Minnesota, America on edge as George Floyd trial ramps up

Minnesota on edge as trial of police officer accused of killing George Floyd ramps up

  • Minnesota, America on edge as George Floyd trial highlights societal split.
  • Autonomous zone in area around death of ‘gentle giant’ is vaguely controlled by a loosely defined coalition. 
  • Frantz Fanon wrote in 1965 that oppression and colonization lead to revolt because they make it “impossible to breathe.”

Minnesota’s Twin Cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul, unlike more famous twins like Jacob and Esau or Romulus and Remus, have maintained a respectful filial relation across the wide Mississippi river. It’s a bit different further upstream where the Mississippi separates the largely white “Nordeast” Minneapolis from the more black north. Shortly after moving to Minnesota many years ago, a Nordest bartender, pointing to a nearby bridge to the North, said to a friend, “You know, that’s the longest bridge in the world?”

“How’s that?”

“Because it goes all the way from Warsaw to Africa.”

But of course this was just being “Minnesota Nice”, a phrase cheerfully bandied about in the Land of 10,00 Lakes.

George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American, died in front of a Cup Foods convenience store, face down in the streets of Minneapolis on 25 May 2020 while being detained by police. His death sparked protests that resonated around the world.

Most recently, a police officer who shot and killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright during a traffic stop this Sunday, Apr. 11,  in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center resigned from her post on Tuesday, as did police Chief Tim Gannon.

Protests and violence have once again spilled into the streets.

Since the death of Floyd, an “autonomous zone” has been established in the city — a four-square-block area surrounding the site where his accused killer, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin had arrested and detained Floyd, knelling on his neck for 9.5 minutes as citizens pleaded for the man to be allowed to breathe. The zone, now cordoned off to police and through-traffic, is vaguely controlled by a coalition of activists.

Minnesota, American on edge

The scene at the protest zone is both inspiring and scary, residents say. There are lots of touching tributes, art, and an anarchic spirit of resistance. Bigger-than-life images of Floyd himself, reportedly a “gentle giant” with various nagging addictions and prison stints, are hung from fences and draped along store fronts.

It’s not clear who’s “policing” this area and people have been killed there since Floyd.

Local businesses in the area are struggling as the city plans to re-open up the space once again. But the murder trial of officer Chauvin is now well underway, and the verdict, one way or the other, is likely to be a flashpoint in this city and potentially across the U.S.

Memories of the 1992 trial of four LAPD police officers in the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, and the ensuing riotous aftermath, linger in all our minds. Can this happen again? will it?

So far, the prosecution witnesses have condemned Chauvin’s violence as inconsistent with police procedure. More poignantly, several witnesses expressed their regret and guilt. The 19-years-old store clerk Christopher Martin, who reported the counterfeit bill to his boss, testified, “If I would’ve just not taken the bill, this could’ve been avoided.”

Civil unrest in the Twin Cities over the years has been mainly confined to the spasmodic hooliganism of drunken sports fans. Protests of all kinds are common, but they’re mostly attended by nice college students and grey-haired groups with names like Women Against Military Madness.

But by the end of May 2020, (it was Memorial Day in the U.S.) the cities exploded with a rage that was both hopeful . . . and fearful. In the midst of the first major Covid-19 wave, thousands of masked protestors shouted “I Can’t Breathe” and “Black Lives Matter.” Some of them carried incendiary materials and dozens of small businesses were burned to the ground along the major multi-ethnic corridors of Lake St. (Minneapolis) and University Ave. (St. Paul). A resident describes the mood:

“A gas station was torched in my own neighborhood, which is home to two colleges, a lot of Irish Catholics, but hardly any people of color. At one point, a crowd tried to cross the main bridge into St. Paul but were blocked by a phalanx of heavily armed police.

Twin cities in a ‘Hobbesian State of Nature’

The Twin Cities were starting to feel a bit medieval or in a “Hobbesian State of Nature,” said the philosophy professor who lives in the area and watched the year unfold with a mix of concern and hope.

In such a state, Thomas Hobbes says, it’s “every man against every man.” But life in such a state is “nasty, brutish and short. For the first time in my life, I wondered if I should own a gun for protection.”

John Locke says if we have not emerged from, or if we regress to, a state of nature, we have right to kill anyone who doesn’t respect our natural rights, for example our property rights, even by pre-emptive action. Such people, Locke says, “may be destroyed as a lion or a tiger, one of those wild savage beasts with whom man can have no society nor security”.

“But I wasn’t sure we were at that point and, anyway, where would I get a gun?”

Instead, the professor feebly removed flammables from his garage, set garden pitchforks by each of his doors and worried as the crowds moved into his daughter’s neighborhood.

Frantz Fanon, the black West Indian author of Wretched of the Earth, wrote in 1965 that oppression and colonization lead to revolt simply because they make it “impossible to breathe.”

For three nights and two days the Minneapolis police mostly stood by while large crowds cheered and danced when a precinct on Lake St. was burned to the ground. In the end, soon after the National Guard was called in, there were no deaths or serious injuries, in contrast with then-president Donald Trump’s very white riot at the nation’s capital. Few business owners in Minneapolis attempted to defend their property. As an Indian restaurant near Lake St. was reduced to ashes, the owner posted to Facebook “Let my building burn, justice needs to be served.”

George Floyd was viciously accosted and ultimately died, supposedly for attempting to pass a counterfeit $20 bill at a corner store. Floyd pleaded for his life and shortly before his death, called out for his mother. When the cell phone videos went viral, the unrest on Lake St. exploded and quickly spread to St. Paul, then Portland, then New York, and ultimately around the world. Liberal politicians called for strictly peaceful protest.

Irony in call for peaceful protests

The irony of this was certainly not lost on the black protestors.

In his 1829 Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World , David Walker, the free son of a slave, railed “Will he [God] allow one part of his creatures to go on oppressing another like brutes, always with impunity? And yet those avaricious wretches are calling for Peace!!!” The new president of the country, Joe Biden, recently promised familiar celebrations next Independence Day.

In his 1852 Fourth of July ‘Oration’, the former slave Frederick Douglass chided his mostly white audience. “This Fourth of July is yours not mine,” he said. “You may rejoice, I must mourn”.

In philosopher Georg Hegel’s “master-slave dialectic” two “self-consciousnesseses” encounter one another from very different social locations. The master finds it impossible to grasp the fundamental asymmetry in their respective relations to “objective” facts (like American Independence).

Floyd’s killing was horrific but anger at police violence had been building in the city in recent years with the police killings of unarmed or unthreatening black men such as Jamar Clark in 2015 and Philando Castile in 2016. Ultimately, none of the police officers involved in those killings were criminally punished.

Interestingly, the 2017 killing of a middle-class white woman, Justine Damond (née Ruszczyk), by a startled black Minneapolis police officer, Muhamed Noor, resulted in the conviction of Noor and a 12-year prison sentence.

Floyd’s killing was the tipping point. The crowds involved in the May uprising were much larger and diverse than previous BLM protests. “Justice for George” lawn signs have sprouted in cloistered neighborhoods throughout the region. Less encouraging about the May unrest, especially in light of the recent “insurrection” in D.C., is evidence that some of the arsonry was instigated by extreme right/white supremacist provocateurs.

More troubled waters are certain this summer. The fervent and anxious hope across The Land of 10,000 Lakes is that justice for George will be both achieved and celebrated, as his family has consistently and eloquently urged.

And that the calming of troubled waters will herald a more authentic version of Minnesota Nice.

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