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Nehanda Imara woke up on Tuesday morning with anxiety and a pit in her stomach. She knew that a verdict might be announced in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd last May, but she didn’t know when. “I didn’t want to listen to the news. I turned it off. I couldn’t watch that video again or see [the officer’s] face anymore.”
Then, around 2 p.m., the news broke. Chauvin was found guilty on three charges: first-degree murder, second-degree murder, and manslaughter. “I had bittersweet tears,” said Imara. “I was very emotional. I had to call my daughter and talk to somebody.”
Imara, a community organizer with the Black Cultural Zone and an East Oakland resident for more than 30 years, had been anticipating the jury’s decision and speaking with her coworkers for weeks about planning an event in response, whether Chauvin was found guilty or not. “There was going to be a decision one way or another. What are we going to do? How are we going to hold space for our community, whatever the decision is?”
The verdict arrived so quickly, said Imara, that she and other members of the Black Cultural Zone, a community development collective, set aside talk of a larger event and began planning for an impromptu healing circle. “We just decided, let’s hold space tonight. Because people want it; people were asking for it.”
A few hours later, Imara and half a dozen other organizers were at Liberation Park on 73rd Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard, setting up tables and chairs (about a dozen, set up in a circle), unloading food (chicken, green beans, mac n’ cheese, and sweet yams purchased from House of Chicken and Waffles), and burning sage to cleanse the area in preparation for the gathering.
Residents began to trickle in around 5:30 p.m. and the tables were full by 6:15 pm. There would be no speeches, poems, or performances. A PA system, brought out to accommodate anyone who may have wanted to say some words, was never turned on. Old friends greeted each other with hugs, broke bread, and processed the day’s news in small groups. It’s just what Imara and other organizers had in mind.
“I feel a lot better now that I’m out here in the sun, with people who care,” said Imara. “Because I think that’s what people want during this time, when we can’t be outside as much as we want to, especially on a day like today. That in itself is healing—just to be with other human beings that have feelings about this.”
Cierra Brown, 17, showed up early. The Oakland Tech senior started helping out with community food drives through an internship with a local organization last summer and was recently hired by the Black Cultural Zone to help organize and plan events.
Like Imara, Brown’s feelings about the Chauvin verdict are mixed. “It’s not even really a celebration because there are so many more Black people that have died at the hands of police. I wouldn’t even call it a victory because a girl, Ma’Khia Bryant, just got shot four times in the chest in Ohio. And this is not okay. It’s just never-ending for Black people.”
Brown, who will attend UC Santa Cruz in the fall, doesn’t expect the Chauvin decision to change life dramatically for Black people. But she does intend to continue doing her part, by focusing her studies on food insecurity and other social justice issues that her recent community service work has exposed her to.
“I just really don’t feel like in my lifetime I’ll get to see racial equality, and that’s kind of sad,” said Brown. “But I can help to make it better.”
Towanda Sherry came to Oakland 39 years ago from Florida and has spent the bulk of those years community organizing with groups like Faith in Action East Bay and Just Cities. Through the latter organization, she helped push the city of Oakland to adopt a Fair Chance Housing policy, which removed barriers to housing for people with criminal records. She became involved in that campaign after her son, Simbarashe Sherry, was shot and killed by a neighbor during a period of time when he was unhoused.
“When the verdict came in I started to cry,” said Sherry. “I believe God teaches us that we should seek justice and mercy. But most of the time, Black people and people of color don’t get any mercy, and justice never surfaces for us. And that’s very hard to deal with. And so we have Derrick Chauvin who was finally served with some measure of justice, but I don’t know how that’s going to look, because we still have so much work to do around this issue. What does it mean when we still have people being killed?”
Transformational change, said Sherry, will only come when Black people are viewed by the wider society as whole human beings.
“I listen to Kamala Harris talking about her bill, the George Floyd bill around police reform. But the whole mindset of the police needs to be addressed. We still have people saying it’s alright to do these types of chokeholds, and barge into people’s houses unannounced and shoot and kill people, and no one is held accountable for it,” said Sherry. “People think that because we’re African Americans we’re not allowed the rights of others and folks don’t view us as human.”
Speaking of the guilty verdict, Carolyn Johnson, CEO of the Black Cultural Zone, said she’s grateful that her 80-year-old mother didn’t have to witness another officer be acquitted or convicted on lesser charges for killing a Black person. “She’d been watching this trial every day. She’s from the South. She had to ride in the back of the bus and all of that. Her family left Oklahoma because of police brutality, to get away, and she’s still dealing with it. I was just thinking, ‘Oh Lord, please, let him just be convicted,’ so that my mom can just have a little bit of peace.”
Like others at Liberation Park, Johnson sees the Chauvin verdict as just one significant moment in a much longer struggle. While the decision won’t change anything on its own, she said, complacency isn’t the answer.
“I tell a lot of the young people that what they’re living through, none of us thought would ever happen. When my nephew first told me about this Barack Obama guy who might be president, I was like, ‘In this country? Please, it’ll never happen.’ And it happened. Now what we’re seeing with this trial and a police officer actually being convicted, is something we never thought would happen. So my message is, try to imagine what you think could never actually happen—and it actually can.”