Brooklyn Center Catholics Come to Terms With Daunte Wright’s Death and the Impact on Their Community
‘Tensions are just very, very high,’ Redemptorist Father John Schmidt, the pastor of St. Alphonsus Catholic Church, told the Register.
MINNEAPOLIS — On Sunday afternoon Bob and Barb Wacek were on a walk in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center, when they saw a number of police and emergency vehicles on 63rd Avenue, a couple of blocks from their home of 46 years.
The officer they asked about the situation didn’t give them details, so they had no way of knowing that roughly half an hour earlier, 20-year-old Daunte Wright had been shot by a police officer during a traffic stop close to where they were walking.
“We just walked on by, minding our own business, chatting, saying hello to neighbors,” said Barb Wacek, 77, who with her husband is a parishioner at St. Alphonsus Catholic Church in Brooklyn Center. “We didn’t really learn until a couple hours later what was going on.”
Wacek later learned that the young man had apparently been accidentally shot by a Brooklyn Center officer, who said she had intended to use a Taser non-lethal electroshock weapon to temporarily impair him physically rather than a gun. Wright died after crashing his car into another car a few blocks away.
“I don’t think that should ever have happened,” Wacek said. “I don’t even understand the reason that he was pulled over,” she said.
Wright’s death in the hands of Brooklyn Center police has captured international attention while the trial of a former Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, accused of killing George Floyd by pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck last May in Minneapolis, continues about 12 miles away.
Protests, some of which have led to looting and violence, began on Sunday and have continued in Brooklyn Center, located northwest of Minneapolis. Several Brooklyn Center city officials, including the police chief, have resigned in the wake of the incident, while some Black leaders are calling for stronger police reforms.
In an April 12 statement, St. Paul and Minneapolis Archbishop Bernard Hebda offered condolences and prayers to the family and friends of Wright. He stated that he is praying for the young man’s soul, as well as for the officer involved in the shooting. He encouraged allowing a full investigation before coming to personal judgments about what occurred.
“I hope that we as a community might be able to pause and pray, particularly during this time of already heightened tension due to the [Derek] Chauvin trial,” the archbishop stated.
Wright was shot after being pulled over for having expired license plates. When police found that there was a warrant for Wright’s arrest, they attempted to handcuff him. As he resisted, now-ex-Brooklyn Center Police Officer Kimberly Potter apparently mistakenly shot him with her gun rather than using her Taser. Wright drove from the scene and died after crashing into another car.
Wright’s family lawyers said Tuesday that they don’t accept the police explanation that Wright’s death was an accident.
Wright’s death set off protests in Brooklyn Center on Sunday night that escalated to looting and property damage to about 20 businesses in a nearby shopping area as well as at the Brooklyn Center police station. Protesters skirmished with the police before the National Guard was called in, and a curfew was declared late Sunday night.
Many parts of the Twin Cities area were under a curfew Monday night, as well, as protests over Wright’s death continued around the country.
On Tuesday Potter as well as Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tim Gannon — both with decades’ experience on the police force — submitted their resignations. The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is conducting an investigation of the incident.
Wright’s death saddened Redemptorist Father John Schmidt, the pastor of St. Alphonsus Catholic Church in Brooklyn Center, who is considering how the parish can help prevent such tragedies from happening within the parish boundaries in the future.
“What tragedy can happen in just a quick flash of an eye or just a brief second,” he said. “A young man was caught in that, and, to me, that’s what kind of tore at my heart … just the horribleness of it.”
The parish, located about 2 miles from the site of Wright’s death, and 2 two miles from the Brooklyn Center police station and shopping area most affected by looting, hasn’t experienced any problems, although Father Schmidt noted that the same small strip mall about a block away that was looted and damaged last year during the George Floyd-related protests was again damaged on Sunday night.
He said he doesn’t know yet how his parishioners are feeling about the incident and whether many have been directly affected by Wright’s death. St. Alphonsus’ 1,700 registered households are diverse, representing 40 nationalities, with many parishioners who are immigrants from Africa and Central and South America.
“It’s hard to manage feelings, especially when there’s so much going on and the highlight of the [Chauvin] trial going on downtown,” he said. “Tensions are just very, very high. This should never happen: that a young man is hit; but now, of all times, it’s more complicated and more tragic.”
Father Schmidt said he hopes the parish can continue the conversations about how the community can heal, grow closer and support each other. Discussions may center on experiences of racism and its effects, he said, along with ways to make inroads in the community, possibly by partnering with other church and faith communities and reaching out to the city and the police to find ways to work together and help parishioners feel safe.
On two corners of 63rd Avenue closest to where Wright was killed, Wacek has noticed memorials for him, including a roughly 10-foot fist carved out of wood, which she believes was brought from a memorial to George Floyd in South Minneapolis. She said she understands peaceful protesting but said that looting is “entirely wrong.”
Wacek admits she’s a little afraid because the protests are closer to home than the ones related to George Floyd’s death, but her faith is helping her through.
“The thing we learn is: Jesus, we trust in you. Jesus, I trust in you,” she said. “Emotionally, I don’t think you can handle it any other way. If you don’t have faith to hang onto, what do you have?”
"It may take years for solutions to come from the challenges we’re facing," Wacek said.
“I think this, on the back of the Chauvin trial, may have more impact on how we treat our neighbors than it may have otherwise,” she said. “We just have to start living a different way. We are at a loss how to change it, but we can’t continue how we are. Society is not in good shape right now.”