MINNEAPOLIS – In a scene that has become all too familiar to Black residents in this region, mourners gathered in a church sanctuary Feb. 17 to grieve the early death of a Black man and denounce the actions of the police who killed him.

Relatives and friends of Amir Locke, who was shot by police Feb. 2 as they executed a no-knock warrant on the apartment where he was lying on a couch, grieved over his casket adorned with red roses at Shiloh Temple International Ministries – the same church that hosted the funerals of Jamar Clark in 2015 and Daunte Wright last April.

Relatives of Wright and of George Floyd attended the ceremony, along with local anti-violence advocates and high-profile civil rights leaders. Sounds of Blackness, a Grammy Award-winning ensemble that originated in Minnesota, sang “Black Lives Matter” before civil rights attorney Ben Crump took the podium to call for justice for yet another family affected by police violence. 

“You’re part of a fraternity no one wants to be a part of,” said Crump, who also represents the Floyd and Wright families. 

During the ceremony, civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton called out the National Rifle Association for its silence on Locke’s death. The 22-year-old DoorDash delivery man was a legal gun owner, relatives said, and had purchased a weapon to protect himself amid a string of carjackings. He was holding the weapon when police shot him.

Activist Kunta X, leader of the Minneapolis chapter of the Fred Hampton Gun Club, which advocates for Black people’s armed self-defense, said Black gun owners face a double standard when they attempt to exercise their right to protect themselves.

“What’s the point of following the law if there are the same consequences as someone who doesn’t?” Kunta X said after attending Locke’s funeral. “You’re looked at as a felon either way.” 

Black people have historically been viewed as “inherently dangerous” by the criminal justice system, said Gloria Browne-Marshall, a professor of constitutional law at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. White law enforcement officers often see themselves in white suspects and give them the benefit of the doubt, she said.

Andre Locke (lower left) — father of Amir Locke, who was killed during a no-knock police raid on Feb. 2 — speaks to protesters on Saturday during a Minneapolis demonstration. (photo by Georgia Fort)

Many saw that racial dynamic at play in the aftermath of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, when police initially failed to arrest the shooter, Travis McMichael, or the other white men who chased Arbery down outside Brunswick, Georgia, in February 2020. They remained free for more than two months until a leaked cellphone video of the shooting ignited public anger. 

In 2015, police in North Carolina drew ire after they treated Dylann Roof, who had slaughtered nine Black people in a Charleston, South Carolina, church while they were praying, to Burger King following a 16-hour manhunt. 

But that level of empathy often isn’t shown Black people, even when possessing a legal weapon. A police officer fatally shot Philando Castile in 2016 after he told the officer he had a legal weapon in the car. Police killed John Crawford in an Ohio Walmart in 2014 while he was carrying a BB gun that was being sold there. And police killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice later that year while he was playing with a BB gun in a park.

The disparate treatment was raised again Feb. 12 in a New Jersey incident with no guns involved. After police responded to a fight between two teenagers, one Black and the other white, they placed their knees on the back of the Black teen while handcuffing him and allowed the white teen to sit on a nearby couch, according to video of the incident – even after the white teen put his wrists up and offered to be detained. 

“We are very concerned. I’d be lying by saying that we are not sitting back and watching what’s going on,” said Philip Smith, founder of the National African American Gun Association (NAAGA). “The worst thing that we can do as lawful, law-abiding gun owners is just sit back and say, ‘You know what, Amir got shot. Philando [Castile] got shot. Then I’m going to put my gun away and leave it at home.’ That’s not what we should do. We are not sub-citizens or discounted Americans. Many of our ancestors died, in many cases, for us to have these rights.”  

The air of suspicion leveled at Black people is a dynamic rooted in “hundreds of years of history,” Browne-Marshall said, noting the enslavement and inhumane treatment of Africans in the United States.

“Because of history, people of color are seen as villains, as dangerous and sometimes savage animals in the most despicable light,” she said.

Philip Smith, president and founder of the National African American Gun Association (courtesy of Philip Smith)

Black gun owners said Locke’s death has raised concerns about the exercise of their right to bear arms, but it also is not a deterrent. Instead, they said they see it as a moment to strengthen their Constitutional rights. 

Cleveland resident Robert Rice, 27, said he was leery about obtaining a concealed carry gun permit because of the heightened risk he faces as a Black man of being pulled over on the assumption that he’s a drug dealer with an illegal weapon. 

He worries about encountering a rogue officer with racial biases, but ultimately decided to become a gun owner nearly a year ago. Rice is now the founder of the Huey Newton Gun Club Alpha Chapter in Cleveland, named after a cofounder of the Black Panther Party

“Whether you’re an illegal firearm owner or have a registered CCW [concealed carry weapons] permit, if the police want to mess with you or unfortunately attempt to murder you, they’re going to do it anyways,” he said.

He said membership in his gun club is on a steady increase, and he aims to build a team of fully trained gun owners to become the protectors of their community. 

“As we all understand, the police don’t have our best interest and have done little to nothing to really change crime in our communities,” Rice said. “It’s up to us to engage in our communities from a grassroots level and from a neighborly level as well.”

The club provided security for a November 2021 rally calling for the Justice Department to reopen an investigation into the death of Tamir Rice. The department declined.

According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, there was a 58.2% increase of Black people purchasing firearms during the first six months of 2020 compared to the previous year. Police officers’ fatal shootings of Black people have been relatively stagnant, with 2,491 such killings since 2013, according to Mapping Police Violence, a nonprofit that tracks data on police killings.

Smith says that Black gun owners shouldn’t change their behavior because of “some rogue law enforcement officers.” NAAGA has over 41,000 members across the country, including more than 2,000 whites, and a recent increase of Latinos and Asians members as well as members of law enforcement.

“We are pro-law enforcement. We are in full support of the military. We’re pro-American,” said Smith, who is against no-knock warrants. “But if a law enforcement officer … has done things that are wrong, well, they need to be prosecuted.”

Christina Carrega is a criminal justice reporter at Capital B. Twitter @ChrisCarrega