In her grief, north Minneapolis organizer renews commitment to action

Two people looking over a sheet of paper.
Roxxanne O'Brien (center) looked over a script for a video with Rashaunea Ambers-Winston (left) on Feb. 5 at Juxtaposition Arts in Minneapolis. O'Brien is a longtime north side resident, mother, and organizer.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News 2020

Three weeks after Roxxanne O’Brien first scrolled through Facebook and clicked on the video of a white police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd for nearly nine minutes, she still feels overwhelming pain.

O’Brien chokes up as she recalls what it was like to see Floyd calling out for his mother and telling the officer, “I can’t breathe.”

“It’s like my throat filling up with tears,” she said. “My chest, my eyes, my heart just feels heavy.”

O’Brien, who is black, lives and works as a community organizer in north Minneapolis, where African Americans in particular have had a history of tension with local police. Since Floyd’s killing, she has cycled through grief and anger, and is now working with others on the north side to make changes for what they hope will lead to greater community safety and accountability. 

O’Brien is hesitant to call the police for any reason, saying she can’t trust what officers will do when they show up. “We can’t depend on the institution that was to be there to protect people because it was never there to protect us,” she said. “It wasn’t set up for us. It was there to protect white people and their property.”  

In the days following Floyd’s killing, O’Brien was also unnerved by warnings from law enforcement officials and stories from neighbors that white supremacist groups were in town to capitalize on the protests. In her Folwell neighborhood, where about 7 of 10 residents are people of color, she ran through disaster scenarios over and over in her head. She took stock of her defenses. She had a hatchet and a bat on hand, in case she had to defend her family.

She says anticipating violence by police and racists, along with the everyday demands of being a parent, a friend and a provider during COVID-19, is sometimes just too much. She knows a number of friends and neighbors who, like her, are struggling to keep it together. 

They are sad. They are exhausted. And they are triggered by Floyd’s death. 

She worries about the effect this has on her kids. “If they’re seeing all these adults breaking down, I feel like that’s not healthy for them.”  

And so O’Brien has decided to put her sadness and her exhaustion aside. “It’s fine to be sad,” she said. “But if you can get out of it, get out of it because it makes you paralyzed.”

O’Brien said she has learned to use anger to fuel action but cautions anger is not the same as destructive rage.

She’s part of a group of north side residents who are proposing a wide-ranging set of policy changes. Among them, she wants to see resources moved from police into targeted wealth building programs in communities of black and Indigenous people and people of color. 

“I’ve channeled my anger in many situations because I know you can transform that anger into action,” she said, “and that’s what keeps me alive.”

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