George Floyd moved to Minneapolis to seek a better life. In the last week, we’ve come to learn that the 46-year-old Texan was a gentle giant and beloved son, brother and father; a former star football and basketball player at Jack Yates High School in Houston, and a musician who played a key role in one of the great southern rap traditions.
His contributions to the world, his memories, his tragedies and his triumphs didn’t matter to Derek Chauvin, the white Minneapolis police officer who killed him by kneeling on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes as Floyd pleaded for his life. And as three of Chauvin’s co-workers looked on.
One week later, people from Louisville to Atlanta to Los Angeles to Syria to Paris to Japan and in hundreds of more cities across the country and world are mourning and honouring George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, and so many more. Black people lost to police or vigilante violence.
The police have responded to demands for basic human rights with such repression that at least in the case of Minneapolis, the entire city has been upended. We’ve been forced to confront the reality that no amount of conversations or incremental reforms, or conversations about incremental reform, will be able to make life free and livable for Black people, in Minnesota or anywhere else.
Tuesday, May 26
The first protests began as a memorial to George Floyd at the site of his death that Tuesday night.
Protesters marched northeast towards the intersection of Lake and Minehaha to the 3rd Police Precinct and began a standoff that would eventually become the epicentre of the first three days of the uprising.
Just down the block from the precinct where Chauvin worked was the club El Nuevo Rodeo. Chauvin worked there part-time and would sit outside in his squad car off-duty. Floyd worked inside as security. They overlapped on their Tuesday night shifts. The owner, Maya Santamaria, couldn’t say if they’d actually interacted, but it’s hard to believe they’d never met.
I wasn’t present that Tuesday or Wednesday, but social media feeds and reports from the ground showed police antagonizing with a swiftness more intense than since I started attending Black Lives Matter protests, the first of which was in November 2014, outside the same 3rd Precinct in Minneapolis.
By Wednesday, the protests grew into a popular uprising, that a historic period of mass unemployment and disease undoubtedly helped fuel. Fires, looting and property destruction began in the strip mall — potentially spurred by the infiltration of provocateurs and right-wing extremists — which houses what became the most infamous Target store in the world, and would spread along Lake Street in both directions: West into the Whittier and Uptown neighbourhoods of Minneapolis and east into the Midway neighbourhoods of St. Paul.
Thursday, May 28
My first night out was Thursday.
I began with a group of friends at the Hennepin County Government Center. A crowd of at least a few hundred stood on the plaza, as socially distanced as possible.
A Black man in a red and blue soccer jersey yelled at the cops assembled on the stairs of city hall: “You think this is a protest? If you don’t charge, you ain’t seen a protest. You’re going to get sick of me!”
A giant red, black and green Black Lives Matter flag in the front of the crowd swayed in the breeze. Signs are more militant than in years past — Abolish The Police, Fuck 12 and ACAB are the dominant protest nomenclature now.
One protester walked by in a shirt honouring the memory of Terrance Franklin, a 22-year-old Black man who the MPD killed in 2013, in the same neighbourhood I lived in at the time. A white guy in an Elizabeth Warren hat got right up in a cop’s face and yelled, “If I said I can’t breathe, would you hear me?!”
We marched northwest down 6th street until we were at Hennepin, one of the busiest thoroughfares of the city. Waiting in the parking lot behind the 1st Police Precinct, between Augies Cabaret and the Gay 90’s, was a phalanx of cops in riot gear.
As I was acknowledging a friend — one part of protesting in the pandemic is seeing friends you hadn’t seen since there was snow on the ground — four police SUVs rolled northeast down Hennepin, dropped their windows and sprayed mace on either side of the avenue, dispersing the protest in every direction.
Some protesters stayed and others inched northeast down Hennepin towards the public library.
An officer pulled back to toss a concussion grenade and some took cover behind a dumpster. Rubber bullets, which I’ve learned to call less-lethal rounds, ringed against the dumpster and off the AC Hotels Marriott sign above my head.
Two young Black protesters stepped around the corner of the dumpster and seconds later, were hit in the chest and knee with bright green marking rounds. I edged closer to the corner near 4th Street and saw a young protester who had been maced asking friends for a tissue. I crouched, took one from my backpack and turned to hand it to him.
I turned back and it looked like a fog of tear gas had rolled in, sending protesters to retreat east down 4th Street.
Tear gas is a chemical weapon. It hurts as you’d imagine a chemical weapon might. If you find yourself in a protest and are tear gassed, you might lose your sight for a short time. When you regain it, you should hope you’re in the presence of street medics, who mobilize out of thin air and retain a sense of calm and diligence that is heroic.
The next hour was spent lurking around downtown, sometimes with and sometimes separated from friends. We saw more and more cops assemble — some in cars, some on bicycles, some on horseback and others walking in packs dressed in stormtrooper outfits. “You can light the ghetto on fire, but watch when you try to bring that shit downtown,” said a man keeping watch in front of Seven, a fancy restaurant and nightclub where the Minnesota Timberwolves are known to have their post-game meals.
A car passed west down 7th Street towards the Target Center blasting YG and Nipsey Hussle’s anthem, Fuck Donald Trump. A man walked out into the middle of the intersection and Crip-walked to the tune while he flipped the bird in the faces of at least 50 riot cops to cheers and “Hit that shit, boy” from onlookers.
Shortly after that, we heard that the 3rd Precinct had been breached and the police had retreated out of the area. Shortly after that, the station was sacked and set on fire. A historically unprecedented act of urban rebellion that a majority of Americans approved of, according to a recent Monmouth poll. (Also, the majority of Americans supported calling in the National Guard, which is perhaps another conversation about Americans’ all-over-the-place political opinions.)
As the University of Minnesota professor Aren Aizura speculated in The New Inquiry, a lot of the protesters probably attended South High School, which is just two blocks from the 3rd Precinct. It is my alma mater. The school newspaper is the first publication I did journalism. Not going towards the fire was not an option.
I walked through the crowds at the 3rd Precinct, which by 11 p.m. had to have numbered in the thousands. Some were still going to town on the precinct. Almost everyone was wearing a mask.
Several buildings in addition to the precinct were engulfed in flames. Car tires screeched and motorcycle engines revved constantly. Loud music was blasting out of different cars as they drove by with kids hanging out of the windows and poking out of the sunroofs. It felt a bit like Mad Max, but the atmosphere was actually calmer and more celebratory than I expected.
Mostly young, mostly Black and brown kids stood in front of the flames of the precinct flexing and posing. It reminded me of the way hunters pose with big game. Only if the hunters felt their prey had been trying to kill them their entire lives.
I met two longtime friends and we stood on the Hiawatha Avenue Bridge overhead watching the fire spread to the Arby’s we’d sometimes eat lunch at over a decade ago.
We weren’t mourning. There’s a profound sense of surreality involved with watching your teenage stomping grounds burn to the ground while the entire world watches. You can either attempt to understand how someone would have to be treated in their life to go to that length, or you can make a facile condemnation. Only one of those choices presents a route to a solution.
“All of my formative years have been spent in this,” said Alicia, a 23-year-old woman from North Minneapolis who had been splitting time between the 3rd Precinct and an occupation at Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman’s house, where we met on Friday morning. “You see it happen in your community again and again and then they just dismiss it. Then when everything went down with the Black officer that shot the white woman. That cop is sitting in jail.”
She’s referring to the police killings of two Black men in 2015 and 2016 named Jamar Clark and Philando Castile when contrasted with the case of Justine Damond. Damond was an Australian woman who was shot while in her bathrobe a half mile from Freeman’s house in the well-off Lynnhurst neighbourhood of southwest Minneapolis. Damond’s killer, a Somali man named Mohamed Noor is the only police officer who Freeman has charged in a police killing in his entire career.
The dynamics of the case are an uncanny mirror-image of a story Alicia and her generation have seen too many times before in the other direction.
“We call it the Jim Crow North,” said Sam Martinez, referring to the disparities in wealth and the criminal justice system in Minnesota that rank among the widest in the nation.
Martinez is a member of the Twin Cities Coalition For Justice For Jamar, a group that came together during the 17-day occupation of the 4th Police Precinct in 2015 after the killing of a Black man in North Minneapolis named Jamar Clark by two white Minneapolis police officers. “We are where we are right now with this uprising ... because the killings haven’t stopped,” he said. “You add the pandemic, the economic crisis that has caused, and these lynchings we see of Black men like Ahmaud Arbery. This has created a force of people that are just sick and tired of it.”
Friday, May 29
Friday at Freeman’s house was the first time out for Latasha Lee, of Minneapolis, who works at Children’s Hospital and felt a particular horror watching the footage of Floyd’s death as a medical professional. “I thought, check his pulse, do something! When we hear ‘I can’t breathe’ in the hospital, we run and help,” said Lee, who moved to Minneapolis from Illinois a couple years ago. “People are outraged, and it’s not just Black people … Hmong people, Mexican people, white people. We need to get something done.”
By Sunday, the public’s lack of confidence in Freeman was reflected by Gov. Tim Walz, who turned the case of George Floyd over to Attorney General Keith Ellison.
A half hour before the first city-mandated curfew on Friday, Cup Foods, the scene of Floyd’s death, was a sacred space, a mix of community memorial, rally and mutual aid centre.
I spotted almost a dozen places to get free food around the intersection. The women serving gumbo were the most popular. About a half dozen places offered free home goods.
Roy Ayers played and a chalkboard was set up asking the thousands of attendees coming to pay their respects to write down what a police-free future would look like. Kendrick Benson, a youth and young adult minister at the Evergreen Baptist Church in New York City, looked on at the new blue and gold mural of George Floyd surrounded by dozens of floral wreaths in every direction.
“You can’t keep bullying somebody and bullying somebody and expect them not to react,” said Benson, who wore a red bandana covering his face. “I can’t be mad at looting.
Cops take off their moral compass and they’re not held accountable for that. Black people take off their moral compass, it’s like, ‘You are all the worst people ever, you don’t know this is wrong?’” Benson was raised in Minneapolis and had returned during the pandemic to be with his family. He had been in the streets since the first night and witnessed first hand the escalation by the MPD.
“We have to be overly beyond reproach. And we still get maced and tear gassed and sniped off the roof with rubber bullets,” said Benson. “My skin was on fire last night, after multiple showers.”
Benson felt he had no choice but to continue protesting past the first curfew, the cause too important and the bond he had built with those in the streets too strong. “I didn’t have many friends before I got out there, but we were all family quick. I don’t care who you were, everyone was looking out for each other,” he said.
Saturday, May 30
On Saturday morning at Pimento Jamaican Kitchen and Rum Bar in the Whittier neighborhood, volunteers formed a human assembly line to move boxes of bottled water and other supplies outside to eventually be distributed throughout the city.
Loaves of bread and canned food lined the walls inside and volunteers sorted through toiletries and first-aid items ready to be sent out to checkpoints around the city where they would then be distributed to needy families across Minneapolis. The restaurant and music venue had transformed into an ad hoc resource distribution centre overnight.
It began with a conversation between the bar’s events manager Scott McDonald and his friend Malcolm Wells, an educator. “We thought, what’s going to happen when all of these stores are gone? I understand the unrest and why we need to burn it all to the ground,” said McDonald as he directed new volunteers around the front of the restaurant. “They’re waging a war against us as Black men in America. But there is always collateral damage in war. We felt like it was our job to control that damage.”
Another Pimento manager named Clarence had been awake for the last 28 hours when I spoke with him, and kept helping despite his co-workers pressuring him to go home and sleep.
“We’re doing donations for people at the protest, but also for people who need food, people who need Pampers, milk, cereal. It’s called a helping hand,” said Clarence. “Since the coronavirus, everyone has had to sit in their house.
So you got people with attitudes now, you got people with anger now, you got people with hatred now, you got people that lost their jobs, you got people who don’t know how they’re going to pay their next bill or eat the next day. A reason a lot of these stores are getting broken into, it’s not just the protesters, it’s people that’s hurting for money, or are just doing stupid stuff.”
The other reason Clarence had been up all night was that during the day on Friday, Pimento was tipped off to a possible threat from white supremacists.
By nightfall, they had assembled a community defence team of around 60 to 70 people who patrolled and protected not just Pimento, but the entire block on Eat Street, home to many restaurants and small businesses that are immigrant-owned.
“There were cars full of white males driving around, but it’s not our job to put a title on the threat,” said McDonald. “Any small threat is taken as a large threat.
The goods in this room were too important at this time to not take it seriously,” he said. “We understand that looting and destruction is like wildfire. So instead of us taking the initiative to protect our space, we decided to take care of everyone on the block.”
In the early hours of Saturday morning, Gov. Tim Walz admitted that “there are more of them than there are of us” as it became clear that there was no containing the uprising.
A former command sergeant major himself, Walz announced the deployment of at least 10,000 National Guardsmen. It was the first time in state history they had been activated. Beyond the disheartening message that the state would rather send soldiers into the city than simply charge all four officers' responsible for the death of George Floyd, what wasn’t clear is who exactly the National Guard was coming to protect the city from.
The weekend was defined by the question of outside agitators. Who truly was behind the looting and fires? How should people in the city properly assess the threat of the Boogaloo boys, the Three Percenters militia, the Klan and other right-wing extremists, agent provocateurs and mysterious groups of white men from out of town seen causing trouble all over the city?
During the press conference, Walz established a narrative that once-righteous protests had been hijacked by far-left and far-right ideologues who were descending on the city by the thousands. “Let’s be very clear, the situation in Minneapolis is no longer in any way about the murder of George Floyd. It is about attacking civil society, instilling fear and disrupting our great cities,” he said.
The outside agitator is a convenient and old trope to downplay the anger and pain of local Black residents, and to dismiss the possibility that some might’ve felt compelled to go beyond nonviolent tactics. As protests with similar militancy broke out in hundreds of cities across the country over the week, mayors and governors have trotted out the same line as Walz.
That isn’t to dismiss the real threat of right-wing extremist infiltration, or outside vandals roving through the city attempting arson and vandalism, but to pay attention to what mayors and governors chose to emphasize and what they didn’t.
As Saturday progressed, the spectre of an invasion by white supremacists hit a fever pitch. Block by block, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, in parks and front yards, Minneapolis residents came together to figure out plans to protect their communities.
Particularly threatened neighbourhoods like Little Earth, Cedar-Riverside and North — primarily Native American, Somali and Black areas — formed community-led neighbourhood patrols. There were many reports of protesters and community patrols stopping suspected white supremacists from committing deliberate arson, lots of suspicious cars and threatening notes left at houses with Black Lives Matter signs.
But even justified fear of out-of-town (or, very possibly local) right-wing extremists or vandals should not take the heat off of law enforcement, who used the curfew as a way to further install a police state. They made little distinction between the supposed agitators and the protesters, medics, journalists and Minneapolis residents who dared to stand on their front porch.
At a Sheraton Hotel on Lake Street that had become a sanctuary for over 100 unsheltered people, their security team was intimidated by suspected white supremacists and later boxed in by the police. What is most clear in the 2020 protests compared to 2014-16, is that aside from the public relations-motivated kneeling stunts, the police don’t even want to feign giving a shit about violating civil liberties and human rights.
If the Twin Cities is the “Jim Crow North,” then Minneapolis police union president Bob Kroll is Bull Connor. Kroll has called Black Lives Matter a terrorist organization, has compared excessive force complaints to fouls in a basketball game and has documented ties to the white supremacist bike gang City Heat.
In 1999, state legislator and once Hennepin County sheriff Rich Stanek instituted a rule that allowed officers who lived outside city limits to work in Minneapolis. Ninety-four per cent of the force now does so, making them as much of an occupying neocolonial force as in any city in America.
Fifty-eight per cent of use of force cases in Minneapolis happen to Black people, who make up 19 per cent of the city’s population. Police Chief Medaria Arradondo was installed in 2017 on a commitment to reform the department, but right now ,the force he presides over has a lot more in common with their union boss than their chief.
Sunday, May 31
On Sunday, Kroll wrote a letter to his members applauding their bravery and describing a situation in which he tried to subvert the governor with the help of Senate Republicans. What Kroll may not realize is his men killing George Floyd, and the intense police repression of protests that followed, may be the icing on the cake that sinks his career and potentially lays the blueprint for his department’s eventual undoing.
The Twin Cities’ demonstration of community solidarity and aid in a vacuum of formal leadership and basic municipal services has a chance to build momentum behind the idea put forth by local police abolition groups Black Visions Collective, Reclaim the Block and MDP-150 over years: Defunding police and funding decarceral alternatives to safety, along with the social provisions that are known to prevent crime.
A Minneapolis organizer and artist who chose to remain anonymous offered me this quote reflecting on her experience over the weekend: “I want to shout out our neighbourhood unity. Neighbours knowing each other's phone numbers for the first time in decades, let alone names. Sharing ways to protect each other. Our communities have changed.”
One of the next steps is to prevent neighbourhood patrols from reproducing the same problems as the police department, something MPR reporter Jon Collins speculated about on Twitter.
As the days and weeks go on, the narrative of the true nature of the uprising will continue to be contested and the severity of the outside agitation will be debated and hopefully sorted out safely. The police will continue to suppress the protests violently, no matter how peaceful or not peaceful the protesters are.
The moments of silence for George Floyd will continue, but for the constant hum of helicopters, sirens, gunshots, unidentifiable booms and police radio static. There could be more horrifying acts like we saw on Sunday night, when an oil tanker drove through a crowd of protesters.
We’re far from stillness in Minneapolis. But on the front lines, especially past curfew, you’ll witness incomprehensible acts of solidarity, bravery and, at times, an uncontainable anger at the lack of humanity afforded to Black people in America.
The clarity of purpose, even amidst the utter messiness of the last week in Minneapolis, was best expressed by a young man hanging out of a car window travelling west down Lake Street as the first curfew set in on Friday night. “You can get all this back,” he told reporter Niko Georgiades of the indispensable media collective Unicorn Riot, one of the best protest reporters of his generation. “But that man is never seeing his family again.”
You can’t take a census at a protest, but my own firsthand account is that the front lines have been disproportionately Black and brown youth, mostly unaffiliated with an official organization. That should not go lost on anyone.
Tuesday, June 2
On Tuesday night, as I finished writing this dispatch, the Minneapolis School Board voted unanimously to terminate its contract with the Minneapolis Police Department, capping off years of organizing and activism primarily led by the youth criminalized by the school resource officers who will no longer roam their hallways.
It’s a first step. But as the chant goes, until there is justice, there will be no peace.
The last week proved that we can count on that. Let’s hope the city listens.