LIFE / CULTURE
Conviction of white police officer sparks hot debate at black-owned and activist bookstores
The next chapter
Published: Apr 22, 2021 09:18 PM
The histories, poems and novels were all there, lining the shelves of some of the best known black-owned and activist bookstores in the US.

And the talk filling cultural hubs like Busboys and Poets in Washington on Wednesday was about the latest chapter in US civil rights: the murder conviction of a white police officer for killing a black man.

James Fugate, co-owner of Eso Won Books, arranges copies of former president Barack Obama's memoir A Promised Land in the Leimert Park neighborhood of Los Angeles on November 24, 2020. Photo: VCG

James Fugate, co-owner of Eso Won Books, arranges copies of former president Barack Obama's memoir A Promised Land in the Leimert Park neighborhood of Los Angeles on November 24, 2020. Photo: VCG

Not just books

Such shops don't just sell books. They've long been centers for holding important conversations and supporting community, making them ideal places to survey the mood following Tuesday's murder conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for killing George Floyd, a black man, in 2020.

Two black men - Onye Dibia, 40, who works in IT, and musician Kaseim Watts, 26 - chatted over coffee near a poster of the late congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis, at Busboys and Poets on Wednesday. Dibia had watched the verdict live.

"It was emotional," he said. 

"The beautiful part about it is exposing what is evil, and saying this is wrong."

Dibia hoped the attention Floyd's death drew might lead to increased attention to economic justice - a central demand in the 1960s by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

"Maybe if he [Floyd] had a living wage, he would not have been in this mess," Dibia said. 

"Every man wants to take care of his family."

Watts was less hopeful, "Does it change anything?"

Busboys and Poets refers to the black US poet and social activist Langston Hughes, who worked as a busboy in the 1920s before gaining fame as a writer. The store's stock includes memoirs by former president Barack Obama and biographies of Frederick Douglass, the former slave-turned abolitionist.

Reading a book in a corner was Josie Ellis, 14, a white high schooler on spring break from Portland where she had joined the city's protests in summer 2020 after Floyd's murder.

She followed Chauvin's trial closely. 

"It's a big relief to see that there is finally action getting taken, but I think part of me understands that there's a lot more that needs to happen."

Ivory Dixon, 35, a manager at the store, said she had just left Busboys on Tuesday when she heard cheering explode from inside, and knew Chauvin had been found guilty.

Dixon was relieved about the conviction. But also on her mind was the police shooting death on Tuesday of Ma'Khia Bryant, a black 16-year-old, in Columbus, Ohio, just before the Chauvin verdict.

"It was so tragic to know that in the same hour of the verdict, that the same thing has befallen another young lady," Dixon said.

'Read a book and find out'

Halfway across the country, Yoel Harris sat in a chair scrolling on his phone in the corner of the Underground Bookstore, a shop that he has owned for 27 years in the predominately black neighborhood of Calumet Heights on Chicago's South Side.

"Justice, huh? It's a start anyway," he said of the verdict in Minneapolis. "Let's see how much time he [Chauvin] is going to get."

Harris sat among stacks and rows of hundreds of books on black heritage, history and other topics. Harris said he considers his bookstore a "central intelligence agency."

"If you don't know what's going on, come get a book, read a book and find out," he said.

The next chapter in civil rights will depend in part on police departments across the nation and how they change the way they disseminate information and hold officers and agency officials accountable, Harris said.

He applauded the police chief in Minneapolis and other department officers who testified against Chauvin.

In California, Oakland-based activist and writer Mia Birdsong watched the verdict live and discussed it with her son, 10, and daughter, 15 - "there were high fives." And her WhatsApp groups of fellow black women pored over it too.

But when Birdsong walked into independent black-owned bookstore Marcus Books in Oakland to pick up a half dozen books Wednesday, she didn't talk about the verdict with co-owner Blanche Richardson, whose parents founded the bookstore.

"I wanted this to be someplace where it was not as present," said Birdsong, 48. 

"Marcus Books feels like a place out of reality where I can go and be in a world that doesn't really exist yet."

The bookstore, named after activist Marcus Garvey and located on Martin Luther King Jr Way, features extensive collections of history and children's books about the history of racism in the US, as well as cook books, comics and memoirs.

In the world beyond the bookstore, Birdsong wants comprehensive criminal justice reform. Chauvin's conviction, she said, was merely confirmation that "water is wet."

"We deserve so much more," she said.

George Williams, a 25-year-old gym trainer, brought his brother Cody, 24, to the bookstore for the first time on Wednesday.

"I want everyone's eyes to be opened to injustice. And also that justice is possible," said George, who is black, as he browsed a political section of the bookstore. 

"The verdict shows that progress is slowly happening."
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