North Side Minneapolis neighbors took aim at the ways that systemic racism perpetuates the cycle of violence at a forum organized Thursday (March 13) by Protect Minnesota. The forum, which as held at the office of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change on Broadway Avenue, included a call to oppose a bill in the Minnesota State Senate authored by Sen. Ron Latz (DFL-St. Louis Park), which they say criminalizes youth of color, rather than focusing on prevention.
Among the speakers was Maleta Kimmons (known as “Queen”), who has experienced the court system after she was caught by police in a van filled with guns.
“I got caught in a van with a bunch of guns,” she said. “I was in a car with some people and there was guns and ammunition everywhere. We were going to carry out an action, and the police ended up pulling us over and people jumped out of the van and ran and left me sitting with the guns.”
Kimmons was able to make a plea-bargain deal with the courts: She helped police purchase illegal semi-automatic weapons from street dealers in exchange for a reduced sentence; but the stigma of being criminalized followed her and stayed on her record for a long time. “That came with a lot of labeling and stigma,” she said.
She’s also been the victim of violence. “I was beat and left in an alley,” she said. “I happened to see someone that needed some help and I thought I could help that person. I was violently assaulted, but I haven’t let that stop me from helping people or giving into fear. I’m just happy to be a part of tonight’s event and hopefully be the change that I want to see in my community.”
Kimmons hopes for better neighborhood communication with the police, as well as cameras on the vests of officers.
Leroy Duncan, an organizer for Protect Minnesota, said he believes that many policies around incarceration “are founded on stereotypes or racial biases that have existed in our country for centuries. We’re trying to uncover some of these euphemisms and terms and talk about them.”
Ferome Brown, another speaker, spent mote than six years in prison after he was caught dealing drugs. While he was locked up, he started studying about nonprofits and thought about what he could do to change his neighborhood. Eventually, he started his own nonprofit called Urban Conservation, which received a $100,000 grant from the Minneapolis Foundation.
“I knew I had to change my life to show the guys that I used to look up to and the guys that looked up to me that this can work and you can do this without selling drugs,” Brown said.
Brown’s main goal is to stop murders in Minnesota. In his nonprofit, he would train young people to be outreach workers, targeting gang members. The young people would receive $150 stipend a month, with certain stipulations. Now Brown is working with Protect Minnesota, organizing youth.
During the forum, the participants shared their own experiences with violence in the community. One man said that his niece was killed with a gun. Another man, Marcus Harcus, said that while he never personally handled a gun, he knows many people who have seen their lives ruined. “I hate they are so prevalent,” he said. “The weapons industry needs to be regulated and shut down.”
Stephanie Gasca, who is on the Protect Minnesota board, spoke at the meeting about her own experience telling her young son what to do when he hears gun shots while playing football at North Commons Park, near where 14-year-old Quantrell Braxton was killed in 2011.
Born in Chicago, Gasca saw a lot of gun violence in the Pilsen neighborhood there before her family moved to Minneapolis in the mid 1990s. When her step-dad went to prison, Gasca took over some of the parenting duties for her mother, eventually taking her mother to court for custody of her youngest siblings. Now Gasca has children of her own, but when 2-year-old Terrell Mayes Jr. was killed, Gasca decided to do what she could to prevent violence in her community. “That’s why I’m here,” she said. “That’s why I do what I do.”
The forum discussed who benefits from gun violence, with answers ranging from the private prisons, gun companies, the corporations that can pay low wages to all the people who have criminal records and can’t find better work, and the news media that sensationalizes violence in order to sell ads.
Leroy Duncan, whose brother was charged with a gun crime at the age of 13 and is still serving time 18 years later, said that the system currently favors criminalization over prevention, and unfairly targets people of color. “The gun manufacturers are creating an arms race,” he said, “manufacturing fear and hysteria in our communities.”
According to Duncan, 70 of the 109 gun laws passed in 2013 increased access to guns, adding, “Protect Minnesota is not trying to take away your guns.”
Next steps include ensuring that there’s no increased access to guns, and that laws stop criminalizing communities of color, according to Duncan. In addition, advocates need to look to root causes of violence and find community-driven solutions, he said.