As a Black man who lived through the ’60s I know this: destroying your community won’t bring justice

Peaceful demonstrations against the police for the killing of George Floyd turned to looting and fires across Minneapolis on the night of May 27, 2020. Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer

George Floyd’s killing demanded protest. 

Minneapolis Police Department officers Derek Chauvin and his accomplices Thomas Lane, Tou Thao, and J. Alexander Kuengsworn — since fired and charged with crimes — were entrusted not to selectively protect and serve but respectfully safeguard all.

The Floyd killing continued a history black folk have had up to our eyeballs. Never mind constant racial profiling and routine police brutality. Minneapolis’s finest have sent five men to their graves over the past decade and that’s not counting George Floyd. They were David Smith, suffocated in 2010; Terrance Franklin, shot in 2013; Jamar Clark, shot in 2015 and Thurman Blevins and Travis Jordan shot in 2018, June and November, respectively. 

All the officers involved in those homicides were exonerated of any wrongdoing by the law, and yet Smith’s family was awarded $3 million, Franklin’s $795,000 and Clark’s $200,000. In fact, the only MPD officer successfully prosecuted was Somali rookie Mohamed Noor, who shot Justine Damond, a white woman whose family was awarded more than twice all the other victims’ families put together — $20,000,000. And yes, that’s the right amount of zeros.

Rev. Jerry McAfee of New Salem Baptist Church told me last year that it was time for Minneosta to get exposure for “some of the stuff that’s been happening in Minnesota, [which] is viewed by so many as this extra-progressive kind of deal, but we [as African Americans] know better.”

And have known better for a long, long time. Accordingly, the circumstance of George Floyd’s being killed was particularly galling. The man was subdued, handcuffed and pinned to the asphalt while Chauvin, a big, white cop, knelt on his neck as Floyd gasped that he could not breathe. 

Chauvin clearly had no reason to fear for his own safety and ignored Floyd’s distress. 

Mylan Masson who worked as a police officer for 20 years and ran police training for the state of Minnesota at Hennepin Technical College until 2016, says the Minneapolis Police Department Policy and Procedure Manual, allows a knee into the shoulder blades as a restraint tactic. Most certainly not the neck. 

Masson told me: “As soon as you hear somebody can’t breathe, you need to ask for medical attention, change your positioning to see what’s going on.” 

Derek Chauvin did no such thing. 

So, yes, there was a strident outcry and vehement protest, and it was necessary.  

But it’s another thing to respond to injustice by resorting to wholesale lawlessness.

Especially since, for once, the process of police accountability was at least beginning to proceed. 

Chief Medaria Arradondo — who as a lieutenant joined other officers in suing the MPD for racial discrimination and a hostile work place — immediately gave Chauvin, Lane, Thao, and Kueng their walking papers. 

Mayor Jacob Frey called for Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman to bring charges against Chauvin, saying: “Why is the man who killed George Floyd not in jail? If you had done it, or I had done it, we would be behind bars right now.” Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison rendered all that moot, stepping in to handle the prosecution himself.

All this was eclipsed by three nights of rioting. 

Social protest turned to wanton and opportunistic pillage. Leaving the station house parking lot, people moved down Lake Street, all Hell literally breaking loose. Nearby Hook and Ladder Theater and Lounge and East Lake Street Library were trashed along with auto shops and pizza shops and, from there, any and every building in their path. For miles. 

The chaos headed to Uptown, spread down Nicollet Mall’s Eat Street and destroyed businesses in-between. Fires were set. By the next morning, more than 50 structures were demolished, damaged or burned down. Looters helped themselves to inventory at stores.

It was no longer about George Floyd. It wasn’t about what his and the other deaths at the hands of law enforcement meant to the community. In fact, it was not in the least about anything that concerned the community. The community was the last thing on anybody’s mind. When Hi Lake Liquor, Chicago-Lake Liquor, Minnehaha Liquor and Elevated Beer Wine & Spirits are all looted, what community, what priority, is that about? 

Looting Target and Cub Foods on Lake Street stole affordable food out of kids’ mouths. Dollar Tree off Lake Street — another casualty — was a godsend, even if the current health crisis had put you out of work you could still stretch a buck well enough to help out around the house. With pharmacies gone, where will people get their medicine?

God knows how many small shops already reeling from the COVID-19 crisis were then robbed and likely closed for good. The affordable housing development under construction at Lake Street and Hiawatha Avenue was torched, left in ruins. So much for people desperately needing a place to live where they could pay the rent. Not to mention the jobs lost at Target, Dollar Tree and all those other stores. No, this wasn’t about Floyd, community or anything else but vandalism, arson and stealing, plain and simple.

By the afternoon of May 28, restaurants and taprooms that had been operating only as take out during the pandemic simply shut down altogether. Gas stations, coffee shops, CVS, the Post Offices, you name it, were boarding up the doors and windows. Light rail and buses, which already were on redued schedules, ceased operation. If you still had a job and didn’t drive, you were walking to work — if your job was still there.

This was not a group of courageously outraged citizens making a statement, but a mindless mob committing crimes against businesses and, importantly, their own people. As for the talk of out-of-town offenders, they did not force folk who live here to do anything they didn’t already feel like doing.

I’m a Black man who lived through the riot plagued 60’s and, can say first hand, history feels like it’s repeating itself. 

I’ll acknowledge that the unrest in the 60s wound up forcing the hand of the white establishment. Colleges threw open their doors with full scholarship programs through organizations like the Higher Education Opportunity Program, which financed my theatre degree at Long Island University. 

But then the backlash came. Richard Nixon was elected on a law-and-order platform. And not long after we dismantled Jim Crow through peaceful protest, they launched the war on drugs and ramped up incarceration of Black men to levels never seen before. 

Doesn’t look like much was learned since the ’60s. Trashing our own communities that now we have to rebuild. Giving an unpopular president who may have been on his way to defeat a path to a law-and-order campaign like Nixon. 

Showing yet again, what entrenched, institutionalized racism doesn’t do to hold us back and keep us down, we surely will do to ourselves.