MINNEAPOLIS — Phil Williams and Ryan Burnet met at the Uppercut Boxing Gym in northeast Minneapolis a decade ago. Williams was a heavyweight carrying the nickname “Phil the Drill” and Burnet was there as a boxing aficionado.
Later, Burnet was in a group of instructors with a summertime program on the North Side.
“I saw what boxing did for the small group we worked with — that moment when a young man realizes you get out of something what you put into it — and knew I had a passion for this particular work,” Burnet said.
Burnet and partners were able to purchase an abandoned firehouse on 17th Street and 33rd Ave. North for $40,000, then fundraising of over a half-million turned it into a large boxing facility that opened in February 2015.
Williams and Mohammed Kayongo, another pro, became the lead instructors — the true boxers who made tremendous connections with boys and girls from ages 9 through 18.
Burnet, lead partner in the Barrio Restaurant Group, had food delivered in bulk from his restaurants. The young men and women participating in the program could eat at either 5 p.m. or 7 p.m., or both. The gym was shut down with all others in March, and Burnet’s waiting to resume the Northside Boxing Club program.
There were over 40 kids, most black and many said to be raised in poverty, on a night I visited before Christmas in December 2017. The camaraderie was impressive. The only signs of unhappiness were when someone took a punch when sparring.
Ryan comes from the Burnet real estate family that turned into the mighty Coldwell Banker Burnet. He had an office upstairs at the converted firehouse, and wife Amber at home, with daughter Layla and newborn twins, Cy and Ivy.
Burnet was on the phone a few times, checking with Amber, and checking with his restaurants, but he was there — ready to do what Williams and Kayongo and others required — most every night, Monday through Friday.
“Ryan has been a blessing,” Williams said Wednesday. “That’s my brother.”
And then the anger simmered through the cellphone and Williams said: “Ryan has an understanding for this, about what’s going on. But he doesn’t know the feeling. He can’t know the feeling.”
Ryan’s white. I’m white.
We can be mortified by what we witnessed on that video of Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin ending George Floyd’s life by kneeling on the black civilian’s neck, but it’s unlikely we can feel the 100% rage.
On Tuesday, I was asked about Floyd’s death and the 10-minute video on which it was captured. I stumbled for the right word and finally said, “Disgusting.”
I never needed a thesaurus more than at that moment, because this needless death was so far beyond “disgusting” that it’s an embarrassment to have used the term.
The difference between mortified whiteness and “No more!” anger from a black man also was validated by this:
I watched about four minutes of Chauvin’s powerful knee and Floyd’s pleading to live before cutting off the video. I asked Burnet for his reaction to the video and he said, “Sickness. I only made it a couple of minutes.”
I asked the same of Phil Williams and he said:
“I watched all 10 minutes and saw the life going out of a human being every second. I can’t stop watching it. We’re seeing a modern-day lynching. A man is being put to death and there are other cops just standing by, watching.
“I had never seen a lynching. I have now, and when George Floyd was dead, did you see the way they handled his body? He was thrown like a sack of potatoes.”
The Northside gym being closed has led Williams to continue boxing lessons in his garage and elsewhere.
“My kids are seeing this. And the message they’ll get from me is, ‘This is what they think about you. If you’re out there and see a cop, don’t say anything about your rights, because you’re black and have no rights with them.’ “
Williams’ reference to “kids” includes his own, but also the 25-30 that he trains as boxers.
“In UFC, professionally trained fighters, you’re not allowed to use a prolonged chokehold,” Williams said. “This was a 10-minute chokehold against a regular street civilian. It would have killed anybody.”
He paused, then the fire returned to his voice:
“There had better be swift justice, with this cop being thrown into the general population in prison … like would be the case for one of us, for a black man. When that happens, then maybe we can talk.”
White folks can understand Williams’ anger, but no way can we feel it in every pore as does a 42-year-old black man who grew up in Minneapolis.
©2020 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)