Minneapolis Was Burning Long Before It Was Ever on Fire

I’m numb to the fact that my city is in ruins. I grew up about 25 miles outside of Minneapolis. As a kid, going into the city was an exciting and welcome change from the tree-lined monotony of the suburbs.

But my childhood memories felt convoluted this week as I watched my city and a beloved neighborhood turn into a war zone. I attended my first preschool just blocks from where George Floyd was killed. My mom once worked at the Target store on Lake Street, which now sits in rubble. But the truth is, the area was in ruins long before Floyd’s killing.

When I was growing up, the neighborhoods at the epicenter of the protests were in such dire shape that locals often referred to the looted Target store by using a disparaging name: “Targhetto.” This is a sobriquet that persists to this day. It’s in a neighborhood that has been blighted by decades of over-policing, mislaid economic policy, generational and systemic poverty, and drugs. The place where Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin ended Floyd’s life presented much of the same.

Both neighborhoods have been met with gentrification that puts a sexy facade of a band-aid over a deep and festering wound of inequality in every level of life for Black and brown residents of Minneapolis.

The precinct and surrounding properties were burning long before they were ever on fire.

I’ve seen firsthand how the Minneapolis Police Department has egregiously and routinely failed Black and brown people, from racial profiling to disproportionate arrests — and worse. Floyd is just the latest Black man from the region who unfairly died at the hands of police, even though by all accounts, he was a kind and helpful man. Floyd was someone who integrated into the vibrant Latino community of Minneapolis. A man who you see in the surveillance video was compliant with officers. A man who cried out for his mother as a police officer suffocated him. A Black man. A Black man whose life matters.

Like many across the nation who are — for lack of a better term — outraged by Floyd’s death, it was especially jarring to me, but I’m taking time to account for whatever advantages I had in life. As an African American, I have a fair amount of privilege. I have the privilege of being born and raised in Minnesota in an upper-middle-class suburb and receiving a great education. I have the privilege of being from a family that has deep roots — both community-based and politically — in Minneapolis. I had the privilege of safely walking and driving that stretch of Lake Street to visit family and friends and attend church. And crucially, I have had the privilege of experiencing mostly positive interactions with the officers of the Minneapolis Police Department.

The department built the 3rd Precinct in the ’80s during a “tough on crime” era; I remember the day it opened. The city of Minneapolis closed off part of the street, and there was a large celebration. A local high school dance troupe performed as part of the ribbon-cutting ceremony. I remember that being a fun, happy day. I was a kid. A kid who was taught the police are to protect and serve the citizenry.

In the city of Minneapolis, it’s hard to protect and serve a community in which 94% of your police officers do not live.

Since then, I’ve transitioned to a much smarter and much wiser adult who has seen how that maxim isn’t broadly applied. For instance, in the city of Minneapolis, it’s hard to protect and serve a community in which 94% of your police officers do not live. This means they do not have skin in the game to invest in the outcomes of the communities in which they patrol. They come to work, driving in from their suburban homes, and arrest, scare, and otherwise intimidate people who already have a fractured relationship with law enforcement and the penal system. They are patrolling a community that is already disenfranchised on multiple levels. I’m sure Officer Derek Chauvin didn’t wake up Memorial Day morning, put on his uniform, and hope to kill someone that day; but just as I learned that the police aren’t there to protect and serve Black communities with the same equity that they treat the monied white communities just a few miles west of the 3rd Precinct, impact matters more than intent.

Bottom line: The precinct and surrounding properties were burning long before they were ever on fire.

Because I have privilege, I’m currently tucked away in relative safety in an upscale residential neighborhood in the suburbs of Minneapolis. It’s not exactly where I grew up, but near there. For the last week, I’ve watched the reports of the protests rage on. I’ve watched the reactions to the protests range from “Let it burn!” to “They’re destroying their own communities.” I side with the former camp. For those who agree, know this: Your anger is justified and your indignation is righteous. You haven’t been heard for decades. You’ve been disenfranchised for much longer. For those who disagree with the destruction of property, ask yourselves: Do you really think the actual residents of this neighborhood are out here destroying the properties that serve them? And if they are, so what of it? Why are you madder about property than a man’s life? They’re destroying a big box chain that has high prices and doesn’t provide a livable wage. They’re destroying a liquor store that provides fuel to deadly addictions already suffered in that neighborhood. The small businesses destroyed have insurance. They will rebuild. Why are you so concerned with structures and indifferent to structural racism? They’re burning things down because it’s the only way to get anybody to pay attention.

I was raised to respect the rule of law and order (for God’s sake, my brother is a cop in the northern suburbs of our metro area). I was also raised to suss out injustice and seek change. I can’t help but be numb to the fact that my city is on fire. That said, as the song “Sad Eyed Lady of the Low Life” goes, “Build a fire, light a match, and watch the whole thing burn.”

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