COVERING A YEAR LATER: HOW LOCAL COMMUNITIES CONTINUE TO ADVOCATE FOR BLACK LIVES AFTER GEORGE FLOYD’S MURDER
TDR Regular Contributor / June 28, 2021
Last summer, it was impossible to turn on the news without seeing protests. George Floyd’s murder on May 25, 2020 sent people into the streets in record numbers.
Last year, police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for about nine minutes during an arrest for counterfeit bill, resulting in Floyd’s death. Chauvin previously had 18 misconduct complaints. Because several bystanders took videos, Chauvin was arrested and found guilty of unintentional second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
In Fayetteville, North Carolina, where Floyd was born, the scene was much of the same. People came out to demand police reform and justice for Floyd. Though people are not in the streets to the same extent now, that doesn’t mean activists aren’t doing important work.
Criminal justice reform advocate Kimberly Muktarian is one such person, though she’s frustrated with the lack of change on a community level.
“With George Floyd, it woke a lot of people up, but not to change,” said Muktarian. “America doesn’t want to change unless it’s done by force.”
Six months ago, Muktarian and her allies requested an African American affairs board, but she says the city government is still debating what that looks like. Additionally, activists are asking for subpoena power, police accountability boards across the state and the dismantling of North Carolina qualified immunity. Muktarian hasn’t seen any of this happen.
“Even down to the Juneteenth federal acknowledgement, we’re getting symbolic victories but not real victories,” she said.
The Market House
One of the biggest frustrations for activists is the still-standing Market House, building where white settlers formerly sold enslaved Africans. Especially given the removal of so many confederate monuments across the country, Muktarian and others are frustrated that the house still stands. The city plans to turn it into a museum.
The Market House has existed in Fayetteville since 1832 and has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1970. Market House advocates argue that enslaved people weren’t sold there “that often” or that white settlers only sold enslaved Africans “occasionally,” though it did happen, resulting in at least dozens of enslaved people sold at the Market House.
“We should not have to pay for the upkeep of a slave house or slave plantation,” said Muktarian.
During protest after Floyd’s murder, local activist Mario Benavente says several people tried to break into the Market House.
“I was present for things after the sun went down, and at that point the police started coming around,” Benavente said. “It was at that point I made my way to the streets and documented everything I could that night, May 30. I went live and I was on there for a while. My focus was on making sure the police were doing what they should be doing.”
Earlier this year, Benavente occupied the Market House with several others in the community. Folks would bring them water, generators and canopies, so they were able to stay at the protest around the clock and offer their excess supplies to people experiencing homelessness.
At last, city officials promised to make changes. Benavente has yet to see them do so.
Fayetteville Mayor Mitch Colvin has a different take, although he agrees that doing nothing is not an option.
“We chose to repurpose it,” he said of the city turning the Market House into a museum. “History has a dark past, but we have to tell it in its entirety.”
Kathy Greggs, co-founder of Fayetteville’s Police Accountability Community Taskforce, says the Market House is one of the reasons she feels there hasn’t been any change since George Floyd’s death. She says people look at it and understand they are still in bondage.
Greggs and others asked the City of Fayetteville to remove the monument back in 2014.
”To me it’s just the most ignorant thing right now when we have other states removing their confederate monuments,” she said.
Greggs and the other organizers at Fayetteville PACT are dedicated to assisting folks in Fayetteville in regards to racial disparities, which for them includes issues of the criminal justice system, climate justice and more.
In the last few years, they’ve worked on cases of police planting of evidence and police corruption. They’ve worked with the North Carolina Justice Center, the ACLU of North Carolina and Black Voters Matter.
Right now, their main goal is to get an independent citizen review board in Fayetteville.
“Police have edited and tampered with plenty of evidence,” said Greggs. “We’ve had that here in Fayetteville.”
In the last year, Greggs said, “I don’t believe there’s been any change in Fayetteville. There’s been no policy changes.”
In fact, there have been few changes in the last decade, Greggs noted. She cited the “driving while Black” controversy in Fayetteville, a term coined to express how police officers are more likely to stop Black drivers just because of their skin color. Black drivers are still dealing with this disparity.
“Nothing has changed since George Floyd,” Greggs said. “No policy changes, not even budget changes to help the homeless. We’re in still water and have not moved.”
Greggs believes that until officials work with the people, there can be no change. “In order for us to be in unity, we must trust our officials,” she said. “Without trust, there is no unity.
“Right now, no one is held accountable. Everything they do is based on what they want and not the people.”
In fact, the city has requested four times that the North Carolina legislature give them the authority to make a review board according to Mayor Colvin. They have yet to do so.
He says that the frustration from the community is that “the police are policing themselves.”
“Even before the national conversation, we had some severe problems with our police department,” he said. “In 2013 the Department of Justice came in and gave us an analysis that showed we were targeting Black drivers. We had a number of police shootings. They worked with us to institute more community policing. Of course activists want to see more, but if you look at the last few years, we’ve made a lot of progress.”
Local activist Mario Benavente, however, said that there is still a lack of accountability, and that it was very present during the protests immediately after Floyd’s murder. He saw police officers teargassing small pockets of people protesters during the May 2020 marches.
“People were literally tripping over themselves, falling on the floor, choking,” Benavente said. He is still waiting to see an investigation done.
“It’s not just the Minnesota cops,” he said. “Every police dept. across the country has those root issues. Their focus at the end of the day has less to do with public safety than cracking sculls.
“A year later, nothing has changed. Our city council has been cowardly. I’m not sure what special interests are afraid of upsetting, but they’re not doing anything regarding the demands activists are making of them.”
A little bit of hope
In spite of all of this, some activists are still hopeful that things can change.
Dawn Blagrove is one example. As the executive director of Emancipate NC, she has spent the last year fighting for transparency from the police department.
Folks like Blagrove at Emancipate NC have dedicated themselves to dismantling systemic institutional racism and mass incarceration. They do this largely through community education.
“Our overriding philosophy is that the people closest to the harm are those who are most well equipped to find solutions,” said Blagrove. “So we do community educating and meetings. We created a program called the Justice League where we bring in people who have been touched by the criminal justice system. We then give them the tools they need to make change in their communities.”
Similarly, much of the change Blagrove sees is how we talk about race, which she says is just as important as taking to the streets.
“Part of the change we’ve seen is one of a change in the collective psyche of America about what conversations are acceptable to have,” she said. “Without the uprisings of the last year, there would not be interest in abolition. Defunding the police has been a thing since years ago, but has only come into the public lexicon in the last two years. That’s progress.”
Blagrove won’t stop at conversations, however, and hopes that others won’t either.
“We have changed the conversation,” said Blagrove. “We’ve introduced terms and ideas to the American psyche. Now the work is turning those ideas into concrete changes that result in equity.”