'Freedom Fighters' look to shed 'scary' image, solidify role in the community

A group of people dance in north Minneapolis.
Minnesota Freedom Fighter Tywan Walker (center) dances with children at a meet-and-greet event in north Minneapolis on Saturday. As the unrest following the police killing of George Floyd enters a new phase, the Freedom Fighters that protected businesses and protesters are evolving to offer resources to residents — and brotherhood to one another.
Megan Burks | MPR News

A group called the Minnesota Freedom Fighters has been gaining a lot of attention for its heavily-armed appearances at protests. But at a meet-and-greet event in north Minneapolis Saturday, the group softened its image.

In place of tactical vests, guns and stony expressions were a bounce house, music and fighters goofing off with neighborhood kids on an asphalt dance floor.

“The misconception is that we're scary Black men with with big guns,” said Jamil Jackson, the group’s commander. “We're not. We're all professional men in our day jobs. We're fathers and husbands, we're uncles, we're mentors. But at night and during times of need, we're out doing what we need to do for our community.”

The group, which formed organically when the Minneapolis NAACP put out a call for residents to protect north Minneapolis businesses from looting and fire following the police killing of George Floyd, is one of several community-led efforts cropping up across the city as neighborhoods and elected officials try to think differently about policing.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

Jackson said the Freedom Fighters are still trying to figure out what their role will be in that new reality, but that the response from residents makes it clear there is a role to play.

Below is a transcript of MPR News’ interview with Jackson. You can also listen to a portion of it using the audio player above. Both have been edited for length and clarity.

What work have you been doing now that the threat to neighborhood businesses has faded?

The work since then has been a continuum of of that. There are still marches going on and events that are revitalizing us as a community [that need security]. But we’re also providing a layer of protection that didn't exist before the unrest.

It's not just the Police Department [that’s needed] to protect us as a community. Since the unrest, when we came together to to protect the West Broadway corridor, we developed an understanding that we are responsible for our community, as well, that it’s going to take us in conjunction with the police to do this job. We bear a role in the responsibility of making sure that we're safe as a community for our family and our children.

We're seeing neighborhoods in south Minneapolis coming together to protect their own, too. What do you think of the movement?

I think it's a great thing. We can't just sit back on the couch and expect others to do it for us. We know our community. We know our environment. We know the whos and the whats and the whys, and we have to be accountable to that.

Can you talk about your relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department and whether you’ve made any agreements with it?

No agreements have been made. We're still figuring out how we [will be] intertwined with Minneapolis police on the streets day to day. We don't want to ruffle their feathers. We don't want to them to think that we're taking their place. We're not investigating crime. We're not chasing criminals. What we're trying to do is be a protection layer for our community with our presence.

As this thing unfolds, with defunding the police and the gaps that leaves, we'll see if there's a space for us.

A group of men with guns stand for a photo.
Members of the Minnesota Freedom Fighters in St. Anthony, Minn., on July 6 before doing security for a protest march, commemorating the fourth anniversary of the death of Philando Castile.
Evan Frost | MPR News

You say some people have misconceptions about the Minnesota Freedom Fighters. What are they?

Well, the misconception is that we're scary Black men with with big guns. We're not. We're all professional men in our day jobs. We're fathers and husbands, we're uncles, we're mentors. But at night and during times of need, we're out doing what we need to do for our community.

It's not about putting a gun in anyone's face. It's providing a layer of protection that our presence brings.

I was expecting to see those guns I've been seeing in all the photos. Was it a conscious choice to not carry them at the meet-and-greet?

One hundred percent — because as much as it's about protecting and patrolling, it's also about being a presence of Black men who can be seen as mentors and uncles and cousins and brothers. And today, this is a meet-and-greet, so this is to get to know us. When we have our guns out, we're in protect and patrol mode.

A lot of folks are watching protests unfold on TV and they're seeing you guys with guns, they're seeing supporters of President Donald Trump with guns, the Boogaloo Bois with guns. What would you say to them if they're thinking, ‘You know, this just seems kind of all the same to me?’

So this isn't about creating a race war. This isn't about Black men with guns versus white men with guns. This is about us taking a stance to patrol and protect our community. This is something that was asked of us during a time of unrest, and we saw that there was a need.

That sparked some purpose in some of these men's lives to understand that their value was not just in protecting buildings that don't belong to us, but also in protecting the people that actually live in the community.

When there’s a police shooting, we often hear that the officer had to make a split-second decision. Do you worry about doing that yourself and making a mistake, and and how do you guard against that?

A thousand percent we worry about that, which is why we're taking the precautions to build relationships within the community and with MPD as much as we can before we start taking that stance.

As we take walks through our community with just our shirts on, we’re engaging with some of those groups of men that might be out there thinking about doing some [bad] things so they understand that we're also here to provide opportunities. Like I said, some of us are business owners and some of us have opportunity to provide resources for these young men that they might not know exist. It's about mentorship. It's about exposure.

Say something does go wrong. Do you have insurance?

We're in the process of that. So, all of our guys have life insurance. We are getting bonded as a company. We have created a business so that the guys can be insured through the business. So if anything does happen, there is protection for them on that front.

You’re collecting donations. What is that money going to be used for?

That money is used for tactical training. It's used for equipment such as vests, uniforms, transportation, walkie-talkies. I make these guys see psychologists. We're getting certified in a few different first-responder trainings, so these guys actually are equipped to do all of the things that might come our way.

You make the fighters see psychologists — why?

When we patrolled West Broadway for 10 days, these men were up day and night with loaded weapons, looking for enemies that were coming through, trying to burn. That provides a level of trauma, and sometimes it's hard to come down from that. And so it was important for these men to heal.

And something that I do personally is meditate so that I don't take the work that I do in the streets everyday home to my wife and my children.

What's been the thing that's been most rewarding so far?

What stood out the most is how organically these guys came together for protecting the community. They didn't know who they would stand next to but took the obligation to come to protect things that didn't belong to them. Now these guys are together every day holding each other accountable. And for me, seeing the the growth mindset, seeing the purpose, it's just it's amazing.

Five or 10 years from now, what does public safety look like?

I believe it looks like a collective. I'd be stupid to say that we don't need police. There's a place and a definite need in our society for police. But then I also believe that there is a place and a need in our society for community patrols. We just have to figure out what that balance is, who's responsible for what and how we train citizens to be accountable for the work and be serious enough for it to actually sustain itself.