On May 25, three Minnesota police officers forcibly restrained George Floyd, who was unarmed and not accused of committing a violent crime at the time. A fourth police officer simply stood by and did nothing to directly intervene. Two separate coroner reports found that Officer Derek Chauvin’s knee, pressed to the back of Floyd’s neck for nearly eight minutes, was the cause of death.
Two of the officers are white; the other two are Asian-American. Floyd was a black man, as unarmed suspects killed by police often are. The day after Floyd’s was killed, protesters gathered in Minneapolis to voice outrage at the police officers’ actions. Although the exact unfolding of the events are still unclear, police at some point deployed tear gas on the protesters, which turned an otherwise peaceful demonstration into an outright riot.
For over a week now, both protests and riots have surged across the US and other countries. What started as a protest about George Floyd’s death has since exploded into widespread unrest against police brutality and support of the Black Lives Matter movement in general.
And, amid the molotov cocktails, stone throwing, and rubber bullets, cannabis businesses and organizations have gotten swept up in the storm. After last weekend’s round of upheaval, at least 43 cannabis stores on the West Coast alone reported being looted, robbed, or vandalized. Many more pot shops in the Midwest and on the East Coast were damaged or destroyed, as well.
Today’s cannabis industry straddles two worlds. One of those worlds is the business world, which US police forces often protect with overwhelmingly more effort than they’ll protect average citizens. The other world is the cannabis community, a hodgepodge of free-thinkers that has traditionally viewed the police, the state, and even big business with mistrust, even disdain.
To find out how the protests — and their fall-out — are shaping this new generation of business owners, and what advice they could offer to the rest of the community, MERRY JANE reached out to some of the cannabis entrepreneurs whose livelihoods were directly impacted by destructive clashes between the police and the communities that the police are supposed to serve and protect.
George Floyd’s Death Is Nothing New in the Black Community
Amanya Maloba, who runs the Seattle-based cannabis art collective Women.Weed.WiFi, wrote to MERRY JANE that it’s been business as usual at her organization, because activism informs the group’s core.
“Hundreds of years of white terror and destruction in all fronts of life — from slavery, to Jim Crow, to the modern-day lynchings, including those of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, have fueled this current expression of justified rage,” she wrote.
In Breonna Taylor's case, Kentucky police shot and killed her in March during a no-knock raid. Police said they'd been tipped off that the house served as a hub for weed and crack deals. The police found no drugs in the home, yet, ultimately, no officers were convicted or reprimanded after the killing.
"Cannabis prohibition was just another in a long line of tactics to imprison black and brown folks, separate families, disenfranchise the community and set us back financially," Maloba explained. "Even with weed decriminalized and legalized in many states, police still use cannabis possession as an excuse to antagonize black people at an exceptionally high rate. "
“As a black American, this is, and has always been, my reality,” she continued, “not just over the past few weeks and every few years when the matter is highlighted in the media.”
Women.Weed.WiFi, as Maloba explained, creates digital and physical spaces to highlight black, indigenous, and women of color, “with the intention of healing, educating, and manifesting our vision for the future which includes liberation for all people, especially the most marginalized.”
“We continue to mobilize and organize every day,” she wrote. “For us and so, so many organizers for social justice and liberation, this is work that is meant to be done regularly, not sporadically.”
A Social Equity Cannabis Store Gets Hit in San Francisco
While protests have amplified why Women.Weed.WiFi exists in the first place, elsewhere in the cannabis community, unrest has served as a cover for robbery and wanton destruction.
Last Saturday night, sometime between the hours of 10 and 11 PM, California Street Cannabis in San Francisco was “looted,” the company’s owner and founder, Drakari Donaldson, told MERRY JANE during a phone interview. Although the intruders only spent a minute inside of his store, they ran off with nearly $10,000 worth of goods, almost all of it cannabis flower and vape cartridges.
“It was clear they weren’t part of the protests,” Donaldson said, noting that several other pot shops in the area got hit, too. “We don’t believe anyone who was actually fighting the same causes as the protesters are the ones looting these small businesses.”
The thieves who targeted Donaldson’s establishment only snagged items at the front of the store. He said that they were unable to break into the shop’s main inventory room or its safes, which contained the business’s cash.
The irony, in Donaldson’s case, is that his business is one of the few recipients of San Francisco’s social equity program. The social equity program prioritizes business licenses and loans for cannabis entrepreneurs who were either convicted of nonviolent cannabis crimes or who grew up in neighborhoods most impacted by the War on the Drugs. Donaldson belongs to the latter category, as he was raised by a single mother while living in Section 8 housing.
In other words, Donaldson has seen, first-hand, the injustices being protested against right now. He’s also a success story. Today, at just 24, he’s one of the youngest black men in the world to own a licensed cannabis business. He got there by starting as a dishwasher for a local bar at 16. He then worked his way up to becoming a barback, then became a bartender at 21, then a manager of two bars. He also attended the University of California-Merced and completed a business degree, becoming the first person in his family to earn one. His former bosses, who owned the bars he worked at, made him an offer after his graduation: Running and owning his own business.
Not every American gets the opportunity Donaldson got. “I can say I’m very grateful and thankful for the direction that my life is going,” he said. “It’s helped me set an example for my siblings, for my family, and hopefully for other minorities who know me or know of me. And that’s all I want to do, is be able to set a positive example with my life.”
California Street Cannabis opened in January, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was making its way from China to Europe and, ultimately, the US. His business trudged through San Francisco’s coronavirus lockdowns, and the latest looting incident only added more headache. But, Donaldson said, the business has remained surprisingly “resilient” through it all.
And, yes, California Street Cannabis is still open for business.
Cookies Cleaned Out, But Berner Mourns for Broken Hearts, Not Broken Windows
The same night that California Street Cannabis was robbed, Cookies’ Melrose retail store in Los Angeles was looted, too. Berner, the founder, part-owner, and CEO of Cookies, publicly stated on Instagram that despite the destruction and losses to his business, he still supports the protests.
“The world is in pain. Without justice, how can I expect anything else right now? A statement needed to be made,” Berner wrote to MERRY JANE in an email. “We were able to rebuild and open our store on Monday, but that man’s life is gone.”
“We are fed up with the justice system and pray all of the officers involved in George Floyd’s murder face criminal charges,” he continued. “We will be here to continue to spread love through this plant and bringing positive vibes for the city of Los Angeles.”
And in case anyone’s wondering if Berner is speaking on his own behalf, he’s not. A representative at Cookies wrote to MERRY JANE that, “Berner's point of view is supported by all within the Cookies organization.”
A Cannabis Store Participates in the Protests, Then Almost Becomes a Target
The same Saturday night that California Street Cannabis and Cookies were robbed, another cannabis store, Elev8 Cannabis in Eugene, Oregon, nearly experienced the same thing. But, in a sign of the changing times, Eugene police protected the pot shop, forming a line between businesses and the protesters until the protesters dispersed.
Seun Adedeji, who owns Elev8 Cannabis, told MERRY JANE by phone that the Saturday incident “definitely put me on guard.” He said he’s since added “extra precautions” to ensure his property and employees remain safe.
When the protests first kicked off in Minnesota, Adedeji said that Elev8 Cannabis publicly supported the movement through its social media. When the protests finally came to Eugene, Oregon, Elev8 Cannabis and its employees directly participated by marching in the streets. So, that other groups of protesters nearly wreaked havoc on his business struck him as antithetical to the cause.
Adedeji, like Donaldson, is also one of the youngest black men ever to own a licensed cannabis business. By simply existing as a leader in the cannabis space, his presence sends a message. The entrepreneur also believes, like Women.Weed.WiFi., that prohibition and cannabis criminalization has been employed to target and oppress marginalized groups in particular.
"I believe the War on Drugs, marijuana in particular, has given police the cause to stop us, it’s given them the reason to detain us, and it’s given them the reason to accidentally or purposefully kill us," Adedeji said, linking the current day protests to racially-based anti-drug campaigns.
And although a force of “about 50” police officers prevented a likely wave of destruction at the hands of nearly 200 protesters, he noted that not all black-owned businesses have been so fortunate.
“In Eugene and elsewhere, African-American businesses have been destroyed and burned down,” Adedeji said. “A lot of the businesses that I know have been burnt down are mom-and-pop businesses that can barely survive. They were already struggling.”
Support for the Protests, But Differences Regarding Solutions
It’s important to keep in mind that although the media often uses the blanket term “protesters,” there is not one monolithic group of “protesters” that’s peacefully picketing in the streets while simultaneously destroying property and attacking first responders, despite what the racist idiots on Fox News may say.
There are peaceful protesters who follow the laws when demonstrating at city centers. Some of them are plain ol’ citizens who are simply fed up with the US justice system. Others are disciplined remnants of the Occupy Movement. And Black Lives Matter, which is perhaps the most grossly mischaracterized activist group in America, never engages in violence, nor does it condone violence. In fact, violence is precisely what Black Lives Matter is trying to end.
There are, however, other groups engaging in the more destructive aspects of the protests. Some may even be intentionally inciting riots. These include black bloc anarchists, white supremacist groups, alt-right aggressors like the Proud Boys, and those who may identify with the loosely organized movement known as Antifa. And also the cops, of course.
As for the black cannabis businesses owners who spoke with MERRY JANE, all stated explicit support for the protests aimed at reforming the justice system. But they offered different, though related, solutions to ending the violence — as in, violence perpetrated by the police against black Americans and other marginalized groups.
“I am all for peaceful protests. I think it’s needed,” Seun Adedeji of Elev8 Cannabis said. “I think a protest gets people to listen, gets people to have this situation in mind, and it’s going to force change. What I don’t believe in is destruction and burning down of businesses.”
He continued: “I see, a lot of times, African-Americans are looking for peaceful protests, and I also see there are some white kids that are destroying properties, and it’s being blamed on African-Americans. I think it’s igniting fear in other people, and it’s not really depicting us in the best of light.”
Adedeji’s solution: Black communities need to unify. And, just as important, they need to vote.
“Get the right people in place,” he said, urging voters to put progressive local leaders and police chiefs into office. “And start supporting black-owned businesses.”
Drakari Donaldson of California Street Cannabis sees the protests as tragic but also as an inevitability. “I stand with the protesters. I think that this is necessary,” he said. “I feel like this is what you get when you institutionalize a system that is designed to oppress people and prevent people, specifically African-Americans and minorities, from being heard.”
“This is the only way that we, as minorities, know how to be heard,” Donaldson continued. “It’s what’s been taught to us. It’s not necessarily what’s worked in the past, but it’s been one of the only ways we’ve been able to draw attention to issues not only in America, but in the rest of the world.”
And as for Donaldson’s proposed solution to the escalating unrest: “There needs to be acknowledgement that minorities are mistreated. They’re perceived as causing nothing but violence and destruction and aggression. And that is not true.”
“Use every platform that they have to spread positivity and to spread the message and awareness that racism still exists,” Donaldson continued. “The average person, all they can do, is help spread the word and help advocate for rights of African-Americans and minorities.”
The women at Women.Weed.WiFi offered more involved and revolutionary solutions to the current law enforcement crisis. But these may be necessary solutions in the long run.
“The only solution to truly ending police brutality is to abolish policing as it currently exists,” Amanya Maloba wrote. “Systems of protection and aid should come from within communities, or at least from those who personally know the community they’re assigned to secure, and who also do community service within those communities.”
Janice Ibarra, who also runs Women.Weed.WiFi with Maloba, said that communities shouldn’t just be considered when new policies are made; they should serve an active, direct role in the oversight of those policies. “I think any potential solutions should be reviewed by a board of black activists like the original Black Panthers, where actions can be executed in an organized, vigilant, and assertive manner,” she wrote. “Integrating similar concepts like checks and balances... putting ideas of how we can protect black lives in motion mindfully.”
As of right now, the protests — peaceful and otherwise — are affecting real change. Officer Derek Chauvin, who killed George Floyd last week, was swiftly fired after the incident. Days later, after rioting began, Chauvin was arrested and initially charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. As of Wednesday, Chauvin’s murder charge was upgraded to second-degree murder. In addition, the other three officers involved in Floyd’s arrest and death — Thomas Lane, Tou Thao and J. Alexander Kueng — have now all been charged “with aiding and abetting murder,” the New York Times reported.
In other parts of the country, some police precincts are taking zero-tolerance approaches to complaints of police brutality or misconduct, especially if there’s video evidence. On Tuesday, six Atlanta police officers were promptly slapped with criminal charges for dragging a young black couple from their vehicle and unnecessarily tasing them.
In Denver, a police officer was fired after posting on social media, “Let’s start a riot,” along with a photo of himself and two other officers decked out in riot gear.
In Washington State, a video surfaced of a Seattle police officer pressing his knee into the back of a protester’s neck, indicating that some cops haven’t learned a thing. However, the kneeing officer’s partner repeatedly shoved his knee off of the protester’s neck, until the offending officer finally stopped.
The San Diego Police Department officially banned chokeholds and similar moves that cut off blood or oxygen to the brain. Banning these maneuvers, however, is not a guarantee that police won’t continue to use these tactics, as was the case in 2014 when NYPD’s Daniel Pantaleo strangled Eric Garner to death.
Minnesota Governor Tony Evers has called on the state’s lawmakers to pass a bill requiring all police departments to detail their use-of-force policies, and to include specific restrictions regarding what is not allowed.
And in New York State, efforts to repeal 50-A, a law from the ‘70s that prevents the public from seeing a police officer’s misconduct records, are gaining momentum. Both New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio and NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill publicly supported 50-A’s repeal to foster trust among police and civilians.
Note that the above police policies do not address the root cause of misconduct, brutality, and murder, which is a general disrespect for human life. Deep cultural, emotional, institutional rifts between the judicial system and the communities it supposedly serves has only reinforced that disrespect. These policies are, at best, a Band-Aid to cover a hemorrhaging wound. It’s a start, but it’s not enough.
Regardless, we could be witnessing a historic first in modern memory, as the American public has overwhelmingly condemned the Minneapolis police’s involvement in George Floyd’s death. Unlike previous incidents where unarmed black Americans were killed for no reason, heated, drawn-out debates over Floyd’s character have been minimal, if not effectively absent. Police chiefs across the country also condemned Chauvin’s unjustified killing of Floyd. But whether the current climate of retribution against “bad apple” cops continues after the protests disperse remains to be seen. History, after all, has a knack for repeating itself, especially in the proudly ahistorical Land of the Free.
“I want to remind people, especially black people at this time, that there are many rivers that lead to the ocean of the revolution,” Maloba of Women.Weed.WiFi. said. “Keep affecting and shaping the future in the ways that best amplify and project your power, and keep being brave in thought and in action.”