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The Minneapolis I Never Knew

My city is burning, and I am grappling with how little I understood it.

It feels like something in me has changed ever since my city started to burn.

I’ve spent the past three nights frantically refreshing Twitter and cycling through livestream after livestream on the ground in South Minneapolis, bombarding myself with footage of activists wiping tear gas from their eyes and pouring milk down their faces. I’ve stared wide-eyed at video of fireworks exploding over the burning remnants of a police station. I’ve scrutinized photographs of people huddling behind makeshift barricades to shield themselves from rubber bullets and marker rounds fired from rooftops by armored police. I’ve kept myself awake, anxious and angry, piecing together the chaotic scene taking place just a few miles away.

Yet despite drinking from the firehose of information flooding down Lake Street and onto whatever screen I have at hand, I’ve begun to experience moments of profound disassociation from the rebellion playing out in the intersections and parking lots of the neighborhoods I’ve known all my life.

Watching the nauseating snuff footage of George Floyd being choked to death by the Minneapolis Police Department on a street I’ve driven down innumerable times, I found myself thinking, “That can’t be Minneapolis. How can that be here?” Maybe it’s my brain’s way of tempering the revulsion and horror at seeing a man being killed with impunity by the state. Maybe I just don’t want to believe what I saw.

The feeling has continued in the days since Floyd’s killing galvanized the city and sent activists to the streets to demand accountability and to simply rage at the injustice of Floyd’s death and the system that allowed it to happen.

“That’s the Target I went to as a kid,” I’ve said to myself as I watch footage of the smoldering building. “There’s the diner I liked.” And yet none of it feels quite real to me. Filtered through the glow of my phone, and cast in the orange-yellow hues of fiery resistance, streets and businesses that compose the tactile geography of my adolescence now seem to occupy a mental uncanny valley—almost lifelike, but not. It’s off. It’s other.

At least, sometimes. There are other times when I find myself acutely sensitive to the sheer proximity of it all. I can smell the smoke, and hear the sirens. I can map every fire, every police blockade, in my mind’s eye without thinking.

So I oscillate between these two states: Numb detachment and painful hyper-awareness, as the Twin Cities explode in anger.

Throughout it all, I’ve started to wonder if maybe I don’t really know my city at all. Maybe I never really did.

While I share in the rage and frustration at the injustices that have pushed so many people out into the streets, I recognize that I am more of an accessory to those injustices than I am a victim. I’m a white, straight guy from a city that—by some metrics—looks about as good as cities get for people who look like I do. But look a little closer, and Minneapolis’ progressive facade and scrappy charm is replaced by systemic segregation, glaring racial inequality, and economic disparities. Not that Minneapolis is unique in that respect, but Minnesota’s folksy reputation and ostensibly progressive attitude often serves as a convenient excuse for people both within and without to simply ignore the bigotry that keeps black people, Native people, immigrants, and other marginalized people from fully enjoying the very real benefits of living here.

For the most part, though, I do enjoy those benefits. And that makes me part of the problem—a problem which boiled over into the inchoate revolution that this week placed Minneapolis at ground zero in the fight for racial equality and social justice. The fight happening here is both long overdue, and one in which my first responsibility is to listen to the voices of those who need the privileges afforded to me in order to gain access to those privileges themselves. But listening is, of course, not enough. As the past week has shown, direct action does, indeed, get the goods.

So as I watched police stations burn, and activists demonstrate acts of incredible bravery in the face of state sanctioned violence, I kept asking myself, “What have I done to help? What have I done that’s made things worse?”

The answers, in order, are always “not enough” and “too much.”

I’ve never experienced the sort of systemic injustice animating the angry whirlwind of protests. My personal experiences with the Minneapolis police have never gone beyond what could charitably be called “casual annoyance.” The department, with its racist, reactionary legacy and overtly bigoted leadership, has never been a threat to me because of the way I look. To the extent that I have skin in this game, it’s glaringly white skin that has thus far shielded me from violence and inequality. It’s a privilege I’ve taken for granted. I want to make sure that my two young children—new to these cities I’ve called home for so many years—grow up with their eyes fully open, and understand their need to act in solidarity with the people this country oppresses for their benefit.

To be honest, I don’t know how to explain to them why their new city is burning. I grapple with whether or not to shield them from what’s happening, to explain why people are so angry, and to imbue them with the responsibility to make things better. My instinct to protect and the instinct to teach are not always in alignment.

I’m disappointed in myself. I’m angry that I haven’t done more. I’m horrified that, in a million small, subtle ways, I almost certainly have contributed to the structures of racism and marginalization. I wonder what I could have done to help make the city I love a better, more equitable, more just place. I wonder what I can still do.

What’s happening here shouldn’t come as a surprise. It didn’t occur in a vacuum. It’s the entirely predictable response to indignities and injustices both large and small that have accumulated over centuries of American racism, and—more acutely—years of pretending the festering inequality in Minnesota itself would simply continue without relief or release. I’m certainly guilty of it, even though the signs have been there, in front of my eyes, for years.

I was born three blocks from the site where Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck until he was dead. I lived a mile away from the site where Jamar Clark was shot to death by two police officers, during a friend’s birthday party. I grew up five blocks from where St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez put five bullets into Philando Castile, in full view of his girlfriend and four-year-old daughter during a traffic stop.

Given my proximity to these predictable eruptions of sanctioned police violence, my sense of the Twin Cities has begun to be overlaid with an alternate cartography—a geography in which the landmarks of my life are inextricably tied to sites of immeasurable injustice and tragedy. I don’t know why this geographic realignment is only coming into focus for me now. Perhaps it’s because I’ve only just moved back, after spending nearly a decade on the East Coast. Perhaps it’s because I can smell smoke in the air. Whatever my reason, I know that that which is “alternate” for me is much closer to a standard topographical understanding for those those living with the disenfranchisement and violence that exists as an everyday reality under systemic racism in their city. My city. Our city.

In 1967, when Martin Luther King Jr. uttered his famous maxim that “riots are the language of the unheard,” he was standing in the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota. He was right, of course, and those words proved to be prescient forecast of the rebellions that would rock Minneapolis’ North Side a few months later. More than 50 years later, he’s still right.

Of course there would be a reckoning. How could there not?

As much as the Minneapolis of the past few days might seem foreign to me—someone who’s lived in the Twin Cities for the bulk of their life—I know it only means that on some level I’ve failed at being a member of the community I see hurting and struggling and fighting back right now.

I have work to do. We all do. Realizing I might not really know the Twin Cities the way I once thought I had is hard. What comes next will be even harder. I love this city, and I believe in it. The Minneapolis and St. Paul I thought I knew may be gone. It may never even have existed in the first place outside my own sense of bubbled privilege. But in its absence, the real Twin Cities still stand, burnt, angry, hurting, but home. Those are the cities I’ll be fighting for. It’s worth it.

Screenshot: Nick Woltman/Twitter