Black Stories Matter: Terrion Williamson and Jabari Asim on Narrative During the George Floyd Protests
In Conversation with V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell on Fiction/Non/Fiction
The police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has sparked nationwide protests and a reckoning with racism and police brutality. In this episode, University of Minnesota professor and author Terrion Williamson talks with Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast co-hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell about her recent Belt Magazine essay, in which she writes about the parallels between George Floyd’s killing and the 2010 death of David Cornelius Smith, a Black man who moved from her hometown to the Twin Cities. Then, poet and writer Jabari Asim breaks down the dangerous fallout of the criminalization of Black communities and favorable portrayals of police in literature and the media, which he tackles in his newest collection, Stop and Frisk.
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This podcast is produced by Andrea Tudhope.
Selected readings for the episode:
Stop and Frisk · A Child’s Introduction to African American History · We Can’t Breathe: On Black Lives, White Lies, and the Art of Survival · Only the Strong · What Obama Means … for Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Future · Not Guilty · Sing It Like a God · The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why · A Taste of Honey: Stories
The Black Midwest Initiative · Remembering David Cornelius Smith · Black in the Middle: An Anthology of the Black Midwest · Scandalize My Name: Black Feminist Practice and the Making of Black Social Life
Minneapolis Had This Coming by Justin Ellis · Why Minneapolis Was the Breaking Point by Wesley Lowery · Revealing the Divisive History of Minneapolis by Sarah Holder · Century after Minnesota lynchings, black man convicted of rape ‘because of his race’ up for pardon by Meagan Flynn · Their Minneapolis Restaurant Burned, but They Back the Protest by Amelia Nierenberg · Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police by Mariame Kaba · The tiny media collective that is delivering some of the most vital reporting from Minneapolis by Troy Patterson · Amy Cooper Is Fired After Calling Police on Black Birder in Central Park · All Fiction is Crime Fiction: Mat Johnson on the Origins of Modern Mystery · The Crisis Magazine – NAACP’s Magazine · Chester Himes · Barbara Neely · Grace Edwards · Attica Locke · Nichelle Tramble · Walter Mosley · Watchmen (television series) · BlackKklansman
With Terrion Williamson
V.V. Ganeshananthan: I live in South Minneapolis, which is where George Floyd was killed about a mile and a half from my house at the intersection of 38th and Chicago. But you live in North Minneapolis, which was, as far as I can tell, one of the area’s most affected by the protests and things around it. So can you just describe your neighborhood a little bit for us?
Terrion Williamson: When I was looking to move here in 2016—I have family members who are my father’s age and my father’s cousins who live here—when I said I was looking to buy a house, and I was looking in North Minneapolis, my cousin said, ‘Oh, you don’t want to do that. All they do is shoot and kill in North Minneapolis.’ And so I was like, ‘Oh, I guess that’s probably where I should move, because that must be where my people are.’ That told me something about what was happening in North Minneapolis. Turns out it’s not true that all they do is shoot and kill in North Minneapolis. But it is the case that it’s an under-resourced working-class community of a sort that I’m really familiar with. About 50 percent of the population is Black or African American. Many of my neighbors are people of color and many of them are not. The neighbors on both sides of me and in the front and behind me are all white. So, it’s a diverse neighborhood that has had its struggles.
VVG: Terrion, where were you when the protests were starting off?
TW: I was here. The bizarre thing about it is you’re watching what’s happening around you on television. But it was also quite confusing, because it took a while before I realized that there were protests that were happening here in North, because so much of the coverage was focused on Lake Street and South Minneapolis. Maybe that Friday or Saturday after that night, I went out just driving around the neighborhood, and I saw that the gas station right around the corner from me had been burned down. And I hadn’t seen it, I hadn’t smelled it, I hadn’t heard it. During most of those early days, I was here at home and trying to make sense of it as it was happening. It’s still been difficult even now, particularly from following cable news, and trying to follow more alternative outlets. It’s still been a little tricky until I get out of my car and start driving around, and I start seeing the evidence of what’s been happening.
Whitney Terrell: What do you think the national media got wrong or right about the way they portrayed the protests here?
TW: I think what’s right is that there is the palpable sense of rage that is clearly being articulated. Media loves a burning building, a burning car, glass broken into. So, I was fielding a number of emails and texts and phone calls from people who care about me, concerned that the city was burning to the ground. There were plenty of ways in which people were gathering together and demonstrating and rallying and supporting each other that had nothing to do with any of that. So, for instance, the first night, that Tuesday night, I went to a demonstration right over there at Cup Foods and never felt unsafe for a moment. It was my first time being out after a couple of months of being inside as a consequence of the pandemic and being with folks, and it really felt like the rage was clearly there. It was also a space in which people were committed to making something happen, committed to seeing some kind of change, committed to advocating on behalf of George Floyd and other people who have been victims of police brutality, in a way that felt like a coming together of a community in a space that was really generative and productive and meaningful in a real way that I don’t think often enough gets captured in, particularly in mainstream media.
VVG: I was actually impressed with some of the national media coverage by print reporters, and it was almost always reporters of color, who I assume and hope in this environment were being given greater latitude to pitch and write the stories that they cared about. So, for example, the New York Times ran a story about a restaurant that my friends all love, Gandhi Mahal, which is a Bangladeshi-run restaurant, where the owner was amazingly supportive of the protesters, and he’s a community fixture who has fed activists. So, to see the national media recognize that narrative as well, I appreciated that, and I hope that that’s something that continues.
Some of those really astonishing [community] responses have been in the form of art. There’s the George Floyd Memorial at 38th and Chicago, that square is blocked off, and there’s a huge number of really beautiful tributes to him and statements in support of these protests that are there. One of them is a list of names of people who have been lost to police brutality and racism. It’s not an exhaustive list, and it’s still extremely long. It was done so that a helicopter would be able to see it, basically. There are all these names, and then there are also all of the ones that aren’t there. You recently published, in Belt Magazine, a piece examining the life and death of someone who grew up where you grew up and who died in Minneapolis.
TW: The essay is called ‘Remembering David Cornelius Smith.’ David Smith is a young man who was 28 years old. He was from my hometown of Peoria, Illinois. And he had ended up in the Twin Cities, because he had come here for Job Corps. He was here for roughly 10 years or so. After Job Corps, he stayed in the city and ended up being murdered here by the Minneapolis Police Department. I didn’t know about this story until after the George Floyd killing happened. Someone who I had been good friends with when I was in grade school and high school had posted about her brother’s death—David turned out to be her brother. Her name was Angela. That is how I first heard the story of David Cornelius Smith. We ended up talking and working together to tell the story.
WT: I’m sure it was extremely difficult to write. It’s just very difficult to imagine how his family must have felt when they heard about George Floyd’s death, especially since when you read what happened to him—the restraint, the asphyxiation—these are all things that have been repeated. This thing is happening over and over and over again. Later in the essay, you talk about how it was part of the settlement around his death that the Minneapolis Police Department would have training on restraints. That does not seem to have happened, or there’s no evidence that it did. So, what is going on with the Minneapolis Police Department?
TW: That ends up being of critical importance for the family. So, nothing happened to the two police officers who were involved. They were put on administrative leave for a short period of time. Less than a month later, they were back on their jobs. There was no criminal indictment. The family sued [the] city of Minneapolis and decided ultimately to enter into the settlement, in large part because one of the things that they were told would happen was that there would be retraining around restraint tactics by MPD. That was very important for them, because the question was put to them, ‘Is it about change happening, or is it about the money?’ And they were like, ‘It’s about change. We don’t want anyone else to ever have to go through this.’ So, it was vital to them that they were told that there was going to be all of this retraining that was going to happen around restraint tactics in the MPD. One of the things I mentioned later on in the article is that, in a recent interview, Louis Brown who was one of the younger siblings of David, says, ‘My brother’s death was supposed to save Mr. Floyd’s life.’ When the video surfaced of what happened to Mr. Floyd, and they had to watch that it was really, as you might imagine, very triggering for them and devastating for them on a bunch of levels.
The MPD, like most police departments, [is] particularly unable to deal with mental illness, with health crises, people who they see as potentially under the influence. All that stuff is contested in this case, including the mental health diagnosis of David Smith. But, whatever the ultimate diagnosis was, they understood him to be in some form of a crisis. Clearly there’s no ability to deal with that.
VVG: The [Minneapolis] City Council has voted to dismantle [the police department] and has written a resolution to replace it with what they’re calling ‘a community-led public safety system,’ and we’re expected to vote on a referendum in November. I was wondering what you think about that and the idea of that model as a replacement or evolution for safety and security in the community, and where we’re headed from here?
TW: It’s a little hard to know where we’re headed. What I see happening is that there’s going to be a lot of conversation about the difference between defunding the police and abolishing the police, and what it’s going to mean to try to have those conversations in collaboration with each other. If you look, Mariame Kaba has an opinion piece in the New York Times that came out a few days ago, and she says, ‘Yes, we literally mean abolish the police.’ Just reading the comment sections and the kind of instantaneous rebuttal to that, I think, is revealing, in many instances, a wholesale rejection of that idea. I think that tells us something about the nature of the contestation that is to come around how to move forward.
With Jabari Asim
Whitney Terrell: Your 2018 book of essays, We Can’t Breathe seems totally prescient about the moment we’re in now, after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. We’ve been talking to Terrion Williamson about Minneapolis, a city that will now go down in history as a center of police violence. You’re from St. Louis. Why have these protests centered in Midwestern communities, like Ferguson and Minneapolis and not, say, LA?
Jabari Asim: I think it’s less a function of being in places where police departments are especially punitive, but being in situations where frustrations have been building up over time and have simply reached a boiling point. So, in Minneapolis, for example, you had Jamar Clark, unarmed, killed by police. Then, you had Philando Castile, who was legally carrying and killed by police. And finally, George Floyd. So, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. In Ferguson, just outside of St. Louis, it was a combination of abusive policing and policing for profit, in which towns like Ferguson, through municipal mismanagement, rely on punishing citizens to make up for budget deficits. So, for example, you can get ticketed there for jaywalking on a street where there is no sidewalk. And then insult was added to injury there when Mike Brown’s body was left in the street for so many hours and his mother and other loved ones being forbidden to approach him. It became a powder keg as frustrations built up.
WT: There’s a huge podcast industry that’s about true crime stories. People just are fascinated by them. The listeners to those stories are largely white. Those podcasts, to me, have a secondary sort of sense of the key person who’s always the testifier. It’s hard for me to imagine or remember stories that are about a cop who did something wrong to a citizen of color and then was allowed back on the force, as activists know happens all the time. I think there’s a complicity in the way that you can consume media as a white media consumer.
JA: Yeah, of course there’s the consumption, but there’s the production of it as well, so we always have to turn a critical gaze toward the people who are producing these stories. Writers who write for television, movies, etc.,—writers of color—have been campaigning for years for inclusion to integrate those writers’ rooms and maybe challenge some of those really one-dimensional and limited conceptions of people of color. Sometimes, you need the other people in the room. There are people who are not of color who are capable, who have demonstrated themselves capable of creating dimensional, multi-layered, complex and unpredictable characters of color, but they’re in the minority. It’s an inevitable conclusion that we need other people in the room with access to those stories and access to tell stories.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: So, you write, “Racism and its accompanying and cruelties have shaped me to police myself,” which is so interesting. Most nice white liberals would never admit to watching Cops, much less supporting racism, but they will binge on podcasts, but also prestige cop shows like, The Shield, or CSI Miami, true crime TV shows like Dateline, The First 48, and Homicide Hunter—all of which are devoted to burnishing this image of the good cop.
JA: I’m not necessarily talking as much about television narratives that influence us. I think it’s a little disingenuous to blame so much of this on media portrayals, especially where our liberal friends are concerned. I think these are societal customs, and I think it’s the weight of societal customs that shapes our behavior as much as these televised portrayals. I’m not the only person to have written about and spoken about the amount of energy that I have devoted to making white people comfortable in spaces. I think that the tradition and the social custom is heavy enough and long enough that I think you could say that even if those television shows did not exist, these behaviors would continue to manifest. They predate television. As long as Black people have been in the land we now call the United States, people have been led to believe that we’re to be monitored, and that we’re to proceed with caution. Although we resist these attempts to shape us, they undoubtedly influence us.
VVG: I think of these narratives as a retroactive justification. It seems like a way that when you go through some sort of event and you’re attempting to understand it and to absolve yourself in some way, you tell yourself the story in that manner, and then you’re off the hook.
JA: I think you’re exactly right. We have this impulse to rationalize our misbehavior, even though on some level, we’re aware that it is unjust. So, we use these narratives to support our impulses toward certain kinds of behavior. We’re trying to find reasons to justify why we both malignantly and benignly participate in this sustained narrative of injustice and unequal treatment.
WT: You write about in your essay collection, We Can’t Breathe—”the patroller complex.” It connected it up in my mind with this sort of a narrative device that occurs in literature and in TV of “the vigilante.” And in your essay, ‘Shooting Negroes,’ you’re writing about George Zimmerman killing Trayvon Martin, but you might just as well be writing about the man who shot Ahmaud Arbrey. It’s so powerful to me the way that you outline the way that story has developed over centuries. I think of Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” or Charles Bronson or “Rambo” or Liam Neeson’s “Taken” movies. That idea of the vigilante seems to come right out of this power dynamic that you’re describing in this essay.
JA: I think the State, as far back as the 1700s, empowers not just people who carry a badge, but just white people in general to interrogate, investigate people who they feel don’t belong. That’s part of Amy Cooper’s response in Central Park to Christian Cooper, when she threatened to call the police on him and say a Black man was making her fear for her life. It doesn’t take much imagination to draw a line between her behavior and this behavior we’re seeing in the 1740s. It really is an unbroken line.
WT: And, in that one, the thing that was remarkable in that video was that she started acting like she was playing a role. She knew the role. She changed her voice, she began to act this narrative out for the cops as though she were doing a school play.
JA: Right, right. And just, upping the ante, in terms of the possibility of Christian Cooper being violently subdued, because she was so terror stricken or at least pretended to be.
VVG: When we’re talking about vigilantes, in recent narratives, and I’ve hugely enjoyed watching Black vigilantes, there’s Denzel Washington in The Equalizer, there’s Django Unchained, made by a white director, so maybe still a fantasy, and then there’s my personal favorite, Watchmen on HBO, which draws connections between masked superheroes and the Klan but has Black vigilantes. How have you thought about these narratives?
JA: Well, it’s interesting. Denzel Washington’s The Equalizer, we have to say that it’s basically a reworking of the television show, The Equalizer in the 1980s and featured a British actor named Edward Woodard. So, it’s not an original Black vigilante story, it’s “let’s take this white story and redo it with a Black star.” I’ve never seen Django Unchained. I can’t say that I have any impulse to see it because of Tarantino. I won’t say any more on that, but it’s definitely not a Black film, and it’s not Black characters created by Black people. It’s another example of narrative manipulation, however you want to look at it. And it kind of points to a larger issue. If we look at Black sleuths, shall we say, on both sides of the badge, the most popular ones are characters like John Shaft, which was created by Ernest Tidyman, a white writer. There’s Alex Cross, who was created by James Patterson, a white writer, and those tend to be the narratives that are perpetuated.
Whereas, for me the most compelling writers in that tradition, who are really looking at this from a genuine and informed African American perspective are people like Chester Himes and Barbara Neely, Grace Edwards, Attica Locke, Nichelle Tramble, Walter Mosley. There’s this whole other tradition, and some of these writers are what we call “Black famous” as opposed to “white famous.” They’re respected and revered by Black readers, but some of them are unknown outside of their communities. It’s not a tragedy, but it’s an unhappy phenomenon. So, I’m much more interested in the way those writers shape these stories of Black people pursuing justice. “Watchmen” is a little different, I would say, because Damon Lindelof, the showrunner, actually had Black writers in the room. He set out to create an integrated writers’ room and also solicited really constructive input from his performers like Regina King. So it comes a lot closer to a community-shaped characterization of Black people and Black vigilantes, as well. And I’m hopeful that we’ll see more of that kind of storytelling in the future. I’d have to agree with you that it was compelling television, and maybe a sign of things to come.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Andrea Tudhope and V.V. Ganeshananthan.