BY FLORENCE GOLOD
I raised my kids in a small bungalow three blocks from the corner where Mr. George Floyd was murdered by police on May 25, 2020. I visited the memorial in early June bringing a bouquet of fading Bleeding Hearts. Amid the cluttered beauty and sweet scent of hundreds of other bouquets and offerings, I knelt, an unfamiliar practice for me, in front of the freshly-painted mural, and wept.
This moment of communal public grief was followed by a determination to do . . . something. Finding a path forward through the thicket of chaos and devastation has been individually and collectively challenging.
There is no peace in Minneapolis, precisely because there has been no justice. Minneapolis, now the infamous epicenter of the uprising that started the day after Floyd was murdered is, five months later, a big chilly mess. The peaceful protests were so massive that they effectively functioned as a cover for criminal opportunists and angry young men and women, some associated with the alt-right.
Likely we’ll never know who threw the first rock through the window of the Third Precinct Police Station or just how few or many breached the building’s fortress-like security and burned it down. The ensuing three days of rioting and arson damaged or destroyed 1500 buildings across the Twin Cities. (https://www.startribune.com/minneapolis-st-paul-buildings-are-damaged-looted-after-george-floyd-protests-riots/569930671/?refresh=true)
Heavy-handed policing by cops unable or uninterested in distinguishing peaceful demonstrators from arsonists injured hundreds of people, but did not stop the property damage. After four nights of fires, chaos, and confused communications between local and state officials, Governor Walz called in the National Guard and ordered a curfew. Guard members proved to be as clumsy and hostile as local police. (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/03/us/minneapolis-government-george-floyd.html) The protests and arrests continued, but the arson and vandalism eventually stopped.
604 people were arrested during the protests, most on minor charges. 15 have been charged with burglary or arson. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Floyd_protests#In_Minneapolis–Saint_Paul) The US Attorney General’s office has charges pending against 13 men. Two have confirmed ties to white supremacist organizations; three with ties to the Boogaloo Boys, a loose network so affiliation is hard to determine.) . (https://m.startribune.com/charges-boogaloo-bois-fired-on-mpls-precinct-shouted-justice-for-floyd/572843802/)
The looting and arson spread beyond Lake Street, hitting several commercial corridors in St. Paul with enormous force and destruction. The North Side, struggling and neglected for decades, was further undermined with heavy vandalism. Many drug stores, gas stations, and other small enterprises across both cities were also hit.
The AIM Patrol was quickly reactivated to protect Franklin Avenue, home to dozens of American Indian institutions. Armed, the AIM Patrol deflected attempts at looting and arson, and protected a two-mile strip from all but minor damage.
How much of the destruction was the work of organized or semi-organized forces and how much the unleashed fury of individuals for whatever reason is the subject of much debate and no resolution.(https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/minnesota/articles/2020-10-17/what-drove-protesters-in-may-unrest-over-george-floyd)
Lake Street: Then and Now
A six-mile hike down Lake Street feels like time-traveling through the city’s history and changing demographics. The street extends from the city’s western edge to the Mississippi River. Let’s start at Bde Maka Ska(pronounced Badáy Ma Ká Ska), Dakota for Lake White Water, home to the Dakota since the 1600s.Cloudman, a Dakota Chief, made his agricultural camp on the lake shore in 1829.Until very recently it was legally Lake Calhoun, named for John C. Calhoun, the US Secretary of War who sent the army to survey the area. The result was forced displacement of the Dakota and 150 years of land theft and genocide. The controversy surrounding that name change led to the successful reclaiming of the identity if not the actual ownership of ancestral land. Native and allied advocates for the name change overcame the racist resistance to dumping a white icon and replacing his name with syllables the wealthy homeowners around the lake find hard to pronounce.
That part of the city, known as Uptown, once hip, is now upscaled to million-dollar condos and pricy boutiques, some looted during the uprising. Travelling east, the real estate slumps into a cluster of bohemian businesses (a fetish shop, tattoo parlors, the excellent Jungle Theater) and a military recruiting station that enjoyed its own 15 minutes of fame when the Anarchist Bowling League of the 1980’s tossed a bowling ball through the window in protest of the US military invasion of Nicaragua.
Next stop: Nicollet Avenue formally divides the city’s south side into east and west. This is a four-square-block mistake formerly known as K-Mart. The City closed Nicollet at Lake in the 1970’s to allow K-Mart Corporation the parcel size it needed to build the giant discount store. The result was the rapid deterioration of a once thriving working-class commercial area into a bleak venue for drug dealing, prostitution, and street crime. K-Mart declared bankruptcy, and the lot now sits empty because of lease problems that may not be resolved for another decade.
The discount shopping mall and a bank across the street were torched. The remains are boarded up and will probably not be rebuilt.
Continuing east under the freeway bridge, small signs in Spanish, Somali, Arabic, Vietnamese, and Hmong announce that abandoned storefronts have been reclaimed. Bakeries, restaurants, insurance companies, and dozens of other small enterprises serve and knit together these communities.
Keep going to the corner of Lake and Chicago, a “challenged” intersection formerly the site of a porn theater, a family-owned shoe store specializing in large sizes for men, and lots of action. The Sears Tower, closed in the early ‘80’s,looms one block east. When Sears left town, the site was declared historic, immunized from the rampant teardown and rebuild frenzy. Eventually the City found a developer willing to take on the behemoth. A bustling maze of small locally-owned ethnic eateries and shops populates the main floor. The 16 floors above are condos and apartments, some actually affordable. This is where the extent of the devastation really hits. A science fiction book store, a Kentucky Fried franchise and several small shops burned beyond repair. Family Dollar next to Midtown is a pile of rubble.
The rest of the intersection survived and this hit-or-miss randomness of destruction continues as you head east; more small shops, garages and a lovely modern apartment that houses GLBT seniors. The theater marquee that bragged that Debbie Does Dallas in the 1980’s sulked with a closed sign for years (VCR’s put porn theaters out of business) until the building was repurposed for puppet shows and events put on by the legendary Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater. The Theater, which organized the annual May Day Parade attracting tens of thousands of tie-dye revelers, fell on hard times a year before Floyd’s murder. Staff are furloughed while board members and the community regroup.
A few blocks further east, Ingebretson’s, a family-owned bakery, gift, and butcher shop featuring all things Scandinavian; on to Cedar and Lake, home to the oldest graveyard in the city and a small herd of deer. Walk five blocks beyond the graveyard to the light rail stop. Trains are relatively new to Minneapolis (the original trolley lines were destroyed by the 1950s); the use of eminent domain to clear land to enlarge Hiawatha Avenue into Highway 55 freeway destroyed a nearby neighborhood and an oak grove sacred to the Dakota. Those indignities fueled a spirited years-long protest that ended when state and local authorities sent 600 officers to arrest the 33 remaining protestors. The train line was soon built on the old Highway 55 route, to the west.
The next corner east isa depressing wasteland: a burnt-out Arby’s and the incinerated Third Precinct Station. The heavily damaged Cub Foods and Target, like most chains, are being quickly rebuilt without much impact on stockholders. Next we pass the devastated library, more shops, many still boarded up, a few small office buildings, a pile of bricks that was a Latino-owned nightclub, and a shelter owned by Volunteers of America that once functioned as in-house detention for peace protestors. The eastern-most blocks before you cross the Mississippi are rapidly becoming whiter and wealthier, with new condos and upscale restaurants.
This walk down Lake Street reminds me of what’s been lost, not just in May, but over decades; and of what remains. What potential, for good or ill, lies before us? Some of the arson was obviously targeted and pre-planned. Four drug stores were emptied of their drugs and then burned or heavily vandalized. Someone had that scheme in mind and pressed the go button as soon as social media spread word of the chaos. Target, Cub Foods and several smaller grocery stores were so damaged that they closed for months, creating a food and pharmacy desert for poor people in the adjoining neighborhoods.
Migizi Communications, a beloved youth-serving Native American nonprofit that also housed an irreplaceable collection of Indigenous art, was burned to the ground. One of the few large-scale affordable housing developments, just weeks from completion, was torched. Gandhi Mahal, an East Indian restaurant owned by a forward-thinking and community-minded entrepreneur who made the place home for garden and cooking classes, is now ashes. The library won’t be rebuilt until spring 2021 at the earliest, and two branch post offices were destroyed.
A week after the troubles, I was reminded of the loss of public infrastructure when I drove miles searching for a post box to mail a birthday card. The post office temporarily removed all corner boxes anywhere near possible trouble. A surreal inconvenience for me but for folks missing mailed medications and essential documents, a real hardship. Gone are the Dollar Stores, several auto parts stores (I could smell burning rubber for days), and dozens of small family-owned businesses. Many are underinsured and could not even afford demolition costs.As the riot spread, shop-keepers hastily boarded their windows and scrawled “Owned by POC” hoping to get a pass from the fire bugs. We still don’t know why some buildings were ignored and others destroyed.
The Art of Lake Street
Lake Street, in all its funky prairie-flat homeliness, is a cultural as well as commercial corridor. The Lake Street Review (1968-1984) featured poets, some of national reputation, and social commentary. Wing Young Hui, an award-winning photographer, launched a four-year 675 photo project documenting life on Lake Street. It was democratically displayed in storefronts and bus shelters.(https://www.wingyounghuie.com/lakestreetusa). Kevin Kling’s hilarious one-man play 21A, the Lake Street bus route number, made it to Off Broadway. Cori Lin produced a watercolor exhibition, “What We Feed Ourselves,” featuring the foods served up by Lake Street eateries. The street inspired poems by James Wright and local icon Roy McBride. The street spawned a retro-funk band, The Lake Street Dive, and a fiction anthology by a local writer’s group, Lake Street Stories(https://www.flexiblepub.com/lakestreetstories).Editor Bill Burleson’s introduction to that journal provides a much funnier tour of Lake Street than mine.
Floyd’s death has inspired poetry, visual art, music and dance. Artists will help shape the legacy and future of Lake Street, mourning the losses, and painting its future in sonnet, song and sculpture.(https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/crying-laughing-crying-at-the-george-floyd-protests-in-minneapolis) (https://minnesotareformer.com/2020/06/08/minneapolis-the-city-of-lakes-becomes-the-city-of-murals/)
The Aftermath: Tents and Trouble
The smoke hadn’t yet cleared when dozens of homeless people who slept on or near Lake Street made their way to the Sheridan Hotel near Chicago and Lake .Homeless advocates had been considering the hotel, which was failing as a result of the pandemic, as a shelter site. As fires threatened a nearby encampment, organizers persuaded the owner to rent most of the rooms with money they had quickly raised. The 10-day experiment dissolved in a poisoned stew of drug dealing, sex traffic, and an overdose death. Activists closed what had been dubbed The Sanctuary and the unsheltered left. Most headed south two blocks to establish a large encampment, eventually 400 tents and almost 600 people in nearby Powderhorn Park. Smaller encampments sprang up in parks across the city. (“The Sanctuary” by Wes Enzinna https://harpers.org/archive/2020/10/the-sanctuary-sheraton-minneapolis/.)
The Park Board initially declared a dozen city parks as sanctuaries. The progressive neighbors around Powderhorn and sanctuary activists tried to help, but the density of people, increasing crime, and lack of infrastructure eventually wore out all but a few. Five weeks later, the Park Board announced that the Powderhorn encampment would be closed and began work with nonprofits serving the homeless to move some of the unsheltered to shelters, hotel rooms, or other smaller encampments. The final eviction of those who didn’t want to leave was ugly, a reminder that we still rely on the State when community fails or is overwhelmed.(https://theappeal.org/minneapolis-homelessness-crisis-powderhorn-park-encampment/)
The pandemic is the backdrop to this tragedy. The Governor ended the Stay-at-Home order May 18; it was still very quiet until Mr. Floyd died one week later.(He survived COVID but not the Minneapolis Police Department.)The shutdown had ravaged many of the small businesses along Lake Street. The library was closed for two months before it was sacked. The street already had a ghostly neglected vibe. Now parts of it look like Syria.
What Is To Be Done?
The insurrection propelled the work of police reform to front stage. Two fairly new organizations, Black Visions and Reclaim the Block (https://www.reclaimtheblock.org/home), had been lobbying the City Council to defund the police department and create a new department of public safety. Suddenly, what seemed like a long-haul crusade and perhaps a pipe dream gained enormous attention.
At a June 7 community meeting in Powderhorn Park, 10 of the then 12 City Council members (one seat was vacant pending a special election), mostly young and progressive, vowed to defund the police department. The defund movement, sometimes inaccurately and confusingly referred to as the abolish movement, seeks to replace the existing police department with a Department of Public Safety, redirecting a significant portion of the police budget to prevention and intervention services. Perhaps some number of armed police would remain. The details are fuzzy.) Their announcement shocked most observers and blind-sided many activist organizations including Black Lives Matter, Communities United for Police Reform, and Justice 4 Jamar, all of which had been organizing around their own police reform agendas for much longer.(https://www.minnpost.com/metro/2020/07/what-to-do-about-the-mpd-how-three-activist-groups-are-rethinking-public-safety/)
In less than a week Minneapolis was again front-page news across the globe, fodder for Trump and the right who blasted Democratic leaders for failure in the law and order department and for promoting a radical Antifa agenda. I can assert with great conviction that no member of the City Council, not the Mayor nor the Governor, associate with Antifa. If they could even find it, or them.
Black Visions and Reclaim the Block had been pushing a charter proposal to defund the police department. Without a public hearing, the Council forwarded to the Charter Commission (an appointed body) a defund amendment to be placed on the November ballot. A few hastily organized online hearings revealed a divided public, and the commission declined to put the charter on the ballot.(https://www.courthousenews.com/minneapolis-plan-to-overhaul-police-delayed-to-2021/)
Young and relatively untested, beleaguered Mayor Jacob Frey resisted the defund demand and instead made the suggestion that the City conduct a year of hearings, listening sessions, and study to determine what to do. He was met by a small but furious crowd in front of his home demanding that he join the call to defund. His tired refusal earned him curses. Since then we haven’t heard much from him.
We haven’t heard much from our City Council either. Although they promised a process similar to what Frey suggested, only one underpublicized public hearing has been held. Several council members have quietly and awkwardly walked back their pledge under pressure, most recently in response to a New York Times reporter.(https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/26/us/politics/minneapolis-defund-police.htmlCouncil ) President Lisa Bender, in an October 12 interview with WCCO Reporter Reg Chapman, defended the Powderhorn pledge, while mostly deflecting questions about what the Council is doing to respond to rising crime. (https://minnesota.cbslocal.com/video/4783657-full-interview-mpls-city-council-president-lisa-bender-talks-to-wcco/)
I find online hearings of the Public Safety Committee hard to find and access. When I inquired at my Council Member’s office, his aide suggested joining his Facebook page and getting on the mailing list for the neighborhood group. (https://lims.minneapolismn.gov/Calendar/citycouncil/upcoming/PHS) Often the meetings are announced on NextDoor (https://nextdoor.com), other social media sites. Concerned citizens have to search for opportunities to be heard as they are not broadly announced.
The rampaging elephant in the reform room is Bob Kroll, head of the Minneapolis Police Officers Federation. Officials of other unions have called for his removal, and the Chief of Police Medaria Arradondo has called a halt to contract negotiations. (https://workdayminnesota.org/unions-are-calling-on-bob-kroll-to-resign/) No significant reform will move forward without a reckoning with the union and its pugnacious leader.
The air is thick with recrimination, fear and confusion. The only policy change resulting from Floyd’s murder to date is a ban on chokeholds. While it’s a relief to know that public employees are no longer authorized to strangle citizens, it’s clearly not an adequate response to what happened on May 25 or what has happened on streets in Minneapolis and Everywhere Else USA for decades.
Our elected leaders seem inept and paralyzed. The most committed activists are still on the ground, pushing their various and conflicting agendas, but there’s no broad coalition, no widely-accepted list of demands. Many of us live in dread, wondering not if but when it’ll happen again. (897 US citizens killed by police to date in2020. https://mappingpoliceviolence.org)August 23: Jacob Blake in Kenosha Wisconsin; October 3: Jonathan Price in Wolf City, Oct 28 Kevin Peterson, Jr. Hazel Dell, Washington, Oct 31 Walter Wallace Jr., West Philadelphia. May-Aug: approximately 17 per week.)
As of this writing, the election still hovers like an ambiguous poltergeist, promising relief, doom or indefinite chaos. If Biden makes it through the chaotic tangle of lawsuits and survives the conservative majority Supreme Court, he will govern a citizenry at near civil war polarization. Even those skeptical of significant change under Biden considered a vote for him an imperative harm-reduction strategy. Black Lives Matter, at the national level, collaborated with Rock the Vote. Black Visions, locally, got grant funding to conduct Got-Out-The-Vote activities amongst its young base. Black Votes Matter is a significant presence in some cities, and dozens of younger, multi-identified groups called and texted their communities for voters.
Turnout in Minnesota was strong but the state is still frighteningly red, as is the country. With a GOP State Senate majority, police reform at the state level is unlikely.
A Gardener’s Perspective
All summer, I looked for a way to contribute and make common cause with those working to repair our community. Along with my adult kids and teenaged grandchild, I turned out with broom and dustpan to help clean up the rubble on Lake Street. Some buildings were still smoldering three days after the looters and the Guard left. We didn’t accomplish much but the sense of camaraderie with thousands of others who showed up was an encouraging episode. I gave some money, donated some food, attended confusing Zoom meetings and forced myself to help with get-out-the-vote calling.
Then I started talking to my fellow Master Gardeners (trained volunteers who provide garden expertise under the auspices of their county and university extension,(programhttps://hennepinmastergardeners.org).We’d planted community and school gardens ) hoping the pandemic restrictions would be lifted so we might garden with kids or elders by mid-summer. We found ourselves growing veggies, fruits and herbs with no kids or families to help harvest and cook. The University Extension agreed to let Master Gardeners who pledged to observe strict protocols, harvest and clean crops. Other volunteers delivered the bounty to others who then packaged small weekly gifts of fresh food for elders living in public housing and to Eat for Equity, an organization that provides a week’s worth of pre-cooked meals for anyone who asks.(https://eatforequity.org) By September’s end, we delivered over a ton of fresh local food.
My spiritual practice is digging in the dirt. Digging and harvesting to aid others was useful. But, without better leadership from those we elected, or clearer, more united calls to action from grassroots leaders, small scale mutual aid efforts are all we have. Winter is upon us and with it a sabbatical from garden labor. Time to talk, think, Zoom and, perhaps by spring, the leaders will lead, or new ones may emerge. Together, perhaps, we’ll clear a path out of the rubble.