I’m not sure of anything I’m about to say. I struggled with the decision to even write about the riots. I’m not sure that I should be writing about the riots, or if “riots” is the term I should even be using. As sad and distressed and disheartened as I feel, I don’t know if a guy that occupies the racial, cultural, and socioeconomic spaces that I do can offer helpful and meaningful contributions to this conversation.
I obviously don’t condone the riots. How could you? How can anyone look at the videos and images of our cities reduced to robbery, rubble, and flames and say that that is something that they condone? The ugliness unfolding across my social media platforms literally has me sick to my stomach.
But is that something that I really need to say? Is that the kind of commentary that we need right now from Minnesota’s white community? It would be the easiest thing in the world for me to fire-up my social media and launch a series of disparaging tweets condemning the senseless and counterproductive violence taking place across the Twin Cities. And I would mean it, too. That is how I feel. But everything felt is not worth saying.
I haven’t lived a life of experiences that would ever lead me to participate in this kind of destruction. That’s not because I’m better. It’s because I’m lucky. It’s because I was born with a skin color that statistically made me more likely to experience economic prosperity and less likely to fall victim to state-sanctioned violence. It’s also the reason that I’m ill-equipped to pass judgment or condemnation on those who aren’t as lucky as me.
Which is why I don’t have a lot I want to say. Instead, I want to listen.
I want to listen to the people of color who have a more intimate knowledge of the experiences that lead us to today. People of color who have grown up in these neglected communities and been victims of poverty and profiling and police brutality. People of color who have grown up with more privilege, but still sense the dangers that their black skin can bring them in the United States of America. People of color who are leading movements that call for peace, justice, action, equity, and systemic change. People of color who are decrying the craziness of the last two days and have suffered the most from the devastation. And, yes, people of color who are encouraging and perpetrating it.
The radical historian, Howard Zinn, once wrote that “The cry of the poor is not always just, but if you don’t listen to it, you will never know what justice is.”
The voices of the unheard are roaring today. There’s nothing just about what’s happening right now, but there’s nothing just about what got us here, either. I hope with all my heart that state and community leaders will make the right decisions to quell these threats to human life and property, but I’m also skeptical that a “right” decision even exists. But when the dust eventually settles and the smoke eventually clears, if we haven’t listened to these cries and learned from these injustices, we’re doomed to repeat them, and all the madness that comes with. I hope to god we don’t make that mistake.
It’s been 24 hours since I first watched the video of the events that lead to the death of George Floyd in southeast Minneapolis. It’s one of the most distressing videos that I’ve ever seen. About five minutes in, shortly after Floyd appeared to lose consciousness, I remember thinking that the video had to be over soon—that the aggressor-officer had to be ready to let up. As I moved my cursor downward, I was shocked to discover that the video was barely half-over, with another full five minutes to go. Throughout most of those minutes, the aforementioned officer continued to kneel on George Floyd’s neck. We all know the end result.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first video I’ve seen documenting the slaying of a black man at the hands of my local police. Twin Cities folks no doubt remember the dashboard cam footage of four years back when Philando Castile was gunned down during a routine traffic stop in Falcon Heights, as well as the harrowing footage of the aftermath filmed by his girlfriend from inside of the car. I wrote about this tragedy at the time, highlighting the injustice that seemed to be implied from the various angles that we had of the killing. But as incriminating as that footage was, I think that the video from this most recent tragedy ascends to a different level of incrimination of the law enforcement officials involved in a few distinct ways.
One difference is the factor of the unknown, or in the case of George Floyd, what might have went down before the filming began. While I will still contend that the killing of Philando Castile was grossly unjustified and criminally reprehensible, I will admit that I cannot know for sure what took place inside of that car prior to the officer discharging his weapon. I know what I think happened (nothing!), but I have no definitive proof that Castile did not appear to be reaching for his weapon, or that the aggressor-officer did not have good reason to fear for his life.
George Floyd is different. In the video I watched early yesterday morning, the events that transpired before the witness began recording on their cellphone have little-to-no bearing on what took place afterwards. Invent any scenario that you like—”George Floyd was resisting arrest!” “He was aggressive!” “He was dangerously violent!” No matter what took place prior, at the time the now infamous video began, George Floyd was clearly no longer a threat, and he only became less threatening as the video carried on. He was handcuffed, lying on his stomach, and sufficiently disenabled. In the case of Philando Castile, we can at least imagine a scenario (albeit unlikely) in which lethal force could be justified. In the case of George Floyd, that scenario does not exist, no matter how creative your imagination.
Another distinction worth noting is the behavior of the aggressor-officers. The officer who killed Philando Castile knew he fucked up. You could hear it in his voice. He was well aware that pulling that trigger may have been the gravest mistake of his life. I’m not sure if that necessarily transforms him into a sympathetic figure, but at the very least, it lends him a little humanity.
I cannot say the same about the behavior of the aggressor-officer in the case of George Floyd. His demeanor is calm and cold. As the onlookers grow increasingly urgent in their desperate pleas for him to remove his knee from Floyd’s neck, the officer almost seems to grow more defiant, as if he continues to apply the possibly lethal pressure just to prove a point.
I’ll still refrain from passing judgment on these cops as people. I’m a firm believer that good people can do terrible things in moments of anger or weakness. That includes the bystander cop who, despite his concerned and conflicted expressions, fails to make a potentially life-saving intervention. These cops may not be monsters, but that doesn’t negate the fact that they participated in a monstrous thing. Assuming they are criminally charged, the prosecution should reflect that.
I attended the early stages of yesterday’s protest. It was the first protest I’ve ever been to of this kind. Several things stood out.
I heard none of that last night. The leaders of the protest were impressively nuanced. They called for resistance, but explicitly denounced violence and destruction of property. They called for the prosecution of the offending officers, but refrained from demonizing the entire police force. That doesn’t mean that there weren’t some protestors blaring “Fuck Tha Police” waiting for any excuse to launch whatever projectiles might be in range, but based on my unofficial observations, the vast, vast majority of protestors who were gathered at that intersection came ready to resist responsibly, and that is in large part due to the protest’s leadership.
Another personal takeaway was my dramatic realization of the courage that it takes to attend protests like these. Over the time I spent on 38th and Chicago, I witnessed the removal of a man who was later reported to be an armed, Neo-Nazi counter-protester. I saw the beginnings of what could have exploded into a mass-panic when revving engines suddenly approached the protest’s epicenter, evoking a short-lived but intense terror that we were about to experience a repeat of Charlottesville (the engines turned out to be those of a black motorcycle gang arriving in support of the protest, but god was it scary).
Both these anecdotes are representative of the kind of knowledge that only comes from experience. From my studies and teaching of events from Selma to Ferguson, I’ve learned a great deal about the inherent dangers of protest, but there is no knowledge that can be acquired from a book that can ever supersede the experiential knowledge gained in those few fleeting moments when I thought that the consequences of that danger might be experienced by me.
I was moved by the solidarity exhibited between different groups of color. Despite a very different history, there were first, second, and probably third generation African immigrants, many Somali, out in full force at this protest. Native peoples were well-represented, including a quasi-drum circle on the southeast corner explicitly expressing its solidarity with the black community as a group with a comparable history of systemic mistreatment.
That diversity also included a lot of white people, and the protest’s leaders made us feel validated. That validation, however, did not come without a challenge. I was deeply impacted by the words of one of the speakers who, after proclaiming his appreciation of our presence, insisted that we remain with them on the front lines, because, as he so eloquently put it, “we [black people] can’t go home.”
I left the protest about 90 minutes after those words were uttered, and as I watched the chaos and destruction unfold from the safety of my suburban neighborhood, the speaker’s words could not have rang more true. It is hard to find a more powerful representation of white privilege than the ability to attend the easy part of a protest and leave before the shit gets real. I should have been a better white ally, but I’ve learned to live with my shortcomings.
Not that I would have participated in the violence and destruction of property with the select few who perpetrated it. I believe those actions to be profoundly misguided and undermining of everything the protest is meant to achieve. However, I also subscribe to the Kingsian view that “riot is the language of the unheard.” That doesn’t mean I agree with the riots, but it does mean that I think I understand where they come from and why they happen.
One last point I’d like to address: the courage of the confronters. I’ve got a semi-personal connection with one of the people who confronted the team of police officers called upon to restrain George Floyd, and I couldn’t be prouder to be vaguely associated with him. He’s a fellow aspiring martial artist who happens to train at the same institution as me. The mix of persistence and composure displayed by him and other confronters at the scene—including the firefighter chick and the woman behind the cellphone cam—is unbelievably admiral. “He’s human, bro…He’s not responsive right now…Check his pulse!!!…You gonna let him kill that man in front of you, bro?…Thao, you know that’s bogus…”. The level of courage that it takes for a black man to challenge police officers ENGAGED IN ASSAULT is a level of courage that I very much aspire to.
This is 24 hours in. I’m a big believer in allowing the facts of a case to manifest before arriving at final conclusions, and that no previous injustices by white cops against black men should weigh in on our decisions on how to evaluate the specific details of this case. That said, I also find it hard to imagine the emergence of any evidence that could substantially sway my general sentiment about this particular tragedy.
A gross injustice was committed yesterday. An injustice that was both unnecessary and preventable. An injustice that certainly would not have taken place with a little more empathy and a lot less hate. I’m sad for my city, my state, and my country, and while I’m encouraged by the level of turnout at the protest and the swift action taken by the city of Minneapolis and its police department to try to right an irrevocable wrong, I’m also convinced more than ever that, in spite of centuries of progress, we still have a lot of work to do.
I was as happy about Tim Walz’s lifting of the stay-at-home order as anybody. Okay, maybe not as happy as the owner of a non-essential retail store or a self-employed hairdresser, but I was pretty happy. The lifting of the SAHO means that I can finally get together with friends and family that I haven’t seen in months, and maybe soon after, return to the gyms and restaurants and breweries that I used to frequent weekly several moons ago.
But part of me wonders if I should be happy. Is Minnesota really ready for this step? Have we really bought ourselves enough time to prepare for the worst that this virus has to offer? Is Walz really doing what’s smart and right, or just what’s politically palatable to a restless population?
I think most medical experts would say the latter. I’m not even going to pretend to understand all the data and curves, but those who do seem to agree that the worst is yet to come. I’ve been on the listen-to-the-experts bus since it left the station, and if the medical experts were calling the shots, I don’t think I would have done my first set of push-ups in over two months today in preparation for some early-June bench press.
However, when I say listen to the experts, I’ve always meant ALL the experts, and that includes economic ones. The economic damage inflicted by these societal shutdowns is already calamitous on a macro-scale, and the worst kind of life-altering for some on the micro. Every extension of the SAHO means that damage will only become graver, with innumerable (I’m sure there is a number, I just don’t know it) more layoffs and small business failures, leading to a lengthier and more strenuous recovery.
So, where do we draw the line? At what point does the economic damage wrought by stay-at-home orders outweigh the potential lives that are being protected? Anyone who says “never” just isn’t being honest, but that doesn’t make the question easy to answer. It’s one of the reasons that I have a lot of empathy for our elected leaders during this crisis. Of course, everyone’s got an opinion, but it’s easy to have an opinion that doesn’t carry the weight of consequence. I just know that I’m glad that I’m not forced to choose between destroying the livelihoods of young entrepreneurs or the lives of old folks in assisted living.
And I also don’t think it’s as easy as telling those old folks to stay home while the rest of us go about our lives. As a relatively young guy in relatively good health, I need to keep reminding myself that the SAHO isn’t necessarily about protecting ME, it’s about trying to prevent me from becoming a link in a chain that could contribute to the spreading of the virus to the most vulnerable.
And the most vulnerable aren’t just old people. There are plenty of unancients with underlying health problems that could be headed for long and happy lives, but for whom COVID-19 could be a death sentence, especially if we overwhelm the healthcare system. My wife works at a chemotherapy clinic where folks of all ages come in for treatment, but due to the chemo, also have weakened immune systems. Just the thought of me bringing a case into my home that my wife could bring into her work fills me with a level of guilt and dread that I’m not sure I could handle if it were to become a reality.
This is one of the reasons that I have been a supporter of Walz’s actions thus far. I’ve been nowhere near perfect. Like most people, I’ve found ways to bend the rules to make my life more tolerable and convenient during this boring-ass time. But I’ve also based my bending off the rules as they are written, which has led me to being more well-behaved than I would be if the rules were different. And as a fellow teacher of high school students, I think Walz understands this. Give kids an inch and they’ll take a mile, so if you don’t want them to have a mile, give them half-an-inch instead. Us adults are no different.
So, I guess we’ll see where this goes. I’m excited to regain some semblance of normalcy in my life and reestablish some of my pre-COVID routines. I’ll be ready to turn back the dials again if my trusted leaders tell me that’s what’s necessary. And I’m also ready to embrace some of the “new normal”—the aspects of our post-COVID world that will be forever different than the world we knew before. Hooray for Zoom meetings, good riddance to hand-shaking, and please Western Union, complete my money transfer to Hijo del Soberano so he can get my lucha-style cubrebocas on their way to Minnesota. Virus or no virus, I’m wearing these fucking things.