Minneapolis, MN — United Nations human rights investigators visited six U.S. cities that have been in the spotlight in recent years for police-involved killings of African Americans. The Minnesota visit comes after Twin Cities based activists organized petitions and letters to get the human rights panel to include Minneapolis in its tour.
On May 2, the Urban League in North Minneapolis hosted two United Nations’ (UN) panelists and a room full of members of the Twin Cities Black American and African communities, along with the press, for a community listening session. At least 80 people were in attendance.
The UN panel is investigating the root causes behind law enforcement murders of Black people in America and how the “legacies of colonialism and the Transatlantic slave trade” still impact American society today. The panel is also looking into government responses to peaceful Black Lives Matter protests in recent years and possible violations to international human rights laws.
Tracie Keesee and Juan Méndez, from the International Independent Expert Mechanism to Advance Racial Justice and Equality in the Context of Law Enforcement (EMLER), a special panel appointed by the UN human rights council after the murder of George Floyd, came to listen to Black community members speak about their experiences with state violence, including police killings – experiences widely considered to be human rights violations. The same day, the fourth killer of George Floyd, Tou Thao, was found guilty of aiding in his murder.
Speakers that testified included parents of Jaffort Smith, Amir Locke, Dolal Idd, Kobe Heisler, and Tekle Sundberg, all of whom were killed by Minnesota law enforcement. Other speakers included people who spent years as juveniles in Minnesota prisons. Below is a live stream of the Minneapolis visit — video originally published through Zoom by University of Minnesota.
Deborah Watts, a cousin of Emmett Till, also testified at the Minneapolis listening session. Till was the 14 year-old Black boy whose 1955 murder in Mississippi by two white men became the catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement. Watts described white supremacy as being embedded in America’s DNA.
In a defiant tone, she said her cousin Emmett, “At age 14, was so brutalized, no one could recognize him. … Thank you, America.”
Valerie Castile, the mother of Philando Castile, gave a fiery testimony. Philando Castille was killed in 2016 by officer Jeronimo Yanez in front of his girlfriend and her child during a routine traffic stop. Castile’s mother told the UN that her son was frequently the target of racialized policing, and that “He had been pulled over 50-plus documented times, prior.”
Although charged with manslaughter, Yanez was found not guilty in a jury trial the next year. Castile said President Obama’s Department of Justice investigated her son’s murder but quietly shut it down without explanation. “We deserve to have a complete, honest, accurate, open results from that investigation. I feel like … my human rights and constitutional rights are being violated.”
Castile spoke on the deep trauma that her and other mothers have experienced. She called on listeners to show up for the victims of extrajudicial police killings. “For the Black mothers like myself, whose children do not return home, you can never understand the depths of our pain.”
Myon Burrell, who was incarcerated at the age of 16 by now-U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, freed in 2020 after spending 18 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, spoke on the horrors of youth incarceration. He said prisons were created to “break human beings.”
Another speaker, Lucina Kayee compared her experiences in solitary confinement at a refugee camp to her time at Catholic Charities’ notorious St. Joseph’s Home for Children in South Minneapolis that serves kids who have survived abuse and abandonment. Kayee described escaping civil war in Liberia and surviving refugee camps only to have a staff at St. Joseph’s subject her to abuse and put her in a chokehold at only 8-years-old.*
Marvina Haynes’ testimony about her brother, who she said has been wrongfully incarcerated for more than half his life, brought many in the room to tears, including her fellow panelists. Her brother Marvin Haynes was convicted for the 2004 killing of Randy Sherer when he was 16 years old and sentenced to life in prison, a sentence which he is serving at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater. Haynes, also prosecuted by Klobuchar, has maintained his innocence from the moment he was accused by Minneapolis Police investigators.
“MPD stole my brother from my family. They wouldn’t let my mom have any rights to him. We thought the system would eventually do the right thing,” she said about her family holding onto hope, as she fought back tears. “But they have not done that yet.”
Unicorn Riot published a four part investigative series, The Case of Marvin Haynes, and combed through the police investigation into Sherer’s murder and the subsequent frame-up of Haynes. Our series features a 33-minute film and makes thousands of pages of case documents available to the public.
Burrell, Kayee, Haynes and several others who testified called on the UN to condemn juvenile solitary confinement in American jails and prisons and to ban the practice internationally.
The UN panel heard testimony in five other cities including in Chicago, Atlanta, Washington D.C., Los Angeles and New York City.
Mendez told the Minneapolis audience that the testimony collected will be included in their upcoming Geneva report which will be widely distributed.
Minneapolis wasn’t originally included in the panel’s 2023 schedule, former Minneapolis NAACP President Angela Rose Myers told Unicorn Riot. However, she and her research colleagues from the University of Minnesota created a petition and gathered over 2,000 signatures calling for EMLER to investigate law enforcement practices in Minnesota. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, Minneapolis City Councilor Robin Wonsley, and more than 30 community-based organizations wrote letters also calling on EMLER to add Minneapolis to its tour, which it did.
Toshira Garraway, founder of the advocacy group Families Supporting Families Against Police Violence, one of the organizers of the forum, also testified for the UN panel. Garraway is the fiancé of Justin Tiegen who was found dead in a recycling center after being pulled over by the St. Paul Police in 2009. Garraway says that interaction led to Tiegen’s death. She spoke about a coverup to hide what happened to her fiance and how so many other cases that aren’t considered “high profile” get “swept under the rug.”
She said, “Here in the state of Minnesota there has been over 500 bodies that have been lynched by law enforcement since the year 2000.” Adding, “And when we try to speak out, our families are harassed. I get death threats all the time. Our families are followed. And all kinds of stuff happens.”
While Garraway spoke, Deborah Watts, the cousin of Emmett Till, held up a list (pdf) of the more than 500 names of people in the State of Minnesota who’ve lost their lives from police interactions since 2000.
Watts said, “I’m born in America…a country that I believe has committed some crimes on humanity, but has not been held accountable.”
Garraway told Unicorn Riot that she wants the UN to put pressure on the United States through diplomatic means and through official channels to hold police accountable for extrajudicial killings of Black people.
The UN concluded its tour on Friday in Washington D.C. and held a press conference and put out a press release with their preliminary findings. Méndez said that “Existing local and national standards on the ‘use of force’ by law enforcement officials do not meet international standards.”
The delegation said they felt an urgent, “moral responsibility, to echo the harrowing pain of victims and their families, and the resounding calls for accountability” that they heard in each city. Adding, “We support those calls for accountability.”
Keesee said that calls for change are not enough, that a “whole government approach” is needed to make a difference. “This needs to be more than a slogan and calls for reform.”
“Slavery has left a deep and long-lasting entrenched legacy on the country, which can be perceived through generational trauma. Racial discrimination permeates all contacts with law enforcement, from the first contact – at times already in school – by means of racial profiling, arrest, detention, sentencing and disenfranchisement in some States. In each of those aspects, available data points to a clear disproportional impact upon people of African descent.
Addressing and unpacking the impact of the circle of poverty on people of African descent, including operating an urgent shift from a criminal justice response to a human rights-centred response to poverty, homelessness, substance abuse, and mental illness, is seen by the Mechanism as an imperative priority.
There should be a State-wide response, to lead to federal standards of policing, and engage whole of government reforms, which redefine the mission and scope of the police.”USA: Whole-of-government leadership needed to address legacy of slavery and redefine policing, UN experts say – May 5, 2023, UN Human Rights Office of the High Commisioner
But many are expecting things to continue with no impediment, citing the UN’s lack of authority to take any real action.
The UN was initiated by the United States under President Woodrow Wilson following World War I and originally known as The League of Nations. Today the UN is largely funded by Washington, with its headquarters in New York City.
In 1951, the Civil Rights Congress, led by Paul Robeson and William L. Patterson, petitioned the UN to take similar actions to curb white supremacist violence against Black Americans. The petition, We Charge Genocide, claimed that the killings of Black people at the hands of American law enforcement had become official policy during the Jim Crow era. “Once the classic method of lynching was the rope. Now it is the policeman’s bullet. To many [Americans] the police are the government, certainly its most visible representative. We submit that the evidence suggests that the killing of Negroes has become police policy in the United States and that police policy is the most practical expression of government policy.”
However, more than seven decades after this petition was first presented to the UN, the policy remains unchanged and no significant actions have been taken against the United States for its treatment of Black Americans. Yet, impacted families are still speaking out.
At the Minneapolis Urban League an unapologetic Valerie Castile declared, “This country prides itself on democracy, but it looks more like hypocrisy. … There has always been a silent war on Black people.” Adding, “But it aint silent no more.”
Marjaan Sirdar is a South Minneapolis based freelance journalist. He is the host of the People Power Podcast and author of the investigative series, 21st Century Jim Crow in the North Star City: How Target Corp., the City of Minneapolis, and Hennepin County, Created a Domestic Spy Program That Rolled Back Civil Rights On its Black Population, published by Unicorn Riot. You can follow him on Twitter @peoplepowerpod1.
Cover image montage by Niko Georgiades for Unicorn Riot using photos contributed by Chris Juhn.
**Update corrected the age that Lucina was assaulted by staff at St. Josephs.