income white residents; just a quarter of black people own their homes in the city, compared to 76 percent of white people.
Activists believe this inequality has become manifested in the MPD and its relationship with the communities it serves. This in turn has led to police brutality and the deaths of black people at the hands of MPD officers.
And Sirdar says the situation is no longer just about the police.
“What that cop did to George Floyd was not an anomaly,” Sirdar says. “A lot of people are looking at the angle of policing, [but] it’s beyond a policing issue … Police brutality is a problem, but the biggest problem is racism.”
During a press conference on Thursday, Minneapolis City Council vice president Andrea Jenkins called for a state of emergency in the city, “declaring racism as a public health issue.”
In 2015 Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old unarmed black man was shot and killed by police after an altercation in Minneapolis. In 2016, Philando Castile was shot and killed in his car, with his girlfriend and daughter in the backseat, after being pulled over by an officer just five miles north of the city. Derek Chauvin, the MPD officer charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter over Floyd’s death, is reportedly being represented by the same lawyer who defended Jeronimo Yanez, who shot Castile.
Castile’s death also led to protests across Minnesota and the country.
In light of this pattern of police behavior, Sirdar says the MPD cannot be expected to provide the public safety and trust that Minneapolis residents require. “What I’m pushing for is the dismantling of the police department,” Sirdar tells TIME.
Miski Noor concurs, arguing that the Minneapolis police department needs to be defunded, with resources instead of being allocated towards community-led solutions.
“We can no longer increase the police budget,” Noor says. “We have to do things that actually take care of human beings.”