Attorney Andrew Gordon has played a key role in mass protests sparked by police killings in Minnesota. He started organizing mass defense for demonstrators after Jamar Clark was shot and killed by Minneapolis police in 2015. His work continued through the movements that emerged in the wake of the killings of Philando Castille and George Floyd.
Now he’s starting again. When Brooklyn Center police shot and killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright on April 11, Gordon felt pulled back to the familiar and emotionally draining work of helping those who will be arrested in demonstrations against police violence.
Gordon is the deputy director of community legal services for the Legal Rights Center. The Jamaican immigrant spoke with Sahan Journal about how to protest safely, what law enforcement learned from the protests over the killing of George Floyd, and the way young demonstrators are dealing with trauma.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What legal advice would you have for people protesting?
The number one thing about going to police violence protests in this country is you have to know what your risk is. Are you a white person who’s never been to court before? Can you afford to be arrested? Are you undocumented? If you’re undocumented and going to a protest because you want to be there in solidarity, you have to think long and hard about if you can afford to be arrested.
Whenever I have conversations with people about this topic, that’s where I start. Because if you can afford to be arrested, then there is going to be a role for you at points in time during a protest. If you can’t afford to be arrested, here’s what the process and protocols are going to be for you to get out before arrests start, before kettling starts, that sort of thing.
Generally, we follow that up with what can you do, what can the police do, and how can you be safe. Ultimately, the question I get the most is how can I do this safely, and in a way that is respectful of why they’re there. Because the vast majority of people who go to a demonstration are there because they have a particular frustration, they have an anger, they are pushing for change. They believe this is the best way to advocate for that change because they’ve seen other avenues blocked. They want to advocate but they want to be safe. They don’t want to get hit by rubber bullets.
Those conversations begin with what do you do when cops say “This is an unlawful assembly,” or “You have 10 minutes to leave.” What can you say to a police officer if you’re up in their face? What should that conversation look like if that’s what you want to do? Do you want to be at the front of the protest or the back? How visible do you want to be? Are you bringing your kids? We have a lot of those conversations.
I think what I would encourage folks who are reading the Journal, who are thinking about going to protest, is to think about their exposure. Can they afford to be arrested or not? I would encourage them to think about how visible and vocal they want to be. Are you going there to listen to protest marshals? Are you going there to be a legal observer? Are you going to be a medic? Identify why you’re going and try to stick to that role.
It’s been clear that younger people are at the forefront of a lot of these protests. What do these younger people you’re representing tell you about how they’re feeling right now? How are they expressing their grief and frustration?
I and other folks who are working in this space hear a lot of grief and a lot of frustration, and not just from youth. People across the spectrum (ages, races, genders, whatever it may be) there is a lot of frustration out there. In the past year or so, we’ve seen that frustration coalesce into very specific calls for defunding the police and for specific amendments in Minneapolis. And that’s an exciting turn of events led by people who have learned from the past. They’ve learned from previous protests to turn that to political energy that leads into actual change. That’s fantastic.
I think for youth, especially, they can feel disconnected even from that change. I see a lot of frustration from youth in being out in the streets, knowing that this is their future, right? You get a 16-17 year old Black kid in Minneapolis, and they’re looking at George Floyd, they’re looking at Daunte Wright, and they’re looking at their contemporaries and they’re saying, “That’s my future.” They are desperate to avoid that future. So being in the streets, protesting, it’s not just a way of them saying, “The system has to change,” it’s them crying “I’m trying to survive, I don’t want that to be me.”
It’s a lot easier for me as a 39-year-old attorney to divorce myself from getting stopped and harrased by police officers and being shot at the end of a kind of state-sanctioned murder. If I’m 16-17 years old, and I’m Black, and I’m living in north Minneapolis and all I’m thinking about is school and basketball and whatever else, you’re not out of the crosshairs. You’re squarely in them. The frustration I hear from youth isn’t necessarily “This is wrong and it needs to stop,”it’s “This is wrong, you’re going to kill me, I’m begging you to stop.”
People may see images of looting or destruction that can distract from the pursuit of accountability and justice. How do you describe what we’re seeing? What does the footage itself not tell us? What do people get wrong about looting?
I think what gets missed when we talk about looting is that I see that type of civil unrest as the means by which a particular set of the population is dealing with a trauma.
When I see folks out looting Walmart or whatever it may be, I’m seeing potentially community members who once again have been exposed to a harm, exposed to an evil. They lack the tools to deal with what it means to be traumatized again. When I say “Lack the tools,” that could be for a variety of reasons—we underfund schools, we underfund mental health care, we underfund community resources and invest instead in policing, for example.
You have folks who have been impacted directly by that trauma, and they are trying to process it. They are processing, “When will this happen to me?” because they’ve seen it happen to other people. They’ve probably seen it happen to friends or families.
I have to imagine there is a sense of fear, there is a sense of worry. You just don’t know how to respond to a certain situation. In search of a response, you end up lashing out at times. I think there’s plenty of historical precedent to say when we’re stressed, frustrated, and angry, when we’re struggling to understand what is happening to us, people do things they normally wouldn’t do. They make decisions they normally wouldn’t make. Sometimes that means they hurt their community members by doing things like looting, by having things like civil unrest.
I see it as symptomatic of greater systemic failures. You have a segment of the population that doesn’t know how to process this, they don’t know how to cope with the continued trauma. I saw a Tweet earlier from a Black woman talking about raising Black sons. I’m thinking about how Daunte Wright’s kid will grow up Black knowing his father was gunned down by police. That’s historical trauma right there. They’re going to pass it on to their kids and family members.
How you process varies person to person. But I see the looting and unrest as part of that processing mechanism. It’s not surprising that some people, in their pain and grief, are destructive.
How are you feeling personally and professionally having another police killing of a Black man in the Twin Cities so soon after the death of George Floyd and in the midst of the trial of the officer who knelt on his neck?
I was talking to my dad, who is back in Jamaica, about exactly this. When I found out about what happened yesterday, it wasn’t grief, anger, or frustration. I was resigned to get back to work and start organizing people. If people are going to get arrested, I need to get a person assigned to go down to the jail.
I don’t know what that says about me or my coping mechanisms. But I spend a lot of time talking to people about building the infrastructure to support mass defense because we all know this is going to happen again. We all know law enforcement isn’t going to change. We all know law enforcement is going to kill other Black people. There is no surprise anymore. There is no shock anymore. I haven’t quite gotten to anger just yet, although I just saw the video they released at the press conference, and that’s the closest I’ve gotten to anger so far. But I haven’t got to that stage of grief just yet.
We know what’s going to happen. We know there’s going to be protests. We know people will get arrested. We know people are going to get shot by rubber bullets and be subjected to tear gas. How do we fight the good fight and protect people from that while at the same time, try to maintain the focus on real change that gets away from rooting a system in white supremacy and systemic racism?
I just try to focus on those things, because it becomes burdensome to focus on other things.
Did law enforcement learn anything from the George Floyd experience with protests and civil unrest? Will police be more aggressive or less? What lessons do you think law enforcement took from last May?
I think law enforcement learned a lot from last summer. I think they learned the wrong things.
You saw how quickly they put barricades around the Brooklyn Center police department. That’s something they learned to do. [April 11} was a really good example of: We have protests, we have demonstrations, how quickly can we break out the riot gear, how quickly can we establish a multi-jurisdictional force? You had Brooklyn Center Police, State Patrol, National Guard, University of Minnesota Police, Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office.
The rationale for the response is control and contain. That hasn’t changed. They’ve got better at control and contain because that’s what they’re interested in learning about. [The night of April 11] when they pushed people out of the parking lot, that was an organized and strategic move.
I think what they didn’t learn is consideration for other people. There are apartments there by the police station. They are shooting off tear gas, and there are kids living in those buildings. So you have tear gas wafting into those buildings as some people are asleep and getting ready for the next day.
You don’t necessarily see law enforcement learning how to use the tools they have at their disposal in a way that doesn’t endanger the community. I haven’t seen them learn that lesson yet.
What would good law enforcement practice look like right now?
A decent practice is to be informed that protests are communal healing. Everyone is experiencing communal trauma and the community is trying to process how to heal. If you view it in that lens and say it’s important for the community to heal and be able to vent their frustrations, then it’s incumbent on law enforcement and city planning to provide space for that.
For example you could have someone from the department say: You want to protest, you have the absolute right to do so, do it here. Let us get emergency vehicles in and out and let us know when you’re done.
You used to see that happen in daytime protests, where folks are given space to march down public roads. What I think should happen is they should allow those protests to go to their natural conclusion. You recognize inherently that protests are a way for the community to heal and you should create space for that.
What you shouldn’t do is you shouldn’t engage in an aggressive manner. Last night there was a part of the protests that turned into a vigil before nightfall. Law enforcement left and people lit candles and talked. When law enforcement left people could grieve and start to form a healing process. I think you can take a lot of lessons from that. People are trying to process and we don’t need a law enforcement presence.
At the end of the day, people are going to grieve how they’re going to grieve. So let them grieve. Any response rooted in that understanding is going to be a far better response than what we traditionally see now.
How can people be safe right now? What should people do if they see police or national guard mistreating protestors?
Here in Minnesota we advise people to document. Take your cell phone out, take pictures, record if you can. If you see any bad acts document it as much as possible. The ACLU has an app where people can upload video automatically to the cloud when they’re at protests.
We do encourage people to document and record.
It keeps people safer than otherwise. It does actually limit some police misconduct. I would highly recommend recording and documentation. If possible find out the badge number of an involved officer. That’s public information. If that badge number is covered, note that, because that’s an equipment violation and can be the basis of a complaint in and of itself. Record squad car numbers if possible. Pay attention. Keep your eyes open.
Protect yourself as well. We have medics at demonstrations a lot these days. Identify medics so you know where to go if you need help.
Keep your senses about you, is basically what it comes down to. Understand that there are people on the ground at the demonstration who are there to help you.
Anything else people should know about protesting that we haven’t touched on?
Understand that when you’re going to protest, you’re being invited into a space. The folks organizing that rally are doing so for a very specific purpose. You owe it to them and to your own reasons for being there to respect what that purpose is. Always be cognizant of who is organizing the rally, what that purpose is, and be respectful of that.