Sweetgrass, Not Tear Gas

Ihotu Jennifer Ali

Monday, May 25.
A slow burn of sweetgrass and cedar,
peach leaves and palm oil.

In a corner store called Cup Foods, 10 blocks from my house – where I’ve popped in occasionally to buy spicy Cheetos and phone chargers – Mr. George Floyd was pinned to the ground by Derek Chauvin. A punishment for trying to buy a pack of cigarettes with a fake bill, a knee on his neck. George pleaded for his life, saying “I can’t breathe.”

George called for his mother.

After about 6 minutes he became unresponsive, and Derek kept his knee on his neck for an additional 2 minutes and 53 seconds. Three other officers, dozens of neighbors, and children watched.

A tsunami of loss.

Life went into a blur. To this day, I can’t recall a single other thing that week, up until the red sky.

My roommate and I were glued to the Unicorn Riot livestream, and as we watched, the National Guard and tear gas colonized our streets, and buildings went up in flames. We stepped outside to see the sky, still ablaze with red at midnight. Ablaze, with air-borne acid and chemicals that burned our eyes and constricted pandemic-weary lungs.

A portal emerged. We knew we would never be the same. Then we heard rumors of houses being attacked.

I gave myself 7 minutes to pack a bag with my passport, altar photos of my grandfather, and whatever else I considered necessary enough to risk an attack on my life – could barely close the bag zipper from my hands shaking – and drove to stay with family outside the city. My former United Nations worker body knew too well the potential for swift collapse into militia and chaos.

Minneapolis has historically been a safe haven to thousands of refugees. I can’t fathom how they were triggered. Eventually, gratefully, the rumors were proven false. I returned home, but we barricaded the doors and were told to remove backyard furniture and hose down the outdoor house walls every few hours to prevent arson or fires catching. It became normal to not sleep. My roommate and I rotated keeping watch, and the neighbors on our block created a cautious plan for street patrol. What a time to finally meet them. Trauma bonds.

Strangely, daytime felt peaceful, joyous even with the city full of simultaneous protests, but curfew, the Guard, and new reports of fires returned at nightly at 8pm. I’d light my candles and pray for hours, pleading with god that I wouldn’t wake to news of my friends, my neighbors, my city slaughtered.

I wondered if I would ever again hear helicopters without my heart racing. If I could ever fully heal this anxiety.

But let’s step back a moment. I moved into the Powderhorn neighborhood four years ago, back home to Minnesota after a decade in New York City. I had worked with the People’s Movement Center on Chicago and 41st Street – a local collective of the most brilliant healing practitioners. As an outsider-insider, I honor and respect the deep character of this city. Minneapolis has a long history of peaceful protest after police killings – for Ancestors Philando Castile, Jamar Clarke and more. They/We are a city of dreamers and idealists, and with research like MPD150’s landmark report “Enough is Enough” to explain the nuance and transition required to turn bold claims into reality. We continued a legacy of protesting for fewer chokeholds and guns, and for de- escalation, rather than escalation tactics. We protested the longtime double standard that for some communities, calling the police or 911 feels like protection, while for others, it feels like adding fuel, where we already have fire. We protested for water.

Minneapolis is the part of the country where in spring, hundreds of artists and volunteers organize a massive May Day Parade of dancing children and live music, storytelling and ceremonies in the park with life size papier-mache puppets. On that day, thousands gather to give thanks to the four directions, to ancestors, and to the original Dakota guardians and stewards of this land. In Minneapolis, people bring giant bubbles, sage, and teddy bears to protests.

This almost seemed a radical reaction to what I remembered of growing up in suburban Bloomington and Hopkins, where I experienced an unspoken pressure to assimilate to a specific, and mostly white, Christian culture. Respected people in my community were outdoorsy and family oriented, distrustful of strangers and new ideas, not overly political, but strongly principled about appearances and right vs. wrong. Genders were very defined. The respected men were athletic and easy going, successful breadwinners with a knack for hunting or fishing. Respected women were quiet and maternal, with a knack for dressing well, wearing makeup and adding blond highlights to long hair, and marrying and birthing children as successful homemakers by age 25.

I left Minnesota because of this conformist culture, in search of a place that celebrated me, even as a woman without children, who spoke her mind, loved meeting new people, ideas, and cultures, and enjoyed spicy food and dancing all night long. I found a home in New York City for nearly a decade, up until the hustle and concrete jungle wore me out. When I chose to return to Minnesota, aching for more nature, quiet, and family time, I chose Minneapolis as a rare Minnesota haven for artists and healers, for racial and gender diversity, and for its independent, political and creative thinkers.

After a decade of hustling through New York City, Washington D.C., and tired and traumatized from documenting human rights violations and natural disasters, I felt like Minneapolis was one of the last kind places on earth. It wasn’t yet jaded, hardened or polarized from suffering. Maybe that is changing, now. But the fires didn’t seem like us. Something wasn’t right, and I heard of multiple sightings of the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacy groups, who would certainly have had an interest in turning our protest against us, and into war. My instinct is still that Minneapolis had no interest in war. We were tired and traumatized, perhaps, but the sharp turn from marching for justice into watching an acid red sky was a shock that fractured our lives, and still threatens to fracture and distort a movement born out of love and compassion.

Violence shatters a part of you.

Countries after war, neighborhoods with too many guns, and cities like Minneapolis, Kenosha, Ferguson and so many others after state-sponsored violence, need to tell their stories. We need to, because another story is developing to dismiss us as criminals and terrorists. We are being dismissed because we disagree with the state, when the state is sponsoring, or at the very least, turning a blind eye to violence. We then are dismissed again because of our own suffering from and reactions to the violence, which somehow is explained such that we “deserved” it.

We are learning how mass trauma changes a city, how suffering quietly slips into self- righteous anger, toxicity and harm – even from people who call themselves peaceful and truly want to be loving. We are learning how fearing loss of life and property makes us closed minded and polarized, if we aren’t careful. Minneapolis, St. Paul, and many other cities are in a mental health crisis that may cause not just depression, but chronic anger, aggression, violence and crime. We are fragile, in a prolonged panic-anger-grief- survival state of mind. I fear for my city.

I made a hard choice to move to a nearby, but quieter neighborhood, in order to sleep well again and find the clarity to write. Moving is not a long term solution, and it was both my deepest guilt and my deepest protest, to choose life, healing, and discern what I need to show up fully for the work still ahead. How many others across the U.S. are not sleeping, and unable to show up? Are our leaders sleeping? How many of us will become people we no longer recognize?

We are in a pandemic of pandemics. Our medical system, and certainly our justice system have no grasp on how to heal or bring justice to a psychosis this wide and deep. Our medical system is based on one patient, to one doctor. As a practitioner, I see one person at a time, over months, which now feels miserably slow. Meanwhile, each month seems to bring a whole new crisis and national anxiety. Without innovations in healing and medicine in a time of emotional crisis, no amount of training, charters, police presence, town halls, fact checking or vaccines will make a difference. We need a world in which we are not continually, daily, re-wounded and then blamed for being sick.

As our patient needs change, so must our practices. We need public health medicine, to stay aligned with our values, to stay in love instead of suffering, and to build our resiliency through the winds of change.

We need to tell all these stories, around a virtual campfire. To kick off the circle, here’s mine.

My name means “love,” in the Idoma language of central Nigeria. My grandfather was our village Chief, Mediator, and Judge since 1957. He didn’t read or write, but carried his community through Nigerian Independence and the Biafra Civil War.

Two generations later in Minneapolis, I identify as a black cis woman – not “historically black” with slavery survivor ancestry, but with black diaspora and Polish-Irish ancestry. None of my ancestors, to my knowledge, were enslaved, incarcerated, or oppressed in the ways common for people of color in the United States, but my father’s family lived under British colonial rule and under a Nigerian dictator who targeted his own people for speaking their mind. I have experienced light skin privilege, but also economic hardship, growing up on Food Stamps and Section 8 housing, co-parenting my sisters with my single mother, and with a sense of invisibility and imposter syndrome shared by so many people of color raised in a “white mainstream” state like Minnesota.

I’ve seen documents showing that my mother’s family held one slave, so I also carry the trauma of a colonizer – the ability to shackle and police, or simply try to control another human – perhaps while feeling nothing. Today, my White Minnesotan family is mostly rural and poor, but relatively open-minded, with aunts and uncles who have lived overseas, birthed their children at home, and married spouses of a different culture – Black, Native, Chinese and Amish. Being mixed in a multicultural family through an ongoing race war, means I come to this work with the questions, contradictions, and nuance of both privilege and oppression in my blood. These contradictions have always given me deep anxiety, and drive.

I am a traveler and cultural interpreter. I have two passports, am multilingual, and at any given time I hear in my head, the voice of a white woman or a West African man, merged with the experience of a Millennial and first generation college student, who has lived in 10 cities across the USA and 5 different countries. Depending on the place, I am seen either as clearly black, not really black and instead Dominican, Moroccan, or Brazilian, or, actually white. So I’ve learned to define my own relationship to my culture and my race, and for that reason I lived in Harlem, New York for nearly a decade, worked with the United Nations in Africa and Caribbean, and studied Black Liberation Movements from the Harlem Renaissance to Civil Rights, the Haitian Revolution to Pan- Africanism, Negritude and independence struggles across the Black Diaspora.

I grew to believe that political ideas are embedded in hearts and bodies, so I returned to the U.S. and took on healing and birth work as my way of sitting with the contradictions I had seen in the U.S. psyche. I listened to our joys of birth and pain of heartache, learning the insecurities that drive us to control or fix, and wrestling with the image of human rights, but also dominance and violence, that we project to the world and to each other.

Spirit has led me through many worlds, but I see my job as offering tools, encouragement, and gateway or “portal” moments, for folks to choose healing, processing, and rebalancing, over staying stuck in fear, anger, or numbness. I try to create safe spaces for vulnerability, because as a friend told me, “We need hard backs, but soft bellies.”

Ten years ago I was a public health researcher driving in armored cars through burned out villages in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ten weeks ago I walked in fear, anger, and numbness through my burned out neighborhood in South Minneapolis, in shock at a familiar chaos and police state that I arrogantly had thought would never reach the United States of America. Today, I am holding the fragile pieces of myself together through the love and community of healers within the Minnesota Healing Justice Network, distributing hot meals, tea and carepacks to protestors and displaced neighbors, and teaching about backyard herbs. We are setting up families with retreats outside of the city, garden support and baby plants, all of us trying to find healing, from magic that still sprouts from the land.

Sweetgrass and cedar…
Peach leaves and palm oil.

What plants will teach us in silence,
how to snuggle and hug even after a fight
how to remember we are soft beneath our shields
we are tired but we are alive.

Under what tree can we sit and not fear what we feel
Sit beside pain and not lurch in to fix
What clouds will shapeshift into recipes for truth & transformative justice

When my own pain is so much that I run and I freeze,
Who else’s struggle can I even see clearly,
Can I even stand tall in front of bended knees?


Why is it better to strike than to beg?
This divided country is aching
Still we take pride in going alone and getting ahead.

If we were a plant, we must look thirsty.
Yearning, but wired and tired.
Biologically selfish in order to survive.
Nonstop work no play no sun not enough spring rain too little love. What makes the earth juicy and able to bend is not what we plan now, it’s what we choose to end.

How many crimes stem from lives in turmoil? Are we tending sick plants without feeding the soil?

And if politics may not be where new seeds will sprout – what about art?

As sister Junauda has said, maybe we do need the grandmothers, the healers, listeners, forgivers and feelers. Trade soft words for threats. Grow gardens over rubble and gather singers for security. More health care and wealth care and community care. More sweetness in bed – Can you imagine leaders calling for these instead?

From a fertile soil —
We can sit under a mango tree with our enemies, still with space to smirk at a joke. From a juicy spirit, we pour from fullness rather than fear. We might even forgive them, if there was first friendship there.

From a fertile soil —
What if the gardens replaced all our courtrooms, Neighborhood Councils for judges, plants for the witnesses. Can disagreements be taken “outside – to the garden” and circles allowed space to be real and outspoken?

Don’t over complicate this crisis. We are resilient plants, just right now in strife. We don’t need fancy policies, just those to support our basics of LIFE.

food. water. care.

For once, let justice start there.

Mini Sota makoce.
sage, chamomile, ginger.
sweetgrass, not tear gas.


About Ihotu Jennifer Ali
Ihotu Jennifer Ali is a traditional and Afrofuturist healer with a background in chiropractic medicine, trauma informed bodywork, and human rights research. She is a founding member of the Minnesota Healing Justice Network, author of Seven Portal Sky and The Everyday Sacred courses for BIPOC healers and allies, and writes on family justice topics for Evidence Based Birth. A graduate of Columbia University’s School of Public Health, Ihotu formerly conducted United Nations research on child rights in conflict zones and worked in the U.S. Congress in Washington D.C. Her private practice specializes in womb and generational health, reproductive justice, and Orisha and Celtic traditions based on her mixed race lineage.


Sweetgrass, Not Tear Gas Copyright © 2021 by Ihotu Jennifer Ali. All Rights Reserved.

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