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'Our lives depend on it': Duluth NAACP rallies to 'decriminalize color'

Organizers have found some success advocating for issues such as jail care and a crisis response team, but they said much work remains to be done in the criminal justice system.

Del Shea Perry speaking at microphone next to image of her son Hardel Sherrell
Del Shea Perry, founder of Be Their Voices, fires up the crowd while calling for reforms in Minnesota jail and prison care at an NAACP rally in downtown Duluth on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. Perry's son, Hardel Sherrell, died in the Beltrami County Jail in 2018.
Tom Olsen / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Del Shea Perry says she was "forced into activism" and "as long as God gives me a voice, I'm going to use it."

Perry has been on a quest for the past four years to hold Minnesota jails and prisons accountable after the death of her son, Hardel Sherrell, from medical complications at the Beltrami County Jail.

"It could happen to any one of you," she told a Duluth crowd Saturday. "It happened to me. It came knocking at my door. Surely it could come knocking at yours."

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NAACP Duluth chapter President Classie Dudley speaks during the Decriminalize Color event at the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial in Duluth on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022.
Brandon Veale / Duluth News Tribune

Perry's vocal advocacy has already led to the passage of the Hardel Sherell Act, which establishes minimum standards for care in correctional facilities, as well numerous counties — including St. Louis — choosing to cut ties with the controversial MEnD Correctional Care, a private company whose owner has since had his medical license suspended.

The founder of Be Their Voices, Perry spoke at the Duluth NAACP's second-annual Decriminalze Color rally at the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, sharing her story and path to advocacy and calling others to join the fight.

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"I am a grieving mother who is demanding accountability for my son and for those who have been treated unjustly in Minnesota jails," she said. "There should be a statewide initiative and Minnesota should want to change the system because it has cost Minnesota taxpayers millions of dollars in lawsuits, and it will continue to cost us more millions of dollars because if they do not hold wrongdoers and evildoers accountable this will never end. We must stop the madness now."

The rally addressed a range of issues that have been on the minds of local activists in recent years, particularly jail care, disparities in police use of force and traffic stops, and the disproportionate number of students of color who receive citations from school resource officers.

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Zander Marshall-Staine, 5, left, and Jeanine Reynolds, 10, work on an art project as Mandy Marshall watches during the Decriminalize Color event at the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial in Duluth on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. Participants of all ages were invited to decorate a Black Lives Matter sign to be given to the Duluth Police Department.
Brandon Veale / Duluth News Tribune

Still, organizers were not thrilled about the size of relatively modest crowd of perhaps 100 who turned out on a drizzly Saturday afternoon. Classie Dudley, president of the Duluth branch of the NAACP, said she is often approached by various groups who want the organization's support on issues — environment, business, unions, women's groups — but she said the NAACP doesn't see support in return.

Dudley signaled a more aggressive approach to advocacy in the Twin Ports.

Nearly a year after the Duluth NAACP demanded racially proportionate policing in Duluth, the News Tribune asked activists and authorities about what has changed and what is still to be accomplished.

"We no longer will be holding our Decriminalize Color events where they get to ignore us in the middle of the city and not show up and not support us," she said. "Instead, we're going hold it in your backyard. We're going to hold it in front of the country club. We're going to be shutting down streets. We're going to be stopping you from going to work. We're going to show up at your places of business and tell you about how many people are dying and suffering and traumatized. ...

"If my people don't get housing, neither do you. If my people don't get education, neither do yours. If my people don't get jobs, neither will you and neither will your friends. And I'm saying that because our lives depend on it."

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Blair Powless of the Duluth Community Safety Initiative speaks about a racial bias audit of the Duluth Police Department during the Decriminalize Color event Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022 at the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial in Duluth.
Brandon Veale / Duluth News Tribune

Organizers counted some successes since the event was first held last fall. Along with the changes coming to the St. Louis County Jail, the Duluth Police Department worked with activists to establish a community crisis response team that allows professionals other than police officers to respond to nonviolent calls involving people who may be facing mental health or substance-use disorders.

Also in the works is a racial bias audit of the Duluth Police Department. Activists from several groups have been working with the city for some 18 months to define the parameters of the effort and select a vendor, the Crime and Justice Institute, which is expected to begin its work before the end of the year.

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Participants said the audit will be different than a study commissioned by the Duluth Police Department and released earlier this year by a consultant, who concluded that there was no evidence of systemic racism within the agency. Activists had been critical of the lack of community involvement in that process and questioned the credentials of the consultant, a former prosecutor.

"This audit has been created by the community," said Blair Powless, a member of the Duluth Community Safety Initiative and the city's Citizen Review Board. "It's important that it continues to be led by the community."

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Ricky DeFoe says a prayer in the Ojibwe language during the Decriminalize Color event at the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial in Duluth on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022.
Brandon Veale / Duluth News Tribune

Ricky DeFoe, a Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa elder and local activist, said many chase the American dream, only to find out "that it's a nightmare."

"We're not saying that white bodies are the problem," DeFoe told the crowd. "We're saying the concept of whiteness is the problem. We are a community; we're here together. The problem is when we look at the so-called modernity in these institutions. Just go over to the civic center and we see the federal building, the county building, the city hall. They are all oppressive apparatuses to extend hardship upon us."

Stakeholders are still ironing out the details on how the expanded community crisis response will work. They plan to make announcements about the service in early 2022.

He added: "Too often America makes us thinks we're the problem. We don't want to look at ourselves through the eyes of the ones that are looking down upon us."

Throughout the 90-minute rally, participants chanted a number of slogans, including "stop the stops," "end MEnD" and "kids need support, not court."

At a table, attendees were asked to affix personalized messages to a large wooden art piece reading "Black Lives Matter."

Jamey Sharp, co-chair of the NAACP's criminal justice committee, noted the Duluth Police Department has a "thin blue line" flag hanging on a wall at its headquarters. He said activists have requested that it be removed, but administrators have declined, citing the fact that it was a donation. So the plan is to likewise donate the Black Lives Matter decoration and ask the department to display it.

Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or tolsen@duluthnews.com.
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