I walked last night to 38th and Chicago, the intersection where George Floyd died on Monday with a Minneapolis cop’s knee on his neck. It’s less than a mile from the house where I’ve lived for more than 40 years, and I wanted to pray for my city and grieve for the 46-year-old black man whose life ended because so many Americans have been trained to see every black man as a threat that must be answered with overwhelming force.
It was a lovely evening, mild and bright, the lilacs nearly done and backyard vegetable gardens newly planted. Justice for George Floyd signs hung in the food coop’s windows along 38th Street. At one house, bedsheets had been turned into protest signs strung along the fence.
The intersection where George Floyd died was peaceful, with none of the torched stores and smashed windows like those along Lake Street two miles away. Tables held donated food and water. People in yellow vests guided an occasional car through the blocked intersection. Someone had set up a speaker to play music.
The crowd – mostly young — moved around, studying the makeshift memorial of flowers, pictures and balloons heaped beside the bus shelter. A fresh mural was painted on the wall outside Cup Foods to honor Floyd and other black Americans killed by police – Say Our Names. Three days earlier, a Cup Foods clerk had called the police, suspecting that Floyd had used a counterfeit $20 to pay for cigarettes.
The gas station on that corner is boarded up now, but Cup Foods, Dragon Wok and Worldwide Outreach for Christ remain open. Ministers stood outside the church last evening, wearing clerical collars. For now, 38th and Chicago is a place of mourning and resolve, not destruction.
What struck me most was how young the crowd was, mostly in their teens, 20s, and early 30s. For them, the civil rights breakthroughs I grew up with — school integration, voting rights, fair housing — are ancient history. Their youth has been filled with attacks on and erosion of those achievements: Mass incarceration, welfare-to-work policies, voter suppression, rising income equality, increased segregation of schools and neighborhoods. Yes, we elected Barack Obama as the country’s first black president. Now Donald Trump is systematically undoing his legacy.
On Facebook, my older son wrote: “Growing up in south Minneapolis in the 80s and 90s, I was always told – and believed – that police officers were there to serve and protect, and that if you needed help, you should call on them. It was disillusioning to learn over the years how much these impressions hinged on class, color and circumstance, but I never thought I’d see the day my hometown made the international news because one of our officers kneeled on a man’s neck until he died while three fellow officers stood by and did nothing.”
Friends from other cities ask: How can this be happening in Minneapolis, a fortress of progressive ideas and liberal government? Despite our reputation for Minnesota Nice, we are not so different from the rest of America. In terms of poverty, housing segregation and educational achievement, Minnesota has some of the country’s worst racial disparities. People argue about why — white kids do exceptionally well in Minnesota schools, for example — but the reality is the same. We’ve constructed institutions – parks, schools, police – that work well for those of us who are white and middle class. What we haven’t done is listen to angry, grieving voices and change those institutions to ensure that they work for everyone.
By age and temperament, I tend to be a moderate – incremental and seeking compromise. But standing last night among those young people, grieving and desperate for ways to use their energy to change their country, I understood their frustration and impatience. Those of us who rightly celebrate the civil rights victories of the 1950s and 1960s should watch those videos of George Floyd strangled by a Minneapolis cop, Ahmaud Arbery shot for running on a public street in Georgia, Christian Cooper threatened for asking a woman to leash her dog in Central Park, until hurt and shame saturate our hearts. Then let us work to find a way forward.
Let me not forget: I’m a Minneapolis resident and taxpayer; the police act in my name.