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Civil rights expert gives historical perspective on George Floyd protests

Alex Jokich
Updated: May 29, 2020 06:55 PM
Created: May 29, 2020 05:00 PM

5 EYEWITNESS News spoke with a nationally known civil rights expert Friday about what to expect in the Twin Cities, as the George Floyd protests stretched into day four.

Yohuru Williams, Dean of the University of St. Thomas College of Arts and Sciences, studies civil rights and Black Power movements.

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Williams said we cannot predict the future but we can look to the past for some perspective about the coming days and weeks. He was on the ground in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 during the unrest there following the shooting death of Michael Brown.

"If we look to the past as a barometer for where we are and for the future, we know it's a long trajectory," Williams said. 

The riots in Detroit and Newark in 1967 each went on for about five days. The riots in Los Angeles in 1992 lasted about the same period of time, after a jury acquitted four officers in the beating of Rodney King.

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But Williams said we saw something different play out in Ferguson six years ago, where the first round of unrest lasted more than two weeks. It was followed by two more rounds of protests in the months that followed.

"Ferguson was unique in that you had activists saying, 'We're going to stay here until we see the structural change we think is necessary to move this community forward,'" Williams explained. 

Williams said he believes the Twin Cities will see "some manifestation of what happened in Ferguson," noting there are some "critical differences."

"We do seem to have enlightened politicians in these two cities in this moment who are willing to do the right thing," Williams said. "We've never seen a police commissioner and a mayor act so swiftly to call out the injustice they saw. But the community has to do its part as well, get behind those agendas and continue to move forward in ways that uplift us all."

5 EYEWITNESS News reporter Alex Jokich asked Williams what he thinks is the best path forward for the Twin Cities.

"Really thinking about our community in a way where we build trust," Williams responded, "because at the end of the day, riots may be the language of the frustrated, but the inability for people to have human empathy and to understand that is what compounds that issue."

Williams urges people to look critically at past incidents in other parts of the country when considering what is happening in Minnesota right now.

"I think there are three things we can learn, historically, from other communities that have gone through this," Williams said. " The first is not to lose sight of our shared humanity. That is absolutely essential. The second is to begin to take concrete steps immediately to address the injustice which led to the violence to begin with and that means, in this case, dealing with the officers involved in the killing of George Floyd. And the third is not to lose hope. It sounds simple but the reality is, the less hopeful we are about the future, the easier it is for us to be, in some sense, passive about this moment. It's a tremendous moment in our history. What we do from here on is going to define the Twin Cities for decades to come."


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