The Future of Us

Future of Us: Creating a new roadmap for justice in the wake of George Floyd

A woman poses for a photo on a bench in front of a flag
Nekima Levy Armstrong has been a constant in efforts to change systems of policing. She served as president of the Minnesota chapter of the NAACP and led Black Lives Matter protests in response to the police killings of Jamar Clark, Philando Castile, George Floyd and others. She is currently the executive director of The Wayfinder Foundation.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

This story is part of a series called “Future of Us,” exploring how a pandemic, a murder and a city on fire have changed us and our path forward.

The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers on May 25, 2020 sparked protests around the globe. In Minneapolis, community activists took to the streets and deployed unprecedented actions to call for the conviction of the officers involved.

That call was answered. All four police officers involved in Floyd’s death were prosecuted and charged.

Yet, in the tumultuous year that followed Floyd’s death, the number of deadly encounters with police continued apace. Nationwide, at least a thousand people died at the hands of police. In Minnesota, the rate of police killings per million inhabitants rose from 10 to 13.

Throughout it all, Nekima Levy Armstrong, a Minneapolis attorney and long-time activist, has been at the forefront.

Protester on I-94
Nekima Levy Armstrong kneels during protests for Jamar Clark in 2015. Minneapolis police fatally shot the 24-year-old Black man.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

But she says, her work is not done.

“We still have a very, very long way to go to root out the systemic issues within policing. We're still in the midst of what change is going to look like,” Levy Armstrong said. “I don't think we've arrived there, you know, simply because we saw a semblance of justice in one major case.”

Levy Armstrong has seen her share of cases so she understood that even with the video evidence of Floyd’s murder, there was no guarantee that charges would be brought against Derek Chauvin, the first Minneapolis officer to be convicted for the killing.

“I knew in my spirit that it just wasn't that simple, that we had to roll up our sleeves and push for the changes that we wanted,” she said. “One of those changes was to have the case removed from the hands of the Hennepin County Attorney and placed into the hands of the Attorney General.”

This strategic shift combined with the COVID-19 pandemic made all the difference, Levy Armstrong said.

“Everyone was essentially at a standstill at home, away from work and paying attention. And so once people around the world saw the video of George Floyd being killed, it caused a visceral reaction,” she said.

As the world returns to business as usual, Levy Armstrong said she is hopeful that people understand that police killings are intertwined with other structural issues leading to what she calls “slow deaths.”

“People are dying within community as a result of inadequate access to resources, jobs that don't pay a livable wage, [and] a lack of affordable housing and homeownership opportunities.”

Levy Armstrong said that understanding is key to keeping people engaged in the fight for justice as the pandemic wanes.

Levy Armstrong, who leads The Wayfinder Foundation, said she is also encouraged by the next generation of leaders coming after her. They are “using their voices, their personal power, their networks and their creativity to try to change things,” she said.

Looking backward — to the generations that came before her — keeps her going, too.

“I think about my ancestors who were enslaved people, and to think about the fact that somehow they had a spirit of survival in the midst of degradation, brutality, unjust laws and policies and inhumane actions being taken towards them. So, if they could have hope and see a brighter future for people like me, then who am I to not have hope?”

To hear the full conversation with Nekima Levy Armstrong, click play on the audio player above.

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.