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June 6, 2020
This is not the blog I had expected to write at this point. But sometimes, as the saying goes, shit happens. And in this case that is definitely the right name for it. I am talking about the horror story that began with the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and has progressed into the greatest outburst of racial tension since the riots of the 1960’s. I feel compelled to write about it, but what can I say that we have not all heard at least fifty times?
Maybe I can at least start by telling why I think the George Floyd case is affecting me in such a personal way. I have deep family roots in Minneapolis. My grandfather moved there about a century ago when the company he had helped start was moved to the Twin Cities. The golf course in one of its suburbs is named after one of my uncles. I went there countless times while growing up, to visit relatives. Several of us go there once a year even now for a family meeting. I always thought of Minneapolis as a very welcoming city. It is, after all, the epicenter of what many people call “Minnesota nice.” I am shocked to discover that beneath the surface of tolerance and hospitality lurks a history of racial violence involving the police.
The specific instance that has brought the dark side of the “Mini-Apple” to light was indescribably horrific. Except that it can actually be described in appalling detail thanks to the 17-year-old girl who videoed the whole thing and is now on my short list of personal heroines. By now almost everyone has seen the three policemen hold the handcuffed, helpless Floyd down on the ground while one of them kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for several minutes despite their victim’s assertion that he could not breathe, until he died. That video is why this unjustified killing by police may not be able to be swept under the rug as has happened in so many other cases in Minneapolis and other cities throughout the country.
The reaction to the video seen ‘round the world was swift and predictable. There were demonstrations, including deplorable amounts of violence, not just in Minneapolis but in other cities throughout the country. The fires in Minneapolis, doing huge damage to this city I love so much, were as useless and counter-productive as such violence always is, and drew too much attention away from the nonviolent protesters who far outnumbered the ones creating the mayhem. The rumors that most of the damage was caused by people who came into Minneapolis for that purpose may be true. Whoever they were, they dishonored George Floyd and those who simply wanted to mourn George Floyd and demand that justice be done and police brutality toward blacks be ended.
Fortunately, the authorities soon recognized that most of the protesters were not intent on violence and the police and National Guard were used to contain the demonstrations and lead them away from the areas that had been the scene of the earlier looting and destruction. This use of restraint stands in sharp contrast with the reaction from the Federal Government.
President Trump’s first comments in the wake of the death of George Floyd were heartless and threatening. While offering condolences to the family of the man who had been brutally murdered, he said that “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” And to make sure we all understood the part about shooting, he said that if the governors of the states where riots were taking place could not get them under control, he would deploy the U.S. military to do it. That is an alarming threat, since with a couple of specific exceptions it is illegal to use the military against American citizens. But one of those exceptions is Washington D.C., because it is not a state. So he promptly brought in part of the legendary 82nd Airborne. I was not the only person who thought the use of the military in this way sounds like the first step toward martial law.
But the action that provoked the greatest criticism was having peaceful protestors driven out of Lafayette Square in a surprise attack using tear gas and rubber bullets, just so the President could be photographed holding a Bible while standing in front of an Episcopal Church. The pastor of the church was only one of countless people who expressed outrage over that hypocritical antic.
Unfortunately, all the chaos in the aftermath of George Floyds’ tragic and brutal death has almost become a distraction from the real issue of why he died and what to do to stop the seemingly endless killing of black men by white cops. They have to be convicted. Fortunately, the Attorney General of Minnesota has taken over the case himself and the police officer who actually held Floyd down with a knee on his neck has been charged with second and third degree murder. A lot of people want first degree murder, but realistically it will be hard to prove intent to kill, so second or third degree may be the most that he can actually be convicted for. I understand that and I would be satisfied, as long as he is convicted of murder. That would be a shockwave in this country, where murder is seldom called murder if it is done by a policeman, and virtually never if done to a black man by a white cop. It is time to finally call it what it is. Yet even a conviction in this case would be only a first step in bringing real racial justice to America. We are hearing a lot about “systemic racism.” I used to think that phrase was just a piece of academic jargon without much real-world meaning. Now I think I was wrong to dismiss it. How can I deny that a whole network of economic, social, legal and political factors combine to keep black Americans in a disadvantaged position in their own country? These factors form a powerful element of our pervasive culture. Changing that culture will be a massive undertaking even if most of us want to, and that is questionable.
So is there any hope? I started on a personal note and I will end the same way. I grew up in the segregated South. I attended segregated schools. My parents were strong advocates of school integration, but a friend of my father’s told him that “We will never let this happen.” Of course it turned out that they could not stop it. Will it turn out that way with other aspects of structural racism, including excessive and illegal violence against black men by white cops? I don’t know, I can only hope. So I do.