Mussie Embaye was protesting the killing of George Floyd on Saturday night when his business on University Avenue in St. Paul was broken into and looted.
He returned to Go Get It Tobacco on Sunday morning to survey the damage, wandering around the destruction of the tobacco shop he worked so hard to open a mere 11 months ago.
The front door was kicked in, display cases shattered, and pretty much everything stolen from him. Still the last thing on Embaye’s mind was his business.
“I took one for the team,” Embaye said. “I don’t care. There are bigger things going on right now. That’s what we should be focused on.”
He knows he can rebuild. He can repair and reopen. He still has a future.
He knows the same thing can’t be said about Floyd. Not after he died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer last week in what has been deemed a homicide by the Hennepin County medical examiner.
It was the latest example of a black man being killed by a police officer, a list that notably includes Philando Castile and Jamar Clark in the Twin Cities, and too many names to count nationwide.
As a result, peaceful protests broke out across the Twin Cities last week with some areas escalating into riots. This same pattern has played out across the country in recent days.
“What happened is pretty much the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Embaye said. “Look at all of these other times that we have seen innocent black people get killed. We have tried the peaceful protest. We have tried changing legislation. We have tried getting different leaders in there. And this still happens.”
Which is why Embaye, 32, wasn’t thinking about his tobacco shop over the weekend. Instead, he was thinking about the years of oppression, both his personal experiences and those on a larger scale, that led up to that moment that people broke in.
His family emigrated from Eritrea back in 1993. It was the first time in his life he looked different than the people around him, and it started to make him feel different, even as a kid.
He remembers being teased in elementary school. He remembers being called the n-word during his adolescence. He remembers being racially profiled when he got to college.“I was taught racism in Minnesota by people that don’t look like me,” Embaye said. “I came from a place where everybody looked like me. Whether it was doctors, nurses, anybody in a position of power, police officers, military, everybody was black. I didn’t know racism until I came to Minnesota.”
He said it continued after he opened his business, citing how he had to battle “systemic racism” to obtain the license needed to convert to a tobacco shop.
After opening as Little Grocery in August 2017 near the intersection of Herschel Street and University Avenue, Embaye made the decision to convert to a tobacco shop amid new restrictions that limited sales of menthol tobacco products in convenience stores.
He was originally denied his license for being too close to to a similar business. He was is 2,600 feet away, and thus, needed a 40-foot variance to fall in line with the policy that states tobacco shops in St. Paul need to be at least 2,640 feet apart. He presented to the Board of Zoning Appeals, asking for a 40-foot variance, and was narrowly approved by a vote of 4-3.
Though he was happy with the result, Embaye also voiced his frustration about how the Board of Zoning Appeals approved a larger 200-foot variance unanimously a week earlier. All the while, Embaye also battled with Association of Non-Smokers Minnesota, who appealed the decision.
He eventually got to present to the St. Paul City Council and was finally granted his license after months of legal battles. That said, Embaye’s fight wasn’t quite done. His landlord didn’t want a tobacco shop in that area and wouldn’t renew his lease.
That forced Embaye to move, and he opened Go Get It Tobacco in July 2019 at its current location.
“Everything I had to do, if it wasn’t for me grinding and having the support of my family, I wouldn’t have made it to the finish line,” Embaye said. “I want people to know the struggle and what it took for a black person to get a (expletive) business in St. Paul.”
He gets emotional talking about it because it brings up the racism he’s been dealing with his whole life. It’s the same racism, that lead to Floyd’s death last week, he said.
That’s what Embaye wants people to focus on right now. As hard as he worked to get Go Get It Tobacco opened, he was more concerned with justice for Floyd.
As he wrote on his store’s Go Fund Me page, “We know buildings do not matter more than black lives.”
“This emotion is real,” Embaye said. “That’s why I’ve been out there protesting since Day 1. My mom doesn’t understand why I’m out there. She just wants me to be safe like any mother would. And I have to tell her, ‘This is why I’m doing this.’ I can’t let things like this pass.”
As an inspiration in the Eritrean community, Embaye hopes to continue to make a positive impact moving forward. His store’s Go Fund Me page has already met its goal and he plans to donate any additional funds to Captain Rebel, another black-owned business that was destroyed on Lake Street in Minneapolis last week, as well as other East African and Native American businesses across the Twin Cities.
That said, Embaye knows there’s still a lot of work to do as far as fighting racism and demanding equality. He has the letters “TMC” plastered on the windows outside of Go Get It Tobacco as a reminder. It stands for “The Marathon Continues” and pays homage to the late Nipsey Hussle and the movement he started.
“It’s letting people know that anything in life that we do is not a sprint,” Embaye said. “It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s a marathon. And if we continue running we can get to the end.”