Designer and activist Isak Douah on working security at the George Floyd memorial and becoming a gun and mental health advocate

Isak Douah poses next to a mural with images of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter and “I Can’t Breathe” drawn across. Photo courtesy Isak Douah.

Isak Douah, a Black Minneapolis native with Cote D’Ivoire and Iceland roots, was living in Amsterdam, Netherlands, pursuing his dream of being a fashion designer, when he abruptly decided to return home.

Several blocks away from his house in South Minneapolis, George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis Police and the city engulfed in flames.

Douah put his fashion company, Secure, self-made anti-theft bags, on hold and got on a flight to Minnesota.

He didn’t know what to expect upon his return, nor how long his stay would be. The only thing on his mind was being there for his community, who once more mourned the death of unarmed Black man.

Returning to Minnesota, Douah assisted in community organizing efforts in Minneapolis, became a security guard at the George Floyd Memorial, attained his gun license, and took therapy sessions after he saw a man murdered in South Minneapolis.

I spoke with Isak Douah about the death of Floyd and what has become an unforgettable and traumatizing summer.

Isak, you had been in Amsterdam since the summer of 2018. What was it like for you returning to Minnesota after George Floyd’s death?

In Minnesota with all the civil unrest and madness, I slid back into my role as a community activist. I had been out of the U.S. for a good two years, and even before then, it was calm in Minneapolis relatively for activism. But, police murders like this are nothing to me and nothing new to us. We have a high-profile police murder sometimes every year or every other year. With Philando Castile’s and Jamar Clarke murders, they really shook me.

Those experiences shaped me, so when 2020 came around, and my phone was ringing off the line, when they were going to burn the city down, I knew this was not what it was going to be like for Philando and for Jamar.

Isak Douah strikes a pose next to graffiti sign that reads “Southside We Outside.”
Photo courtesy Isak Douah.

When you say that you slid back into your role as a community activist, what do you mean?

Watching those crooks tear gas and shoot rubber bullets and other nonlethal rounds at my friends and family motivated me to start distributing safety equipment through the neighborhood. That became my role this summer. I was trapping gear, turning kits, band-aids, gas masks, of course, and other spicy things (Editor’s note: Isak wouldn’t elaborate on the “spicy things”). Whatever the community needed, I did. I even did some successful crowdfunding to bring these things to them.

Now things have quieted down in Minneapolis. People are pretty reactionary…it be like that. When shit hit the fan is when you grab gear like this, but the community around 38 and Chicago, George Floyd square, is still holding it down. They have 24 list of demands for community. Those demands have to be met before the traffic is reopened. The demands are about restoring and renewing efforts of stopping harm towards Black, Brown and Indigenous communities in the US. It’s also for justice for Floyd, Clark, Castile and others killed at hands of MPD and St. Paul police.

What made you want to work security at George Floyd’s memorial?

I wanted to be part of the discussion and conversation that was going to be had about what and how we as a community of Black and Brown people were going to rebuild Minneapolis in our own image. After your community burns down things don’t feel connected, so there must be convo of what comes next. I wanted to be part of the convo and wanted to share my point of view from an international perspective; things I’ve seen be effective in Amsterdam or Iceland, where my mom is from.

As far as security solely, the neighborhood came together in Longfellow and congregated around the 3rd precinct. Before they did that, they chased the police out of the South Side. Before they did that, national guard, white supremacists and curfew was happening. These folks were roaming in South Side and shooting into people’s houses, defacing housing, and being terrorists.

The South Side is divided into different areas, and these communities came together to do community safety work on their own, in the absence of the police, in that chaos. Since I’m from Longfellow and I’m not from Whittier or Cedar-Riverside, not from Powderhorn, the community safety situation closest to me was around George Floyd memorial.

I spent so much time at the vigil anyways, and watching all my friends that I was there with, I figured that I might as well do my part securing the place. I wanted to make it a better place to mourn, and come and protest, and come and think about a new beginning. I started doing day watch on my own. It was a rag tag team in the beginning, but then I was introduced to people that did security there at the square.

Isak Douah in his security outfit, holding a gas mask in South Minneapolis.
Photo courtesy Isak Douah.

Was there a day during your watch that sticks with you, to this day?

On Juneteenth, I saw a gruesome murder, and there was weeks that I didn’t come back at night time. I had been doing gear distribution and fundraising, and I feel that I lost sight of how fragile life is. It was a brick to the face and it’s not the first murder I witnessed in the neighborhood. But it was still very brutal and I can’t unsee it.

It put it into perspective that your job as security at Floyd’s memorial is really about protecting it from outside threats, but the murder was a neighborhood man. Honestly this was one of the most violent and bloody summers that I’ve seen. It’s only a matter of time, in the night or broad daylight, that you might witness this.

I saw this happen. it was Juneteenth and celebration of our people everywhere. As soon as the shots went off, I was lacking, I was unarmed. If someone wanted to do me like that, I had no means to defend myself.

Was it witnessing this murder what motivated you to get your gun license and become a gun advocate?

All the friends went to New Rules, signed up to the WIFI, and the first thing I did was sign-up for a permit security class. After that process, I got my permit to carry and I saw it as a necessity, if you’re a person of color in the United States. I started a program crowdfunding for Black women to get their permit to carry. It started as 10 to 20 homies and it ended up being around 60 people through this program.

Witnessing Murphy’s murder set that in motion, and on the path of arming myself and making sure my community had the means to protect themselves from people that want to kill them in cold blood.

I never thought I’d be a gun activist. Both my parents are immigrants and moved here for a better life. My dad is from Ivory Coast and escaped a war with guns and my mom is from Iceland, where there’s no gun violence. I spent lots of time there in the summer. I went to South High School or I would go to people’s houses with guns. I never saw that for me. I don’t have enemies. No one is coming for me. No one is harming me. I can be lacking and that’s okay.

I never saw this coming and summer 2020 hits you. When your city burns that will radicalize you. You drive down Lake Street and you can’t even recognize it—it’s all rubble. It’ll have you up in arms and all your politics go out the window. I look at gun rights and advocacy from an apolitical point of view, and I’m a leftist.

What are your thoughts about the Black Lives Matter movement?

I have tremendous respect for the Black Lives Matter movement. They got me into activism as a youth. Back then the elders, they are my age now, they were the first people to put a megaphone in my hand and taught me how to move a crowd. They hugged me on the rainy days. I have nothing but respect for BLM in Minneapolis.

What I will say about Black Lives Matter, as a statement not as a movement, strictly the statement, as someone that travels around a lot and sees how they live in all these spaces, coming back to Minnesota from Amsterdam and seeing how Black people are treated in the United Sates, the words Black lives matter are so trivial. Is that really what we’re after? Black lives mattering, as if it’s a statement that needs to be said, is that the goal? I don’t think liberation or any kind of radical change is Black lives mattering in the U.S.

I think there is a little bit of respectability there that I lack. I don’t think I have patience or energy to matter to someone else to get respect or basic human decency, upward mobility and human rights. That’s how I feel about it in 2020. I certainly feel different than in 2016, when I was less conscious and hadn’t travelled as much.

Black Lives Matter, that’s something I know. I don’t feel or care for anyone else to feel that way. If you don’t think that already, I don’t think I want to have a civil conversation about steps and moving forward with you.

Isak Douah and several protestors at a Black Lives Matter rally.
Photo courtesy Isak Douah.

You’ve been public on Twitter about seeking out therapy to unravel all of the traumatic experiences of the summer. How has seeing a mental health professional helped you?

After witnessing the murder, I went to therapy, which I never imagined myself going to. It’s helped me out and I want all the kids in the neighborhood, teens and adults, to have access to sit down with a mental health professional like I did. There’s so much roadblocks because of socio-economic reasons.

Me and my father have been working on an application, which is like uber eats for therapy. Instead of black youth in the South Side hopping on three-digit busses to get to the burbs with white therapists, trauma dumping, because these therapists are hearing things that they don’t understand or empathize with. Instead of that, with the app, you make an account, you tap a couple tiles and include the reason you’re coming to the app: legal problems, domestic violence in household, drug abuse, or just feeling down. Whatever it might be.

From there you get tapped into network of Black therapists in the Cities, who specialize in that particular area that is selected. You match with that therapist and they come to you and wherever you at.

In my Black and POC experience, we don’t do therapy, but when we talk to an elder, it’s like therapy in motion. If it’s me and my dad, we’ll walk and talk. That’s been therapy my whole life. It’s never talking to someone on the couch and taking notes.

With the app, these therapists will pull up to you. They can do the session at the park, walk around the lake, when its warmer, sit on the steps of your house, even sit in the car and have the session.

We plan on doing crowdfunding to pay for the session, so that the sessions would be free for the youth, but paid for by sponsors. Working on this program with my father is my long-term solution and vision for the city in general.  

isak Douah. Photo courtesy Isak Douah.