The office of the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (Center of Workers United in Struggle, or CTUL) is just a block away from the place where a police officer killed George Floyd as three others watched. The worker center has been organizing with low-wage workers of color, many of them immigrants, in Minneapolis since 2007, including in the retail cleaning sector and in fast food. Its members have also been deeply involved in protesting the ongoing racial inequality and violent policing in the Twin Cities, and so its offices have become one of many hubs for local activists, doing mutual aid as well as joining the protests in the streets.
Shenda Kazee has lived in Minneapolis most of her life and has been a member of CTUL since 2015, when she joined the fast food worker organizing. The anger on the streets did not surprise her at all. “This was an inevitable outcome after years of injustice; whether it is low wages, abusive bosses, or police brutality, our community is in a lot of pain. Killing George Floyd was the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “There are so many injustices I have witnessed firsthand that never make the news. Minneapolis definitely needs to change.”
Despite the fear of COVID-19 and of the increased brutality of the police, Kazee said, she has felt it necessary to join the protests. “The goal of the police is to make people scared. They don’t want us to crawl out of the hole we’re living in,” she said. “If somebody doesn’t stand and do something, it is only going to get worse.”
The protests against police violence were deeply connected to the organizing she’d done as a worker, Kazee said. “Everybody works so hard to get to where they are trying to go,” she said, but no matter how hard they work, black people are not treated equally. “The system is so corrupt,” she said. “They want to feel superior. They want us to stay where we are: scared of them.”
President Trump’s words, Kazee worried, would only inflame the situation. But, she noted, this was not the first time that she and many, many others had been in the streets. “If we all unite and we speak our voice . . . they might not hear one person, but they definitely would hear hundreds.” But it is hard to trust the police when all she has seen is violence from them.
Kazee herself has witnessed police killings in Minneapolis. She lived right by the 4th Precinct, which was occupied by protesters after the 2015 police killing of twenty-four-year-old Jamar Clark. (White supremacists shot at protesters who were camping outside that precinct, and activists in Minneapolis have reported their return to the streets during these protests.) She noted that the protests have begun not because police violence is new, but because the recordings of it have gotten out. “It is so sad to watch the people that are supposed to serve and protect us step in and kill us. They don’t make the world better. They make it worse, to the point where no one wants to call the cops for any assistance now, because when the cops come, they make things worse, and they are worried about losing someone when the cops get there.” She paused for breath. “I just don’t think we need the cops because when the cops come somebody might, the majority of the time, die or get shot. They don’t come to make situations better, ever.”
“We’ve tried,” she continued. “We’ve protested. We fought for the police not to get higher pay, but we were ignored, and they are still killing. Now, it is to the point where everybody is so angry—I don’t think half of these stores would have been burned or touched if we weren’t so fed up.”
At the CTUL office, Kazee and others have been passing out food and water and masks to the community. The office has also served as a kind of organizing base. Kazee spent her time there trying to figure out what people needed and then find ways to fulfil those needs.
“It started the day after we realized that there were going to be protests and we are still in the middle of a pandemic, so our organizers and our members went out and handed out masks to the community,” said Isabela Escalona, a staff member at CTUL. The space has grown since then, with donations flooding in.
The support from outside of Minnesota has been meaningful to Kazee. “This is international now,” she said. “We are tired. I think we need to unite and end racism and take care of our communities.”
The coronavirus and the protests have CTUL leaders thinking about how things are going to change going forward, Escalona said. Organizing around, she said, “policing and labor and workers’ rights go together. If you don’t have a job, if your job pays you poorly, if your boss isn’t letting you organize and is retaliating, and then you are also dealing with the police, that really weighs heavily on a community.”
Even before the killing of George Floyd, she noted, CTUL was part of the organizing around the 2019 budget for Minneapolis, alongside Reclaim the Block and Black Visions Collective. “We all had members there testifying why police don’t keep our communities safe,” she said. But the city still increased the police budget. Despite five years of organizing and making demands since Jamar Clark’s killing, Escalona said, “It’s 2020 and we’re still seeing this. We need to try something new. It is time. This isn’t working.”
“This is only the beginning,” Kazee added. “We have a long road ahead of us, but we are going to be here to support the people and we are going to be here to fight for the people and have a voice for the people because that is what we do. We just need to make sure we stay united and focused.”
While the policing and the National Guard in the streets are scary, Escalona said, “Right now, I am at CTUL’s building, and I’ve got to say, that looks like the future to me. So many donations, so many volunteers, so many people helping out right now. It is just showing the alternative that we can have for community safety. What if our community safety was made up by our community instead of police? We’ve hit a new moment and it looks really scary in some places, but we’re also seeing some moments of hope.”
People are finding their roles, she noted—whether doing outreach from home, managing donations, or being in the streets. “It really takes a whole community effort for this.”
“We don’t know where to go from here, but we’re definitely going to figure it out,” Kazee added.
After we got off the phone, Escalona passed along a last email message from Kazee. “Forget the police. We need to be done with the cops. Say their names. George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Philando Castile. Jamar Clark.”
Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at the Type Media Center, the author of Necessary Trouble: American in Revolt, and the co-host of Dissent’s Belabored podcast.