I was adopted informally when I was one years old. I don’t know the whole story about my birth mother and I don’t want to speculate. I know she had 13 children. I was the 13th. Something happened to her after the 8th kid. She could no longer handle all those children.
One day when my older sisters were supposed to take care of me, an older woman noticed the infant sitting in the dirt by himself in our Miami yard. She fussed about how no one was taking care of the baby, took me to her house where she lived with her daughter and called my birth mother to come pick me up.
My birth mother never came. Those women became my mother and grandmother. Eventually they adopted one of my sisters daughters as well. They would always harp on us about how good we had it. It made sense to them, considering the deprived situation they came from. From my adoptive mother’s perspective we had a roof over our heads and we never missed meals, how could we complain?
But from the perspective of us kids it was hell, inside and outside the house. They meant well, but they were overly strict, border-line abusive. They didn’t have any kid skills. We had so many chores, it was almost like my mother and grandmother were projecting something from slavery days. They were hardcore — old school. “Children seen not heard,” though my grandmother had a soft interior.
I was physically small when I was a kid. And poor. I never had clothes that fit. I wore a lot of high-water pants. Small, poorly dressed and low income. It made me the victim of bullies. It was tough on my psyche. In junior high I got jobs and had my own money to buy clothes. I bought flashy stuff and then didn’t have enough for essentials. It wasn’t until high school that I figured out how to buy the clothes I needed.
Once when my mother and I went to a PTA meeting, some kid hit me in the back. I didn’t retaliate. I remember my mother being really upset I didn’t I defend myself. I didn’t feel like anyone had my back, including her, so how could I defend myself? My ego was as low as a kid’s ego could be. That changed when I did start to defend myself in junior high school. Kids knew if they put their hands on me they were going to pay a price.
I think I learned to read before school because I was terrified not to learn. Once my mother put some of my stuff in a sheet, wrapped it on to a pole, and told me to leave, because I did not learn. But, my biggest beef with my mother was giving teachers free reign to corporally punish me. One time my fifth grade teacher called my house and said I threatened her. That was a lie. My mom woke me up and I got a whupping.
I was the original book worm. I hid myself in books — read everything. One of my favorite series in third grade was the Boxcar Children. I also enjoyed a U.S. history series, full of stories about the West and the Civil War. They were propaganda of course, but they could not have been too bad, because I grew up with a positive view of Native American folks. In Jr. High I became a WWII buff. I had all the dates and times down.
I used to go over to the neighbors and use their encyclopedias. Eugene and Else Justice. They lived across the street and had a bunch of kids — six girls and a boy. They were all older than me. I looked up to the boy. He was a deacon in church. I liked him. He liked me too. He was a father figure to me. He had his own construction company. I looked forward to his visits. He had a big old smile. He was no nonsense. A man’s man. He sensed that I was a lonely kid and he spent time with me.
Then there were the Fennels. Their older son, Dwight J. Fennell, got a Ph.D. and eventually became a president of Texas College, an HBCU. I remember when he came back from college I thought, “That college thing is the way to go. He was a cool cat — a cool guy.
Anything that happened on the block I looked forward to. We had a neighbor who had an uncle. We all called him “Uncle Van.” He lived in Chicago and Tennessee. All the kids liked him. He was gregarious — the life of the party. He would bring gifts for the kids. We all looked forward to him coming.
We knew all the neighbors for two blocks around. You could borrow a cup of sugar – an egg, whatever. That did happen. My mom had too much pride to sign up for welfare. She was a presser in a factory. The work was seasonal. A neighbor who was getting welfare, would get commodities and share them. I like the canned meat. It would come in big role. I hated the instant potatoes though.
My mother would always act like we were better off. She was good at painting alternate realities and getting you to live in it.
Miami, Florida in the 1960s and 70s.
When I was little, Miami beaches were segregated. The public beach that was available to us was Virginia Key Beach. I remember seeing miles and miles of Black people. I experienced white people in stores. I didn’t think much of them one way or another. My classmates were justifiably wary of white people. Their parents had experienced racism.
At ten I read Tear Down the Walls: A History of the American Civil Rights Movement. It told about racism in the South, informing me about a movement going on around me that I didn’t know about other wise. I filed it away. Civil Rights activists in Miami were wedded to the “big man” style of organizing. They got things done, but they didn’t build a movement.
My mother had a little degree of self-hate. She compared Black people negatively to White people. After Martin Luther King was killed, I heard her yell out to neighbors— “They killed y’alls leader.” I held that against her for a long time.
There was class division in our community. Some of the teachers resented me because I was poor but smart like the middle class kids. They would bend over backwards to be unfair. Once I got into a fight after school. My classmate who didn’t like me told on me and I got paddle boarded. Another time, my friend drew a rabbit. I laughed at the drawing. I got the paddle. Those memories sting.
My elementary school was segregated. We had hand-me down books. There was one teacher who was my saving grace. Ms Miller. Fourth grade. She took a real interest in me. She liked me and I liked her. It was the only time I made A’s in elementary school.
In junior high they bussed in some White folks. There weren’t enough White kids for the experiment to work. We didn’t mix with them. It didn’t work out well.
We had one White teacher in Junior High. Miss Morin. A flower child — fresh out of college. She came to school dressed in mini skirts. We were 13-14. We thought we were going to take advantage of her. But she was tough, and a really good teacher — stern about us learning. I think she helped me start writing. She worked really hard with people on their reading skills. She stood out as a great teacher.
For high school I got bussed. Our neighborhoods was split four ways. I got to leave behind some kids I needed to get away from. The school I went to was 70% Jewish, 20% Black. There were 3,500 kids in that high school. It was a new building, air conditioned, with technology, a TV production studio, radio station, and a nice theater and gym. I became manager of the basketball team. I joined the theater club. The environment helped me. I blossomed, made straight As in 10th and 11th grade. There were some good teachers. One taught us Black history and culture. She was serious about us.
My favorite high school teacher was Mr. Hart. He taught African American history. He turned out to be a conservative, voted for Nixon. — He said “Nixon knows the Black middle class wants a piece of the pie and he’s cutting us in.”
I hit a bump in 12th grade. School bored me. I couldn’t concentrate. I still had a thirst for knowledge so I went to the library instead of school. We had no attendance requirements. I was smart enough that I could just come in and take the test and pass the class.
One of my buddies started to smoke weed. I did too. Smoking, drinking. It eventually caught up with me. I lost the basketball manager position. The administration still liked me so they let me slide.
On day I was confronted by the assistant principal. He said “The teachers are letting you get away with murder. You have outsmarted them. You gotta go to class though, or they will figure out a way to outsmart you.”
Sure enough, come graduation time, I hadn’t finished the PE credit, and, though they let me walk, they would not give me my diploma. They wanted me to come back in the fall and finish well.
I gave high school the finger. I didn’t go back. I didn’t go to senior prom either because I didn’t have a girl. I was a nerd. I had just started to date.
I floundered for another year. Stayed with my mom, and worked just enough to put money in my pocket for weed. It was 1975. Affirmative Action time. At the end of my junior year I had eight college scholarship offers. I could have had my pick of colleges. I blew them all. After all I had been thought I just want motivated.
My saving grace was starting to do a few odd jobs at the Baptist Church. I wound up joining the church. Pretty soon I was taking Christianity seriously. Before long I felt called to the ministry. The minister said “OK. We are going to give you an opportunity to prove your skills.”
I borrowed something from the Declaration of Independence. The point was that Jesus can set you free. They liked it. They licensed me to preach. The preachers son got his license at the same time and we had a ball hanging out together.
Middle class Black churches required ministers to get a Divinity degree. So, I signed up for Bible College — Miami Christian College. I got good at basketball and made the college team. I had a really good English composition teacher who helped me with writing.
While the teachers were good, some of the white students were ignorant. A few were even surprised that Blacks were Christians! Some were absolute racists. It shocked the hell out of me. I thought that Christians would put that racism thing down. It was bad enough, that I decided to leave.
I went to Miami Dade Community College. That was great! I got interested in theater. The students were mostly women, so I had a ball. They were from all over Miami. Salt of the earth people. I had a great sociology professor. We had to write a paper on the death penalty. At that time I had a conservative Bible view of the death penalty. An eye for an eye. He took my paper and said:
“You can’t be Black and be for the death penalty! I am not going to give you a grade. Read this book: The Poor get Prison and the Rich Get Off and rewrite your paper.” I read the book. It changed my perspective.
At the Community College I got a part in a play by Ed Bullins, called A Son, Come Home. My theater teacher told me I was an actor so I started to apply to four-year Christian colleges that had theater programs. Northwestern College accepted me, so off I went, on a greyhound, to Orange City, Iowa.
College in Iowa
Talk about culture shock. I got off the bus next to a corn field. I was like — where am I? All this green and corn. It was beautiful. I took to it right away. In Miami we grew fruits in the back yard. I loved the green.
There were not many black folks at Northwestern, but those of us who were there bonded. One of my classmates conspired to make me the leader of the makeshift Black Student Union. They said “this guy can lead.” I was a pretty good hell raiser. We dealt with the same old crap. Questions like “How did you get here.” I got pretty good at debating with those racists. I was the first student to speak during chapel service.I had started running cross country at Northwestern.
I realize just now, that the theater professor who pushed my application, was probably thinking he was bringing in a Black man who could sing and dance. I could not sing or dance. I ended up doing theater tech. The tech instructor was a goofy guy, but he was serious about us. I’m grateful for that experience. Learning to make a theater set gives you the confidence you can to do anything.
Minneapolis in the 1980s.
In the summer of 1980 I followed a classmate from the Twin Cities suburbs, to Minneapolis to work with a summer youth program. I liked South Minneapolis. The church I was working for was gracious enough to pay my tuition at Bethel Seminary.
Their youth program was pretty good — but my heart was not into Bethel’s Eurocentric schooling. I’m still trying to figure out how you can be conservative and Christian. To me its an oxymoron.
I did make friends at Bethel with one of the best people I’ve ever met. She was from DePere, Wisconsin. She would drive me to school. We’d go running together. She made being in that school easier, but…. I couldn’t stay.
It was a turning point for my activism. I joined Clergy and Laity Concerned and became their racial justice coordinator. We worked on jobs, housing, supported MN Students Against Apartheid. That is when I met Janice Payne Dorliae. She was a former Panther — a real revolutionary. I also befriended Chris Nisan who was a long time activist. Janice would question us. She would tell us what to do. She would have us read and study. She would tell me about her past. She would engage us in political discussions, assign us books and ask what we thought. I’m trying to do that now with younger folks. Study groups. I got that from Janice.
On the first day of the year, 1987, Janice died tragically. Her death was a huge blow for me.
Fighting local brushfires of injustice.
In 1989 there was the Embassy Suites case. Cris Nisan did fabulous work on that case. It was so egregious. Black college students had rented a room. Someone called the police complaining about noise. The police came, with guns drawn and beat up some of the students. Chris convinced them to hold a press conference. He had the presence of mind to move quickly. The cops wound up not being charged.
I started writing for the Spokesmen Recorder. I was editor of and on during the 1990s. Cris Nisan and I started playing the role of social justice firemen. People would call about whatever was going on and we’d show up. We would go into the schools with parents. We even took on landlords. People knew who we were. We would show up and threaten to raise hell, get people to do the right thing. We would go to people’s jobs and support them as they raised hell with their employers. We were a little crazy, a little wild. We wouldn’t take crap from anybody.
When we worked for Northwest Airlines we let the union know they weren’t representing all their people. Some of those union folks hated my guts, others loved me to death. The old hard core guys loved me, those who had been with the union for decades, back when people were militant in their advocacy of labor.
I went to see what the housing court was like. There was this woman with a baby, 19 years old who was being evicted in the middle of winter. I threatened to write a story. They let her stay in her apartment.
Another case I remember well. It was in the paper. This lady was driving and had a diabetic stroke. She couldn’t talk, like people who have seizures. It made her drive erratically. She pulled over and the police drove up and began screaming at her, but she couldn’t hear, couldn’t talk. The cops dragged her through the front window, wrecking her back. The doctors she saw at HCMC doctors punked out and wouldn’t give her documentation. She went to Fairview for a second opinion. They came to the conclusion that she had had a diabetic episode. She won a suit. A lot of money. Moved to Dallas.
Long after, she came to visit me. She looked really good — I almost didn’t recognize her. She wanted to give me a part of her settlement. I told her “I can’t take your money — that’s not what I did it for”. She said “What if I gave you just something.” She couldn’t believe I wouldn’t take her money. She took me out to lunch. She was able to retire, get out of here and buy a house.
We helped a lot of people who I don’t remember. At my 60th birthday party a man offered to pick up some more beer. I handed him some cash, but he refused it saying, “I know you don’t remember, but you did me a solid a long time ago. Your money is no good to me. I’ll get the beer.”
The murder of Tycel Nelson by police on December 1st, 1990, in North Minneapolis was a pivotal moment. I’ll never forget the organizing around that.
The LA times reported that “racial calm in Minneapolis could be shattered by shooting.” There was a meeting at the Urban League. The city was afraid of the community response and tried to get more conservative folks to get out in front of it. They were trying to keep a lid on things instead of trying to get justice for Tycel’s family. We did some good organizing around that.
A few years later the cop who killed Tycel, Dan May, was given an award. Salt in the wound.
A lot of these cops who kill people go about their lives like they didn’t do anything wrong. I’ve never understood that. They swallow the hype that they are the arm of the state.
Look, I won’t argue with a criminal with a gun. There was a guy in Miami who used to stick people up. You just gave him your money. He had the gun. It’s the same with cops. You don’t have rights when the police pull you over. You want to survive the encounter. They have the gun. You know the cops recruit psychopaths. They recruit racists.
I went back to Miami in 2002, because my mom had cancer. I had been offered a job with the Miami Times, an African American Weekly. That didn’t work out.
I got on the Miami Dade County NAACP board, and helped them take on labor complaints. It was worthwhile work. I was able to work in coalition with the ACLU on police accountability issues. We forced them to create a civilian review board. The ACLU was doing good work around the Patriot Act then. I wish they would get more visible with Take a Knee today.
Struggling with the rest of the NAACP board, I got in touch with the middle class bias in Black leadership in Miami that oppressed me as a kid. I was investigating a case where a security guard jumped kids at Miami’s Edison High. I had met the kids who were in the school yard and interviewed them. They told the same story, over and over. The cops maced the kids. Adults were being dishonest. The media chose to believe the cops.
When I reported what happened to the NAACP board, most members chose to believe the media reports. One of the members who disrespected me was a middle class woman who had been my teacher, who had made my life miserable as a kid. Now here she was calling me a lier! It pissed me off something severe. I said “Shame on all of you.” I haven’t talked to them since.
I also took up the issue of Black Beach Week. Every Memorial Day since the 1990s Black young people have been coming down to South Beach for a weekend of partying. People from as far north as New York, Virginia, come to it. It draws tens of thousand of young people. The police arrest hundreds of kids every year and they rough some of them up. (The event made news when someone got killed a couple years ago.)
As a board member of the NAACP, I and member of the ACLU sat down with the mayor, police reps and city officials and said, “You know these kids are coming. Treat them fairly.” We had some success. The number of petty arrests that were just racism, went down. Those kids weren’t any worse then any other kids coming down to party in South Florida. But the city of Miami Beach didn’t want them.
I didn’t get a lot of traction with the Middle Class Blacks in the church and NAACP. They had a conservative attitude: “If they misbehave …”. But we were able to get the Police Chief, Mayor’s Office and Visitor’s Bureau to take some action. They were worried about their reputation.
When it comes to fighting racism in the education system, conservative Black folks often say “it’s the parents.” One incident in Miami illustrated to me the fallacy of that thinking. There was this failing school in a Black, working class part of Brownsville, a suburb of Miami. A new principal came and was doing a great job. He greeted every kid, got parents involved. The PTA was moving forward. Soon as they began to succeed they replaced the principal. For me it was an aha moment. They don’t really want the parents involved!
I helped the parents organize, but they just refused to bring the principal back. They even demoted him. They wanted to teach them a lesson. A very important lesson.
I did some good work organizing the Miami anti-war coalition to oppose the war in Iraq. It was a good coalition — multi generational and multicultural. We did some education around the war and produced a really good pamphlet.
In 2006-7 I started doing some writing for Black Agenda Report and continued to do so when I moved back to the Twin Cities in 2009.
While I was in Miami we had Hurricane Rita. People don’t remember, because it after that came Katrina, but Rita was very destructive in South Florida. A lot of lot of blue tarps in Miami them. The roof came off our house. I lost all my papers.
Organizing in Minneapolis 2009-Present.
Back in Minneapolis I worked on Natalie Johnson Lee’s City Council campaign. It was during that campaign that her opponent Don Samuels said they should “Burn North High down.” She lost.
After that I thought I was going to do more with church. I went to a religious retreat center for six months. That was invigorating. I came back and got involved in fighting police brutality and the 1% instead.
The Occupy Movement was a good push back against the bailout of wall street. It popularized the fact that we live in a class society. Occupy Homes in Minneapolis was powerful because we were literally saving people’s home. We went into neighborhoods and helped a particular person who was losing their home. People supported their neighbors We had barbecues in people’s back yards. We took on the banks — especially TCF; went to shareholders meetings. The organizing was instructional. It showed how us this is how you organize — go door to door and talk to people.
The campaign to save North High school was also instructive. We engaged the activist alumni, and just stayed with it, forcing the school board’s hand. We had a meeting at Zion Baptist church– 150 folks. We created the blueprints for a community school. They implemented it a little bit — we got the green house and the radio station, kept the classrooms small, but we didn’t quite get the “community school” we envisioned. Still, we won because we got them to keep the school open .
I helped organize the Twin Cities Coalition for Justice for Jamar after he was killed by Minneapolis police. We organized a broad community meeting. After the 4th Precinct Occupation was shut down, we were able to keep the struggle going.
King Demitrius Pendeleton and I helped organize a protest/vigil after Justine Damand was killed by Minneapolis police. We’ve been saying for a long time, it’s not just Black folks…
After borrowing Marcus Harcus’s idea, I worked with some folks to start Malcom X commemorations in Minneapolis in 2014, the 50th anniversary of his death. I would like to do it on grander scale some day. It is in line with my politics to understand who he was. Before he died he had become a real revolutionary. Internationalist, anti-capitalist, the guy who wouldn’t vote Democrat or Republican…
Reconciling and Revolutionary thoughts at 60.
People refuse to do the the research on the cops.They have an ugly history starting with the slave patrols. They have been killing Black people since slavery. Thousands of people. But not just Black people. Cops dropped bombs on workers fighting for a few more nickels or the right to organize in the Colorado mines at the beginning of the last century. The cops have continually intervened on behalf of bosses and against workers.
I have never understood people, who call themselves human beings, who have the audacity to malign someone while they are bleeding. That is one of the meanest things you can do.
There is a section of the working class that will always ally with the cops, but there are others in the political middle— you gotta win them over — No one has ever made a revolution by themselves. Just you and a handful of folks — won’t do it. You have to win people over to your side.
Protesting is not enough. If people don’t have any politics, they end up with Democratic party politics — a dead end.
You have to model what you want to see. I try to be open. I have a lot of ideas.
How do I do this work? I live a simplified lifestyle. I keep my expenses low. When I was organizing around the murder of Terrence Franklin by MPD, a guy gave me a ride home. It was like he was looking under my skirt, so to speak — seeing the way I lived. He said “You don’t have a car?! You share a place ?!
I don’t have savings. Only enough for my kids to bury me.
I peruse the ministry on and off. I started this work because of my understanding of the Bible. The call to do justice. Every time I go back I say, “I can’t do this.” In my reading of the Bible. I see a strain of love and justice running through it. There is craziness in that book as well, but I found in the prophets, a call to do justice and the idea that it’s a sin to create an unequal society. There are rules about interest and redistribution when things get out of balance. Those are socialist ideas.
I have always been sensitive to the underdog. Rather then wanting to leave the hood, I wanted to go back to it. I know from when I was a kid, what it’s like to be friendless. It’s very personal. I feel peoples’ pain. Police violence stuff is especially painful. When the state kills its own….
With any luck, we will build a movement.