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'We're also black': Communities of color step up fight for justice in wake of George Floyd's killing

Monday June 8, 2020
By Maya Rao

U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar spoke at a rally on Saturday, June 6, which began which began at Bottineau Park in northeast Minneapolis. AARON LAVINSKY – STAR TRIBUNE

During George Floyd’s memorial service, Somali-Americans erected a large portrait of him down the street and offered passersby markers to write messages in his honor. They wore Black Lives Matter shirts and handed out sambusas, or stuffed pastries, to mourners in Elliot Park.

“We’re also black, and we go through a lot of the same things that the African-American community goes through: police brutality, just the way people see us,” said Fatuma Ahmed, 24, of Minneapolis.

Massive demonstrations following the police killing of Floyd, who was African-American, are unfolding in a far more varied and expansive racial landscape than that of the Minneapolis riots in 1967 during the civil rights movement.

At that time, Minnesota was 98% white, 1% black, and had few foreign-born residents like Ahmed. Now people of color who are not black descendants of slaves are talking about how to show up in the fight for equality, acknowledging in some cases that past battles for civil rights led by African-Americans opened up opportunities for other minority groups.

Among nonwhite people — who now comprise 16% of all Minnesotans — African immigrants and refugees have been the most obvious allies in the Black Lives Matter movement. Though their families arrived here from war-ravaged Somalia in the last few decades rather than on slave ships centuries ago, they say white society in the United States essentially views both groups as the same: black.

But other minority groups are stepping up, too. The family of Fong Lee, a Hmong teenager shot dead by Minneapolis police in 2006, is calling on the Southeast Asian community to unite with African-Americans in fighting police brutality.

And Latino immigrants, who lost many businesses on Lake Street to arson and vandalism, are pledging their support to fighting racial injustice alongside black immigrants as they rebuild.

“We’re MINORITIES too,” reads a sign outside Mercado Central, a Lake Street market of 35 Latino businesses that saw vandalism and looting. “We aren’t against you, we are with you.”

State Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, issued a call for black and brown unity last week, noting that African-Americans led the way during the civil rights movement and Latinos followed. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mexican-American civil rights activist Cesar Chavez had a common goal of unity in the face of oppression, she said.

“As we mourn George Floyd’s murder, we must remain united,” wrote Torres Ray, who represents the district where Floyd was killed and was the first Latina to serve in the state Senate.

Referring to the city’s main Latino and African-American corridors, she added: “As we rebuild our small businesses along Lake Street and in north Minneapolis, we must do so as one.”

In 1967, riots protesting racial injustice erupted along Plymouth Avenue on the North Side of Minneapolis. Fires engulfed several blocks; the National Guard was deployed. Uprisings demanding equal rights for black people spread across the U.S. in the late 1960s much as they have now.

The civil rights movement helped pave the way for the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that transformed predominantly white America by opening the border to millions of newcomers from Asia, Latin America and Africa. Much of Minnesota’s increased ethnic diversity emerged out of resettlement of refugees from Somalia and Laos.

Outside of East Village Grill in Elliot Park, where Somali-Americans posted a display with Floyd’s image, Ahmed said that she grew up in America hearing older Somali relatives speaking negatively of African-Americans.

“We’re slowly trying to parse that out and dissect that and say that’s not OK,” Ahmed said.

She noted that her community also was recently affected by police violence. Isak Aden, a Somali-American man, was shot to death last year by Eagan police during a standoff. Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said police were justified in using deadly force.

“I think just with the amount of Somali people that have come out with the protests, that just shows that solidarity is there,” Ahmed said.

Ahmed’s husband, Abdi Sheikh, 23, said Somali-Americans face the same racial disparities in the U.S. as African-Americans. “We might be Somali, but at the end of the day, people see us as black,” he said.

He said Somali-Americans owe much to African-Americans for the civil rights movement that opened doors for black newcomers. Sheikh’s family came here for salvation, he added, “and there’s better opportunities in America due to the African-American community, the civil rights movement and all the rights they’ve been fighting for. It only makes sense to stand in solidarity.”

Abdullahi Farah recently went out to Lake Street with other volunteers to distribute donated food and supplies. Though Farah, executive director of Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center, was born in Somalia, he said that any black person in the U.S. is considered African-American.

“The Somali community, we are hurting, we are in pain,” he said of Floyd’s death.

State Rep. Jay Xiong, DFL-St. Paul, said in an e-mail that there is anti-blackness in the Asian community that has to be confronted and worked on. And there’s complexity as “we find ourselves searching for our souls now,” he said, because one of the three officers charged with aiding and abetting Floyd’s killing, Tou Thao, is Hmong.

“It is important for our community to stand with black communities — our values and our missions are bound together,” said Xiong. “Hmong-Americans today owe much of their own freedoms to the black people who were enslaved on this continent.”

The family of Fong Lee has been urging fellow Hmong citizens to support the black community just as African-Americans supported them when police killed the 19-year-old man. The white officer who shot Lee remained on the job in Minneapolis after a jury ruled he did not use excessive force.

As the Lee family demanded answers, they had supporters from the black, Native American and Latino communities “to help us voice our concerns and our fight for justice for our son’s death,” said Fong’s father, Nou Kai Lee, in remarks interpreted from Hmong by activist Tou Ger Xiong during a Facebook Live discussion Thursday.

“And so this is important because now George Floyd’s family is going through the same thing we went through,” he said, “and we need to come together to support them to find justice because we are in this together.”

“What does George Floyd have to do with Fong Lee?” asked Pakou Hang, chief program officer at VoteRunLead, a nonprofit that trains women to run for political office. “It’s the collective anguish and injustice of our people without any type of accountability by police officers.”

Hang, who lives a few blocks from the site of Floyd’s death, said the toxic nature of police culture is embedded in white supremacy. Until that’s untangled, she maintained, police will kill racial minorities without repudiation.

“White culture and white supremacy does not value people of color’s lives, and you see that just with the pattern of people being killed over and over,” she said.


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