Since George Floyd was killed by the Minneapolis Police Department, two months ago, “[The city] has had to confront its ugliness”
By Vanessa Taylor
It has been nearly two months since Derek Chauvin of the Minneapolis Police Department choked George Floyd to death. The video of Floyd’s murder captured the attention of the world and awakened the city, where protesters overtook the 3rd Precinct police station and set it on fire. Minneapolis’ reaction caught many people off guard. There’s nothing that can come out of Minnesota but mildly entertaining accents and white people, right? There sure as hell aren’t Black people up there. So for those outside of the city, there was no expectation that crowds, motivated by years of built-up rage, would mobilize en masse and set a police station ablaze.
These aren’t just my observations. Those who have lived in Minneapolis or the greater Twin Cities can also tell you that Minneapolis is perceived to be a white, liberal haven—when people think of it at all. But the Black people there know what’s up. Aisha Mohamed, a student organizer, told me that after Floyd’s death, “Minneapolis has had to confront its ugliness. Minneapolis is either the gold star for liberals or it doesn’t exist in the national conversation; however, for those of us living here, Minneapolis is ugly.”
Minneapolis has some of the worst racial disparities in the country. According to NPR, the median Black family in the Twin Cities area earns less than $40,000 per year, which is less than half the median white family income (nearly $85,000). Before the coronavirus pandemic, Black unemployment in Minnesota was at a historic low —yet still double the unemployment rate of white people. The Minneapolis Police Department also has a history of violence toward Black residents. “Just during [Democratic Mayor Jacob] Frey’s reign, Minneapolis has had multiple police-involved shootings,” Mohamed said. (Per the local organization Black Visions Collective, Minneapolis’ city council increased the Minneapolis Police Department’s budget by $8 million after a push from Frey.)
In addition, the city has gone after public housing for years, leading to the formation of the Defend Glendale & Public Housing coalition, a grassroots’ resident led group to prevent the city’s plans to privatize public housing. “We have seen property prices and rent increase astronomically. Nothing is spared here. Our houses are gone. Our restaurants? Gone. Our cultures? Erased,” Mohamed said. “November of 2019, five people were killed and four were injured in a high-rise fire. Why? Mayor Frey, his city council, and the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority killed them. Politicians are sinister everywhere in this country, but Minneapolis is at a boiling point.”
The siege and subsequent burning of Minneapolis’ 3rd Precinct was a powerful moment for protesters—and even myself, watching a livestream from my apartment in Philadelphia. In that moment, the people dismantled a structure that did not serve them, and began to create something new. “[Minneapolis after Floyd’s death has] been everything,” Mia Jackman, a lifelong St. Paul resident, said. “It’s been beautiful, tragic, scary, angry, full of community. I’ve seen communities coming together and creating networks and organizing around the needs of Black folks, indigenous folks, and other folks of color in a way I have not seen before.”
Across the city, food redistribution points cropped up, and Black youth fundraised and shopped for elders unable to leave their homes due to the coronavirus. For a short time, protesters even took over a former Sheraton hotel to shelter homeless people, though they were evicted earlier this month. “There are mutual aid autonomous zones being created where folks can help one another outside of the official structures,” Jackman explained. “We are literally redistributing wealth and doing what cops have never done — protecting and serving our communities.”
Minneapolis has a long movement history. It was home to a Black-led community center established in the late 1960s called The Way, which would eventually end up as the infamous 4th precinct. It’s also the birthplace of the American Indian Movement. People in Minneapolis have organized around everything—housing, food insecurity, anti-surveillance work, and more—but the police come up again and again. In 2016, a group of organizers, researchers, artists, and activists in Minneapolis came together to form MPD150, an independent community coalition whose website states: “MPD has always acted as the enforcement arm of the economic and political elite.”
This statement represents one finding from the coalition’s performance review of Minneapolis police, compiled for the department’s hundred-and-fifty-year anniversary. Titled “Enough is Enough,” the report includes dozens of interviews with community members and addresses the past, present, and future of MPD, with the vision of a Minneapolis that is free from police. “It was clear to many of us that police brutality was a perennial issue in Minneapolis, but the creation of the report really brought that to the forefront of the movement’s consciousness,” Tony Williams, an activist from Minneapolis who is part of MPD150, told me.
“It’s important,” he added, “to note that there have been Black people in Minnesota since the land was stolen from [Dakota] and Ojibway communities. We have always been marginalized, set aside on the outskirts of public consciousness, treated as dangerous enough to repress but not respectable enough to resource. Nonetheless, we’ve thrived…We have an immensely powerful political consciousness of the history of our resistance against police, which has been nearly unflagging over the last hundred and fifty years.”
George Floyd is far from the only high-profile police killing in Minneapolis history. In 2017, an officer shot and killed Jamar Clark, a young Black man. In 2010, police officers suffocated David Smith—also young and Black—to death. Or take the 2017 shooting of Justine Damond, a white woman, which made national news because her shooter was Mohamed Noor, a Somali officer who ended up receiving a prison sentence. Also: nineteen-year-old Fong Lee, who police shot in 2006, or seventeen-year-old Tycel Nelson, whose killer was given a Medal of Valor for the shooting in 2006.
Minneapolis police do a lot more than kill. They have practiced “rough rides,” like in 1993, when Minneapolis police threw two Native men into the trunk of their car, breaking the leg of one of the men by slamming it in the door, and then drove them around for forty-five minutes. In addition, Minneapolis police — along with the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, Minneapolis Public Schools, and others — have taken funding from Countering Violent Extremism, an Obama-era Muslim surveillance program launched in 2014. The surveillance of Black Muslims in Minneapolis is yet a varied practice of the anti-Blackness that created the conditions for Floyd’s murder. And so, it’s no surprise that people had enough.
Even with all that history, Minneapolis has perfected a liberal performance. “My grandpa has always told me it’s worse here than it was in Iowa where he grew up,” Jackman said. “Once, when I was interviewing him for a project in college, he told me, ‘Down there, at least I knew they didn’t like me. Here they smile at you and call you a nigger behind your back.’”
If they’re not smiling, politicians in Minnesota pander in other ways. Mohamed, the student organizer, said “The first time I met Jacob Frey, he spoke to me in Somali. I met the last mayor of Minneapolis, Besty Hodges, while she twirled around the Somali mall in a hijab. When I met her predecessor [R.T. Rybak], he also spoke to me in Somali. Their lack of action and their weaponizing of identities is one of the things that has radicalized me into action—and I know I’m not the only one.”
Williams said, “The most clear through-line is that the department’s attempts at reform are always cyclical.” It begins with the police killing someone who is usually Black or Native. After the resulting protests, elected officials bring out “surface level strategies,” Williams said, like “diversifying the force, creating civilian review infrastructure, or most recently, adopting body cameras.” This helps explain why Minneapolis’ current police chief, Medaria Arradondo, is Black, and the former, Janee Harteau, was Native American, even as the long-time head of the police union, Bob Kroll, allegedly wore a white-power symbol and referred to Black Lives Matter as a “terrorist” organization.
But, Williams said, in Minneapolis—as everywhere—promises of reform from smiling politicians who share your identity are not the solution. “The efforts at reform stagnate or backslide, and we see the cycle repeat again. This is why we need to move towards abolition — it’s the only way to interrupt the cycle and make sure our communities get the safety they need and deserve.”
In “The Site of Memory,” Toni Morrison writes: “You know, they straightened out the Mississippi in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. ‘Floods’ is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be.” Black communities in Minnesota are much like water. We have been shoved aside in favor of highways like I-94, which cut through St. Paul’s thriving Rondo community, or driven out of community centers. But, as I’ve written before, “Like the Mississippi, Black people have ancestral remembrance, and there’s a point where no preventative measures can be taken to subside a flood.”
Generally, Black people in Minneapolis have always created for themselves in ways that prepare for the flood. Jackman’s great-grandfather Cecil Nawman founded what is now the Minneapolis Spokesman-Recorder, the oldest Black-run newspaper in Minneapolis. Artists, too, envision alternative ways—Prince, Penumbra Theater (a Black-owned theater company in St. Paul), and the art springing up in dedication to Floyd. Take these histories of creation, Jackman said, “coupled with a history of inequity and several recent cases of cops murdering BIPOC…and you get an uprising.”
Groups like Reclaim the Block, Parks and Power, Black Visions Collective, and the Black Liberation Project (which I co-founded) have all greatly contributed to what’s going on in Minneapolis, Williams said. But just as water doesn’t need to be named to be, the credit extends beyond named organizations. “It’s truly decentralized Black youth who made this happen,” Williams said, “by putting their bodies on the line to force our city to reckon with its past, its present, and its future.”
And what comes after the uprising?
In the early days, Minneapolis said a lot of the right things. The city council promised to defund the police, and the school board terminated its contract with MPD. But with media eyes turned elsewhere, officials appear to be backtracking on these plans of grandeur. Minneapolis Public Schools filled a new “Public Safety Support Specialist Position” that is effectively policing under a different name, and earlier this week, park officials cleared a homeless encampment of mostly Native people.
Minneapolis officials want to put this summer behind them. But nothing here will be forgotten, and Minneapolis, this unassuming city of presumed whiteness, can stand as a reminder outside of its borders. “Minneapolis is the city of all the old tricks being re-deployed in smarter ways. Identity politics won’t do anything,” Mohamed said. “Reform doesn’t work. Representation in a violent empire isn’t the answer; just look at Minneapolis.” ■
Vanessa Taylor is a writer based in Philadelphia, although Minnesota will always be home. She is a 2019 Echoing Ida cohort member and the Editor-in-Chief of The Drinking Gourd, a Black Muslim literary magazine. Find her on Twitter at @bacontribe.
Cover image: At a block party on the south side of Minneapolis, a visioning board asks residents to envision their community beyond policing. Photo by Nancy M. Musinguzi.
Belt Magazine is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. To support more independent writing and journalism made by and for the Rust Belt and greater Midwest, make a donation to Belt Magazine, or become a member starting at just $5 a month.