When protests broke out in response to George Floyd’s death – a Black man killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis – three years ago, Kendra Wills didn’t march in the streets, but she still wanted to be part of the racial reckoning that was moving through the country.
Wills started volunteering for Southern Solidarity, a New Orleans-based nonprofit that “organizes the delivery of food, medical resources and basic needs directly to the unhoused in the downtown area of New Orleans.”
Southern Solidarity needed someone to deliver coffee and tea to protesters who were being freed from jail. Wills answered the call.
“People were really out on the streets, feeling like they have nothing to lose, that kind of lit a fire under me,” Wills said.
Southern Solidarity was created by Jasmine Araujo in March 2020 to help homeless people during the pandemic. Two months later, on May 25, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, long after Floyd had stopped resisting.
Medical experts at the murder trial for one of the former police officers testified that Floyd died from a lack of oxygen from being pinned to the pavement, Chauvin’s knee gouged into his neck.
“I started out, when it happened, really feeling powerless and hopeless. Then when I saw the collective anger that was building, I kind of began to mobilize with my community into a more action-centered role,” Araujo said.
The group was like many grassroots, social service and civil rights organizations that saw an increase in volunteers and money as people sought ways to make an impact after Floyd’s death.
Southern Solidarity began with 30 members in March. By the end of the summer, the organization had 150 volunteers, Araujo said. The organization received an influx of monetary donations as well.
“We shifted completely to doing both political work and food distribution because of the wave of political unrest that was happening in America,” Araujo said. “I think a lot of people joined [Southern Solidarity] because the same neglect that caused George Floyd’s death is the neglect that we see with houseless people.”
Araujo said three years after the death of George Floyd, she’s seen a backlash of the things they were fighting for, including “police abolition and defunding.” There’s also been an increase in attacks on the trans and queer communities in America, Araujo said.
“The backlash is very fierce,” she said. “But at the same time, I see a lot of communities coming together. I see a lot of mutual aid groups that started during the rebellion that are still going on strong. I really have hope that what’s happening behind the scenes is still energized. I mean, the labor movement really blew up after George Floyd as well. I think that it’s all connected.”
The Center for Racial Justice at Dillard was created a week after the death of George Floyd. The university felt that it needed to do something to get more involved in racial issues across the city and across the nation, center director Ashraf Esmail said.
“It seemed like every agency was talking about intervening, and policies, and training, and how to avoid excessive incidents, officers holding other officers accountable, more cultural change within agencies, building a trust within the community, within policing,” Esmail said. “I mean, a lot of different organizations, businesses, everybody kind of got involved in the conversation about how to address race.”
But did those conversations lead to substantial change?
“It’s hard to answer,” said Esmail, an associate professor and program coordinator of criminal justice at Dillard. “We’re still not at a point where we trust police. We’re not anywhere we need to be after George Floyd.”
Esmail pointed to the deadly beating of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols by five Memphis police officers in January.
“It seemed like in Memphis, this was common practice every day. They had no qualms about what they were doing, and there was no intervening. There was no sense of humanity within the whole video from all four [officers] that I watched when it occurred,” Esmail said. “There’s still, from what I hear, a lot of cover-up, still a lot of protection. You just kind of wonder if a whole lot has changed in terms of policing and how they view themselves.”
But it’s not only the lack of change in policing, but also the backlash against minority communities that Araujo pointed to that has Esmail concerned as well.
In April, the Louisiana State Republican Party passed a resolution urging the legislature to ban diversity departments in Louisiana colleges and universities. The resolution described the DEI offices as “a threat to academic freedom and academic integrity.”
“We cannot move forward unless we recognize there’s a lot of prejudice, discrimination, and stereotyping. It’s still so far embedded in our society,” Esmail said. “We still have so much work to do. We’re living in a time that’s very concerning now.”
In the meantime, Southern Solidarity hasn’t stopped its food distribution services to homeless people in downtown New Orleans. They serve hot meals at dinner time on weekends. However, the money that they raised in 2020 is nearly gone and their members have decreased, from 150 volunteers at the height of the racial reckoning to 60 volunteers today.
Wills is still with the group. She’s continuing the work she started after the death of George Floyd three years ago.
“It makes me feel good. It is very fulfilling,” Wills said of volunteering with Southern Solidarity. “It makes a difference in people’s lives, and I can see it. I can see the tangible sort of impact that it’s making. Also, the community relies on us now. They expect to see us out there every week. If we’re not, they’re asking for us.”
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