Column: Why I am an abolitionist

By: Marjaan Sirdar, Freelance Columnist

Warning: Violent Content

The UpTake is not responsible for the contents of this column.

As a Black man and a descendent of enslaved Africans brought to the U.S., I fully embrace the term “abolitionist.” For those who aren’t there yet, rather than battling over labels, I encourage you to listen to Black people whose experiences led them to the conclusion that the system of policing is irredeemable. George Floyd’s killing on Memorial Day at the hands of the Minneapolis Police was the catalyst to an uprising that had been looming in a city historically unstable with racial resentments, and recently explosive after the covid-19 pandemic and economic depression. The struggle against police brutality is an old one in this city, fought across generations of activists, as documented by Minneapolis historian Anne Winkler Morey in the Minneapolis Interview Project. In the community where George Floyd was killed, a community I have lived in for the past 13 years, police brutality is just the tip of the iceberg. There has always been a much deeper injustice in this community lying beneath the surface of the recent tragedy caused by the MPD: racial poverty resulting from racial capitalism. My experiences with the police as a child planted the seeds for my abolitionist politics as an adult, however, it must be said that the police are not the architects, they are merely the overseers of these conditions. 

Personal experience with police

In 2007, I intentionally moved to this community seeking to live near other Black people. I grew up in the suburbs not far from the Mall of America and just a couple of miles from the Dar Al Farooq Islamic Center that was bombed by white supremacists in 2017. I moved to South Minneapolis to escape violent racism in the suburbs. As young as five years old, I remember police officers joining us to play ball and passing out free football cards. By the time I was 10 the police treated us differently, as did some of my white friends’ parents. When I was a senior in high school I had my first violent encounter with the police. I was late returning to class from off-campus lunch when I was detained by an undercover Bloomington cop for jaywalking. I was uncooperative at 17 so he called for backup. Four cops slammed me to the ground and put several knees in my adolescent neck and back. They made me sit in the city jail all day, having me miss school but never pressing charges. The beatdown was my punishment. 

When I was 24, I was celebrating in downtown Minneapolis for a friend’s birthday. This was in 2003, the day after George W. Bush sent U.S. troops into Baghdad for war after lying to the world that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Upset and tipsy, I yelled “F*@# Bush” at a cop within shouting distance at 5th & Hennepin. Before I knew what was happening I was being violently attacked from my backside. The cop ran up behind me, sucker punched me and attempted to wrestle me down. He handcuffed me before he could subdue me. After threatening to jail me for insulting his president, he let me go with a citation for disorderly conduct. I was prepared to fight it and take the case to trial but eventually the city dropped the charge.

Family tragedy

Before my personal experiences with police violence, what happened to my aunt when I was nine years old is what anchored my rage and angst towards the police for my life to come. In the early hours of September 13, 1988 on a school day, I was awakened to my mother’s screams, bawling her eyes out. She had just received news from Chicago that her police officer brother-in-law Eddie Johnson murdered her sister, my aunt, Salma “Selena” Johnson, also a police officer. This tragedy disrupted several generations in my family and robbed me of much of my childhood. I’ll never forget a couple of years earlier overhearing my mother on the phone with my grandmother in Chicago telling her she was worried when Salma joined the force. My mother said she feared them having guns inside their home and “Eddie shooting Salma dead.” My mother’s worst nightmare became reality.

At nine years old I was too young to fully understand the tragedy. I never read my aunt’s story until two years ago and by then I was already well learnt on the history of policing. As I read about her tragedy, I saw that she did everything a person in her position could and should do to protect herself from her abuser. She was a police officer and sought protection from her department. She even spoke to her husband’s supervisor, Commander Ivory. According to the Chicago Tribune:

While seeking a divorce, Mrs. Johnson had complained to police officials, including Ivory, about threats Johnson had made against her. Two judges had issued protective orders barring Johnson from going to the wife’s home during divorce proceedings.

(Salma “Selena” Johnson)

In a court affidavit filed in connection with the divorce, Mrs. Johnson charged that during a quarrel in the family car May 30, “Ed reached for his gun, held the hammer back with his thumb and said, ‘I’m going to kill you.’”

Friends provided a copy of a letter dated Sept. 2 from Mrs. Johnson to Ivory, asking for help in stopping Johnson from harassing her.

[…] “That letter was a plea,” Ileen Kelly-Jones, a friend of Mrs. Johnson. “It said, ‘I’m going to be killed.’”

Institutionalized injustice

I found out that my aunt’s case is not unique. As reported by the Chicago Reader in 1989: “According to the FBI, 29 percent of the women murdered in the U.S. in 1987 were killed by their husbands or boyfriends.” On March 9, 1989, The Chicago Reader released a scathing exposé by journalist Steve Bogira dedicated to my aunt Salma’s story:

She […] was irritated that he was watching her on city time and getting away with it. When she saw him staking out the house, Ed, a tactical (plainclothes) officer, would often be in his unmarked police car. […]

Ed’s bosses had more than Selena’s allegations to indicate that she was in jeopardy. Ed himself had admitted to the boss of his tac team that he had pulled a gun on Selena on Memorial Day. After Selena filed for divorce, he told coworkers he didn’t have much to live for. And if he couldn’t have Selena, he told them, no one else would. When he began suspecting Selena was seeing a sergeant in her district–Grand Crossing–he told coworkers he was going to take care of this sergeant, too. It was common knowledge on the tac team that Ed was conducting surveillance on his wife when he was supposed to be working. His productivity dropped markedly; once, he returned to the station so upset he couldn’t work, saying he had spotted Selena and the sergeant together. He called the sergeant up and threatened him; the sergeant lodged his own complaint with the department against Ed.

[…] But those lockup doors would never clang shut on “Lock ‘Em Up Ed.”

[…] On Sunday, September 11–nine days after she wrote the letter–there was Ed at the house again, knocking her around and threatening to kill her. He had his gun in his belt and touched it menacingly, but 12-year-old Muhammad [Edward, Jr.] intervened, the kids ran for help, and Ed bolted. Police were summoned to the scene by a neighbor, but as always, they made no attempt to find Ed and arrest him.

Ed got his final pass in the early morning hours of Tuesday, September 13. It was the state police this time who let him slide. Ed, who had been drinking, caused a three-car accident on the Dan Ryan at 1:30 that morning. Ed and his sister’s husband, Robert Kilpatrick, were out for a drive when the accident occurred. One of the state troopers who arrived on the scene smelled the booze on Ed’s breath and confiscated his gun. But Ed and Kilpatrick insisted that Kilpatrick had been driving, not Ed. Kilpatrick says that after the trooper wrote his report, he returned to their car, and Kilpatrick admitted to him that he was just covering for Ed. But the trooper returned the gun and let Ed and Kilpatrick proceed on their way.

Rudolph Unger and William Recktenwald wrote for The Chicago Tribune on September 14, 1988:

Detective Raymond McNally, of the Pullman Area, said the Johnsons’ son awoke to hear his parents quarrelling in her bedroom. McNally said the boy went into his mother’s room and saw his father fire a shot at her.

Johnson then pushed the boy out of the room and several more shots were heard, McNally said. The boy and his sister later went back into the room and saw their mother lying on the bed and their father lying on the floor.

They ran to a neighbor’s house. McNally quoted them as telling neighbors that their parents had both been killed. The neighbors called the police.

Bogira succinctly captured the nonchalant attitudes of those sworn to protect my aunt with these words: “Ed and Selena Johnson were married cops caught in a classic pattern of domestic violence. The CPD could have helped, but it left Ed to handle the problem in his own way. He shot her eight times, then held two guns to his own head.” Officers in Trouble detailed massive impotence and cover up by the Chicago Police, Illinois State Police and Cook County authorities in cooperation with my aunt Salma’s murder:

The Police Department was able to lay the homicide/suicide case to rest even before Selena and Ed. Ed’s admissions on the telephone, plus the children’s eyewitness accounts, left no doubt that it was he who had killed Selena. The case was closed, save for some paperwork, the day the couple died. The deaths were a lamentable thing, a real tragedy, police officials told reporters solemnly, but unpreventable.

[…] Domestic slayings usually appear to be such aberrant, spontaneous acts that later it seems no one could have stopped them, certainly not the police. But family-violence experts say these “nutso” murders are often both predictable and preventable. Murders by spouses are almost always the culmination of a history of violence in the marriage. The homicide is usually preceded by death threats, and often the eventual killer also hints broadly to others what’s to come, if he doesn’t tell them plainly. Ed Johnson may have flipped, but it wasn’t overnight, as Detective McWeeny himself learned upon interviewing Ed’s coworkers and family members. “Everyone we talked to said the same thing–he was enraged about the family situation, and he’d been talking goofy for a long time.

[…] If police had ever arrested Ed when Selena called them, if his bosses had given him desk duties when he started “talking goofy,” and if they had required counseling instead of suggesting it–maybe the tragedy never would have occurred, friends and relatives of both Selena and Ed say. They are furious the police didn’t act until it was time to provide the body bags.

As a history teacher who taught inside Minneapolis classrooms for two years, I’ve known for a while that police were not created to uphold public safety but rather to uphold the racial order. It is from that perspective we understand that police are far from experts on preventing or even handling domestic violence situations. That is how my aunt’s grave tragedy was able to play out in plain sight with all the powers able to see and stop it from happening but refusing to do so. After 40 years of a steady decrease, Psychology Today cites “A recent study examining gender differences and homicide (Fridel, et al.) identified a rise in domestic violence murders since 2014… In the US, three women used to be killed by an intimate partner each day. The figure is now up—closer to four women a day. At the same time, the number of men who are murdered by an intimate partner has declined.” It is criminal in how the Chicago Police Department, Illinois State Police and Cook County authorities failed my aunt and everyone impacted by this single tragedy at every chance, which underscores the point that police actually contribute to making our communities unsafe and indeed need to be abolished.

Compounding tragedies – Chicago to Minneapolis

July 18 marked two years since the killing at the Stillwater prison of veteran correctional officer Joseph Gomm. I was on vacation when my cousin, whom my mother raised along with his sister after my aunt’s murder, made headline news. I was devastated, but not surprised, to read Edward Johnson, Jr. stood accused as the killer of the guard, Joseph Gomm. 

(#SayTheirNamesCemetary, Minneapolis, MN – Photo by Marjaan Sirdar)

In 2002, Edward Johnson, Jr. was arrested for the murder of his girlfriend, Brooke Thompson. Junior, a childhood survivor of domestic violence and notorious gang leader, repeated the crimes of his father. Edward, Jr.’s fate of repeating his father’s crimes is not uncommon to childhood survivors of domestic violence. In 1989, Bogira insinuated the greater impact of my aunt’s murder: “The toll of domestic violence goes far beyond the homicides, of course: there are many victims who never get killed, just thrashed for years.

More tragedies affecting several more families across many generations that could have been prevented if my aunt had received the protection she requested. 

Prison abolition 

Local activists who have been organizing with incarcerated people were not shocked by the murder of the Stillwater correctional officer after hearing complaints about the conditions inside prisons for years. Prison abolitionists with Twin Cities Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) have recently launched a campaign to free Minnesota prisoners “to avoid more inmates from becoming state sponsored murder victims due to covid-19, after two inmates recently died in Minnesota prisons,” said organizer David Boehnke. He told me in a recent phone call that for the past five years they have received regular reports from inmates across the state documenting abuse from prison guards: 

(Forthcoming Report, Death Behind Walls – Minnesota, IWOC)
 (#SayTheirNamesCemetary, Minneapolis, MN – Photo by Marjaan Sirdar)

Sandra Bland, who was discovered hanging dead in her jail cell in Waller County, Texas, was one famous case that sparked national outrage and protests, as many believe she was murdered by Texas authorities. In Minnesota, although it is small, the prison population is disproportionately Black, Native American and Latino. In IWOC’s forthcoming report Death Behind Walls – Minnesota, one of their key findings was that “Minnesota’s prisons and jails are killing more Minnesotans than our police. Between 2006-2016, the years when we have data from the BJS, 163 prisoners died in Minnesota’s state prisons and 81 in our jails, an average of 22 deaths a year. These are likely underreported, like the deaths by police which, for comparison, are roughly 18 a year in Minnesota since 2000.”

Although many Black people may not use labels such as abolitionist to describe their politics, make no mistake about it: many Black people have abolitionist politics. Black people have always known that new forms of slavery simply replaced the old ones and that our Black bodies are the most prized possession on this land, aside from the land itself. If we narrowly frame this movement around the abolition of police, we will lose. America doesn’t love Black people more than its police, and white Americans certainly don’t love Black people as much as their private property. If you are not framing this as the fall of racial apartheid then you will miss the writing on the wall and the voices of those ushering in a new future. In the spirit of Angela Davis and Assata Shakur, who both likened their struggles to that of fugitive slaves, I enthusiastically embrace the term abolitionist.

(George Floyd Memorial Site, Minneapolis, MN – Photo by Marjaan Sirdar)

Edward Jr. and his sister experienced more pain as children than most people experience in a lifetime. Unfortunately, Edward Jr. also caused a tremendous amount of pain to undeserving families, including mine, that all could have been avoided. Junior’s vicious cycle of violence is not uncommon for Black people in the U.S. and I share my family’s tragedy to illustrate how these compounding injustices impact us all. George “Perry” Floyd and my aunt Salma “Selena” Johnson pleaded for their lives, but in both cases it was the police that were merciless in causing the avoidable tragedies. Black families rarely see justice from preventable tragedies, and the impact carries into generations that follow.

Historic community

 (Photo by Marjaan Sirdar)

The community I live in was once a thriving Black community, often referred to as the “Historic Southside.” One of the city’s first integrated high schools, Central, where local legends like Prince and Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton attended, was bulldozed in 1982. About 15 years prior, the government ran Interstate 35W through these neighborhoods, fragmenting the historic Black community. Racial poverty and aggressive gentrification following the 2008 recession displaced more of the pioneering Black community; a community that was historically redlined and once the only place Black families could live in the area. Beginning in the early 1950s, the Tilsenbilt development along 4th and 5th avenues in the “Historic Southside” was one of the nation’s first federally funded “open” house real estate markets where Black families could purchase homes and bequeath land to their kids. Chicago Avenue was, and is, the racial boundary between a historic white community and a historic Black community. Minneapolis, like many cities across the U.S. in the twentieth century, institutionalized racial covenants in property deeds that restricted homeowners from selling to Black families, as explained in the documentary Jim Crow of the North. When these “non-violent” mechanisms failed to protect the racial order, violent white lynch mobs intervened to drive out Black families, as in the 1931 case of Arthur Lee, whose family was the first Black family to move into the Field neighborhood. In 2020, white homeowners can’t mobilize white lynch mobs but they can call 911 and weaponize the police in the same manner. Like borders around the world, 38th & Chicago–, the corner where the MPD killed George Floyd,– has been battled over for decades. 

The Black community around E. 38th street has been organizing for a while to relaunch a Black cultural and economic corridor as a means to close the economic racial disparities so Black folks do not have to send their dollars and labor out of this community. Long ago, drastic racial disparities created hostile dynamics between neighbors; so anyone paying attention knew that something dramatic could happen. Derek Chauvin was simply demonstrating to his reform- minded rookie colleague how to uphold the old racial order when the 19-year veteran killed George Floyd with a knee to his neck in front of Cup Foods and several bystanders. Unless we are having a broader conversation about this arrangement, or “racial order”, and how racial capitalism is at the root of it all, we will continue to have a need for a police force that has been trained to terrorize Black communities from its inception. We can change the name of law enforcement, but the primary function of overseeing this arrangement will not be changed until we end the exploitation of human beings and land, which are the foundations of white wealth. 

Call to action

(George Floyd Memorial Site, Minneapolis, MN – Photo by Marjaan Sirdar)

Like our ancestors before us, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and the Black Panthers, we are not representatives of the mainstream views of our times. Liberty for Black people has never been a mainstream view. When people are denied justice and left to their own devices to soothe their pain, the results are tragedy tenfold like with the destruction of our city after the senseless killing of George Floyd. This moment of great reckoning cannot be missed. We must organize people, money and actions across all communities in order to build a future centered in care rather than profits. A society that continues an apartheid-like system is carrying out a radical and dangerous experiment given the recent uprisings around the globe rejecting this very system. The dismantling of these systems is far from radical; it is survival to those waking up. To outsiders, Minneapolis may seem an unlikely center for a global struggle against racist policing and racial capitalism, but none of it should have come as a surprise, at least not to the people in power who created this crisis in the first place. Veteran anti-police brutality activist Mel Reeves spoke truth to power in his piece Minneapolis burned but it should not come as a surprise:

“Minneapolis burned last night. The nation got a foretaste of what is to come. A beaten down people will not stay beaten down forever. You can hold them down but they won’t be held down forever. The match was lit by the cop, Derek Chauvin, who ignored pleas for mercy while flaunting his power, and rubbed it in our faces, as he murdered George Floyd with a smile on his face…

“For those who choose to sit in judgment: Merchandise can be replaced. Black lives cannot.”

About the author: Marjaan is a freelance writer and community organizer in the Bryant neighborhood in South Minneapolis where George Floyd was killed. He is the host of People Power Podcast.

Attend an Event