After viewing a widely circulated video of 46-year-old George Floyd’s final moments, University of Minnesota student body president Jael Kerandi had enough.
The recording of Floyd — captured Monday — shows him struggling while handcuffed as Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee onto the black man’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds as three other officers stood by. It was all 21-year old Kerandi needed to see. Chauvin did not remove his knee after Floyd said “I can’t breathe” or after he shouted “Mama” and uttered “please,” according to a criminal complaint filed Monday. He allegedly did not move his knee until nearly three minutes after another officer was unable to find Floyd’s pulse.
By Tuesday evening, Kerandi sent a letter to Joan Gabel, president of the university, demanding that the institution sever ties with the Minneapolis Police Department, citing a long history of civil rights abuses.
“George Floyd was murdered by the Minneapolis Police Department. Full stop. Regardless of the reason for his arrest, his death cannot be justified, and those who attempt to do so are part of the problem,” Kerandi wrote in an open letter.
Floyd was arrested outside of a store where an employee called police regarding a counterfeit bill.
“The Minneapolis Police Department has repeatedly demonstrated with their actions that Black bodies are expendable to them. This is a norm that we have been desensitized to due to its frequency. Black people have been killed by the Minneapolis Police Department at 13.2x the rate of white people,” Kerandi wrote.
“It is disgusting and it is unacceptable. A part of the Twin Cities campus is embedded within the confines of Minneapolis and students often are under the jurisdiction of the Minneapolis Police Department, a dubious status for any person of color. MPD has continually shown disregard for the welfare and rights of people of color on our campus,” Kerandi wrote.
The four Minneapolis police officers were fired earlier this week, and on Friday, Chauvin was taken into custody and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter after three days of widespread protests.
In her letter, Kerandi had called for the university to take action within 24 hours.
On Wednesday, the university announced it was reducing ties with the department.
“As a community, we are outraged and grief-stricken. I do not have the words to fully express my pain and anger and I know that many in our community share those feelings, but also fear for their own safety. This will not stand,” Gabel wrote in a letter to the university community.
“We will limit our collaboration with the MPD to joint patrols and investigations that directly enhance the safety of our community or that allow us to investigate and apprehend those who put our students, faculty, and staff at risk,” Gabel wrote.
The school will no longer use the police department for football games, concerts and other large events, according to Gabel’s letter.
Kerandi wasn’t even supposed to be in Minneapolis this summer. Had the summer gone as originally planned, the University of Minnesota rising senior would have been in Seattle starting an internship at Microsoft this week.
But like every other college student in America, covid-19 altered her plans. On Friday, Kerandi spoke with me before logging on remotely for her Microsoft duties.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Soo Youn: When did you first see the George Floyd video? How long did it take for you to decide to call for severing ties with MPD and to draft the letter?
Jael Kerandi: I saw the video on Tuesday, but couldn’t watch it right away due to the trauma I knew was waiting. I made a decision regarding action early afternoon on Tuesday (approximately between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m.) The letter was shared and sent on Tuesday night.
SY: What prompted your actions?
JK: You can see the trend of the Minneapolis Police Department, which I name in the letter and all citations are there for people to view and understand. I was also present at the Somali Student Association event that was held in spring of 2018 and during that event the Minneapolis police were present and it was less than a pleasurable experience. [After the Somali student event, Minneapolis Police were accused of “excessive force” by students and two arrests were made.]
After that event I made constant inquiries into what exactly happened. What are the repercussions? And was continuously met with what continuously felt like running around and not exact action or response, which was really disappointing. That was an example of when I saw this on our campus. I don’t think that every single police officer has malintent, but there area a lot of police officers who stand by while these things occur.
At the end of the day, who do you trust? Students feel like they can’t trust the police officers. And as a representative of students, that is a problem. There’s also the students that state, on the other end: “Now who’s wanting to keep us safe? What happens now?”
And I want to be very clear in saying there are so many students that have never felt safe
There are a lot of students that have never felt as if they have protection on our campus. So I’m not going to say that I don't understand the argument. But also be very aware of what other students have been experiencing. While I don't expect you to understand, I do expect some level of empathy for other students as well.
SY: What’s the significance of the university’s actions?
JK: When you can see a video that is clearly depicting faces and badge numbers, where you can hear audio things that are very important to the court of law — it showed that the president took every reason to protect our community and understand what this is doing and how traumatizing it was.
I want to say very clearly that it’s not just black students that were affected by this. It’s not just students of color, right? Students all over the university were traumatized. I think what this shows is that president [Gabel] takes the values of our university seriously and the needs of our students very seriously. It’s very important for her to send that message.
I know in the future we're still going to have to discuss how we move forward after this and what exactly needs to happen, not only with our work with the Minneapolis police department but our own police department on our campus as well.
SY: Were you always interested in student government?
JK: I think God’s plan worked out for me to be president at this time. I actually ran last year to be the vice president of our student organization. Our president resigned midyear and I became president in January.
My fight for students has always been a passion I’ve had since high school — it didn’t start in college. We talk about higher education being this transformative experience and its ability for you to transform your life and move an income class or move your socioeconomic status, but we’re having students, especially students of color and underrepresented students, come to universities and not be set up for success.
There’s already barriers in place, there’s already a system that doesn’t necessarily support them in the way they need to be supported to succeed. So my need to be in student government was to create a place in which I can say confidently that I can invite another young black woman to also be in education. Or that they’re coming to a place in which their success is not dependent on formative years and their success is not ultimately dependent on simply having to game the system or having to somehow finesse the area. And then they can really fully rely on their objective and hard work.
SY: There’s been so much talk about racism that shocks people this week. And a lot of people are wondering what they can do to combat it. What can people do to be better allies for other communities?
JK: There’s a couple of ways in which people can be better allies. We have an election coming up and it’s very important to be an educated voter.
The second thing I would say is being an ally does not mean that your friend or the person you know has to constantly reeducate you. I think it's very easy for you to sit there and continuously asked for reeducation and say, “Well, what should I do?”
They are not there to reeducate you, every single day. It is tiring and it is not the job of a person of color to reeducate you on your manners or your ethics.
The last thing I would say is donate, whether that’s supplies, whether that is donating to a fund, donate. And not with a mind to publicize that donation but with a mind that you know you’re doing what’s right. In the words of Martin Luther King, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."
So for the people who are out there and are actively saying they’re allies, back that up with action and don’t wait for the pat on the back, my goodness. There’s so many people waiting to get the acknowledgment of being an ally. Being an ally does not include the praise. That’s not being an ally, that’s looking for an additional platform.
But I really want people to be educated voters coming up this fall.
SY: Can you expand on what you were saying about reeducation?
JK: The reeducation I’m speaking of is constantly looking to the underrepresented person in their room to speak on behalf of every single group, or just on behalf of black people. “I’m waiting for the nod from you to speak and after you speak I’m going to nod in agreement and I’m waiting for you to smile at me and acknowledge that.” It’s a constant cycle of “I want to make sure you don’t think I’m racist.”
I think there’s a lot of literature, I think there’s a lot of documentaries. I’m not saying, “Don’t ask questions.” But the constant of “Please explain this to me,” it’s really hard. It gets to the point of where if you’re not willing to say something one day, someone gets mad at you.
SY: You’re now a role model for a lot of girls. Who are your role models?
JK: My mother and father are my biggest role models without a doubt. I also love the work of Michelle Obama.
I credit Shonda Rhimes for this and her ability to create such a show — seeing Olivia Pope in “Scandal” and her savviness has always been something I look to. I know she's a fictional character but her ability as a black woman to transcend some of those barriers in Washington and get things done. You look at her ability to fit in rooms that we’re often excluded from or demand a certain level of respect and that's something amazing.
SY: Then are you considering politics yourself?
JK: That’s a great question. Right now I’m a business student. I’m very focused on business but I also don’t know where God may lead me.
SY: What is your reaction to the news that Chauvin has been charged?