MINNEAPOLIS — At the beginning of 2020, Rayveen Koha-Jallah, who is now 20, was studying food science and microbiology at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls. One pandemic and a national reckoning over police violence later, she is switching her major to political science, because, as she puts it, she has been called toward the activism happening in the Minneapolis area.
Koha-Jallah lives in a house with other River Falls students about 20 minutes from Brooklyn Center, Minn., where Daunte Wright was fatally shot by a veteran police officer during a traffic stop on Sunday. At the start of the pandemic, she was mostly trying to stave off cabin fever, focusing on online workouts and self-care after classes went virtual. But after George Floyd’s death last May — which occurred just miles away — and now Wright’s, everything has changed.
“I realized I have a voice that people listen to, and that could be impactful for social justice,” she says. “So I might as well use it and get educated about the issues that we’re all going through and how we’re all feeling right now.”
Koha-Jallah is one of thousands of young people who took to the streets in the wake of Floyd’s death. But unlike others protesting in cities across the country, Koha-Jallah finds herself at the nexus of escalating tensions — especially in the wake of Wright’s death, and with the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who has been charged in Floyd’s death, underway.
Koha-Jallah remembers that Memorial Day weekend well, when she and her friends drove into Minneapolis to spend time at the lakes. They were hanging out at one, Bde Maka Ska, when they heard there had been a police killing.
Soon they learned the details of Floyd’s death — which happened after Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck during an arrest outside a Cup Foods store. The next day, Koha-Jallah and her friends left the lake and returned to the city to protest.
“We’re all unemployed from covid shutting everything down,” she says. “We have nothing to do. Everybody’s like, ‘Okay, let’s all carpool to Minneapolis,’ and next thing we know, we’re marching 10 blocks, 20 blocks, 20 miles, shutting down the highway.”
Koha-Jallah returned to the Twin Cities each day to protest during nearly two weeks of unrest, after making plans via group chat with a few dozen young people interested in using their voices to make a difference. “We would, every day, just link up somewhere and go,” she says.
She was a little scared getting involved with the protests at first, she says. As Koha-Jallah puts it: “While I know what I believe is right, and I feel like everyone should think that equality should be a top priority, everyone doesn’t experience the issues that face me as a Black woman or face any person of color.”
It wasn’t the first time Koha-Jallah felt like she was experiencing the world differently from her peers. A daughter of Liberian immigrants, her family moved to Big Lake, Minn., which sits on the edge of the Twin Cities metro area, when she was in middle school, and before that she lived in the suburb of Edina, Minn. Both places were very White, according to Koha-Jallah, in contrast to Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center, two suburbs with high Liberian populations, where many of her cousins and other family members live.
“I kind of started to realize my life was not the same as my cousins and other kids that were my age because of where I live,” she says. When she reached high school, Koha-Jallah says she started to notice microaggressions — including being stereotyped as someone that would not succeed — because she was Black. She formed a diversity and inclusion club at her school, but she didn’t have a good mentor to help the group thrive, she says.
Koha-Jallah ended up being accepted to Howard University, one of the country’s most well-known historically Black universities, but she only attended for a year. She didn’t feel like she fit in as a Liberian Black woman who grew up in a mostly White community, she says, so she ended up at River Falls.
But back in the Midwest, in the weeks of protests that occurred last summer, Koha-Jallah started to grow confident in her voice, she says. During marches, she would shout chants for the crowd to follow. Soon, she says, people were sending her messages through Instagram inviting her to come to protests and speak. Sometimes she would take the megaphone herself, inspired to lead. “It got to the point where sometimes if I saw it was going south, or people weren’t paying attention, I would just stand up,” she says.
This spring, Koha-Jallah and her housemates have been watching the murder trial of Chauvin every day, which, according to her, is a grueling experience — she doesn’t believe justice will be served in Floyd’s death. “I’ve learned to just expect what’s going to disappoint me with these types of situations,” she says. She has been vigilant about self-care, doing things like reading self-help books and listening to music; she likes R&B, and Lauryn Hill especially. She also paints — usually sunflowers and other imagery from nature.
Her house was watching updates from the Chauvin trial on Sunday afternoon when they all learned of the death of Daunte Wright, which occurred a block from her aunt’s restaurant. She knows more than a dozen people who live in the immediate area.
Koha-Jallah says she immediately thought of her brother, her nephew and her cousin, and how Wright’s death could have been them. “Everyone is just very fed up,” she says.
“As a Black person in America, I’m right now physically, mentally drained already,” she continues. “To hear again, another Black man has been shot … the instances are becoming too frequent and too close to home at this point.”
And Koha-Jallah knew what she had to do: Take to the streets and protest. When she got to the Brooklyn Center Police Department, nearly a year after she first protested against police violence not far away, she was struck by the resilience of her fellow demonstrators. “Of all of the protests I’ve been to, this was the most united and calm the crowd has ever been,” she says. This, despite getting tear-gassed herself about every 30 minutes, according to Koha-Jallah.
To cope with all the tear gas — police fired stun grenades as well into the crowd of hundreds of protesters — Koha-Jallah practiced breathing exercises she learned from other protesters, drank water and poured milk on her face, which she says helped soothe her skin.
Koha-Jallah plans to return to protest, but she also believes real change comes down to policy: “We need to vote for officials who are going to put the change that we want to see into effect quickly,” she says.
For her, those changes look like defunding the police while addressing the mental health crisis. For Black communities in particular, disparities in resource access and education gaps need to be addressed, she says.
Koha-Jallah wants to be part of that change, which is why she decided to switch majors after Floyd’s death.
“Last summer, I was sitting at my food science internship, and I’m like, ‘This is not what I want to do with my life,’” she says. “I want to impact people’s lives directly. I want to educate more people about simple things that they can do to help not be racist, how not spread racism throughout their communities and cities.”