I started my 10-mile walk through
Minneapolis at one end of the now-infamous Lake Street, the commercial corridor
that stretches east-west through South Minneapolis, from the Mississippi River
on one side to a pair of lakes on the other: Lake of the Isles, and a body formerly
called Lake Calhoun but now known by its original Dakota name, Bde Maka Ska.
Lake Street comprises the hearts of several Minneapolis neighborhoods—Longfellow,
Midtown, Powderhorn, and Uptown. It also embodies a history of immigrant
resolve and capitalist pluck that is not only Minnesotan but
characteristically American. If you wanted to find a single thoroughfare to
represent the middle-class American dream of hard work justly rewarded, you
could do far worse than Lake Street.
Exactly one week earlier, George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man, was killed about a mile south of here, in what to every appearance was an execution by cops. It was, as a good deal of the world knows by now, far from an isolated incident. In 2015, the police shooting death of Jamar Clark, 24, triggered 18 days of protest in Minneapolis. Philando Castile, a black school cafeteria worker, was killed by a suburban Minneapolis cop during a routine traffic stop in 2016. George Floyd’s killer, Officer Derek Chauvin, had 18 complaints filed about his conduct on the job—only two of which resulted in letters of discipline. What will ultimately happen to the four cops responsible for Floyd’s killing will likely hinge on the legal nuance of whether they are found to have acted out of vile malice or mere diabolical impunity.
As with cities throughout the country, Minneapolis’s history of police violence tracks a broader segmentation of income and opportunity along a racial divide. Minneapolis has long been home to a high-wage manufacturing base—albeit a deeply segregated one. Decades of deindustrialization and financialization have hollowed out that center, which has meant an increase in racialized policing for petty offenses, of the sort that Floyd had been accused of committing. Of course, there followed an accompanying spike in racialized police violence.
That history is now on tragic display on Lake Street. The cops responsible for Floyd’s death all hailed professionally from the Minneapolis Third Police Precinct, which sits (or rather, sat, prior to being set ablaze and occupied by protesters) near the longitudinal center of Lake Street. That’s why Lake Street (and more specifically, its Target store) became a target in the early days of the series of protests, confrontations, and—sure—riots that have since spread to the country at large. And from there, events have cropped up in countries such as England, Denmark, New Zealand, and Japan and provoked commentary from the likes of China and Iran. Overnight, George Floyd has become an international symbol of racist police violence and oppression. It’s not too early to announce that the apotheosis of George Floyd—to echo Elizabeth Hardwick’s classic essay of narrative literary reportage, “The Apotheosis of Martin Luther King”—already stands as the most radical and rapid case of such a transformation in living memory.
On the far side of the Mississippi, Lake Street becomes Marshall Avenue, and the bridge between the two is known as the Lake Street-Marshall Bridge. In 2007, I lived just on the other side of that bridge, and sometimes I biked across what is an entirely unremarkable span above America’s most mythical arterial waterway. I’d been told that in the last few days the bridge had been watched at night by a menacing National Guard presence. Presumably, this was an effort—unsuccessful, it turns out—to prevent rioting and looting from spreading into Saint Paul, the more genteel of the Twin Cities. When I arrived at 5 p.m. Monday, however, the bridge was open, at least partly, and the action was limited to a few Black Lives Matter protesters on a corner. They waved signs and cheered as passing drivers honked in solidarity.
The east side of Lake Street had remained mostly untouched by any destruction related to the protests. The only apparent damage here was self-inflicted: business owners hastily attaching sheets of plywood and particleboard to their windows. They used spray paint and large markers to spell out “Black Lives Matter” or “Justice for George,” either in an effort to demonstrate sympathy with an understandable rage or in an attempt to inspire looters to pause and reflect on what their true motives might be, exactly. Other signs and tags were addressed to abstract audiences: “We <3 U Mpls,” “We Love You South Minneapolis,” “We Love Lake Street.” It was as though they understood that a riot is never the expression of an individual mind and thereby sought to attach themselves to the community writ large.
A bit further west, I stopped at a pub called Merlin’s Rest, open for pints at a handful of outdoor tables. I met three white men who, once they decided I was a trustworthy reporter, related a few anecdotes that weren’t dramatic enough to have cracked the cable news schedule. A white dude in full camo and a balaclava was seen right here in this neighborhood abandoning a vehicle stuffed with logs soaked in gasoline. The makeshift bomb never went off. Other improvised incendiary devices had been discovered and reported to police. There were pictures. And they also spoke of the case of the man driving a semi-and-trailer rig. Not the guy on the Interstate 35 bridge—that was yesterday, ancient history—but a different driver, who sped his rig down a residential street and crowded four bicyclists, clipping one of them. There was a police report, I was told. The men insisted that they were not suggesting that much of the Minneapolis violence had been the work of outside agitators. Still, they asked whether I really thought it was possible that looters and rioters enraged about the death of George Floyd would have had the foresight to prepare complicated explosive mechanisms. Let’s just say, they said, that local folks had gotten good, really fast, at spotting cars with no license plates lurking around their neighborhoods.
One of the men I spoke with was Dan Timlin, lifelong Midwesterner, resident of the Twin Cities since 1992. Timlin described the Minneapolis Moline tractor factory that for years had dominated the landscape of the part of Lake Street now hit hardest by looting and burning. For Timlin, the saddest part was that one of the last standing buildings of the factory—which employed thousands who lived in the cute tree-lined bungalow neighborhoods that flanked Lake Street to the north and south—had been destroyed, along with the Hexagon Bar, a landmark music venue that was the last of a whole string of neighborhood pubs that catered to the factory workers.
Further west, the entrepreneurial history of Lake Street included a factory for a now-discontinued shaving product, Burma Shave; a handful of up-from-the-bootstraps shops; and a lodge of the Sons of Norway, launched in 1895 as a cultural center and morphing over time into a life insurance company. Not all of these landmarks were destroyed. And it would be remiss to herald all these old Lake Street businesses without noting, again, that the successes they and their employees enjoyed were not realized by everyone. You can’t dream the American dream if, like many in communities in Minnesota and elsewhere that are disadvantaged by systemic racism, you don’t have time to sleep. It’s surely too much to read a critique of the dream into the looters’ motives, but it would be equally in error to fail to recognize any selectivity in what they burned.
Walgreens, for example. And Foot Locker. And pawn shops. And auto parts outlets. Box stores, predatory lenders, chair retailers for parts of leisure items that many covet but go without. What was left inside every burned building I passed was a tangled scaffold of what had been shelves, and girders so bent by the heat they looked like the looping turns of a roller-coaster ride. The black char was so complete it was like looking through a portal into a dark new dimension. Sometimes, a puff of smoke from some unseen ember would lift itself up, and in the opened cavities of the structures’ floors, you could hear water gushing—water mains that had ruptured and were still far too treacherous to staunch.
As the sun began to approach the horizon, there were still others out walking, running, exercising their dogs, or, like me, observing and bearing witness to the aftermath. But soon the mood shifted, and an On the Beach–style atmosphere of eerie abandonment came to prevail. People walked slowly, looking, saying little. A woman outside the crumpled Third Precinct held aloft a sign: “Racist Pigs.” Across from her, a group of neighborhood organizers were having a meeting about how to handle the coming evening: They cheered when a caravan of police and National Guard vehicles trundled past.
To walk through the city that day was to acquire a new vocabulary in code, scrawled on walls, on signs, in chalk on the pavement, on utility boxes, on anything that might serve as a canvas or document. “BLM”—Black Lives Matter. “FTP”—Fuck the Police. “Fuck 12”—12 is police code for a narcotics officer. “ACAB”—All Cops Are Bastards. More often, I didn’t need a glossary: “RIP George,” even just “George,” spelled in huge letters on the back of an abandoned bulldozer. And now, the tags that were intended as direct messages to looters became more plaintive: “People Live Here,” “Kids upstairs! Don’t burn!”
I continued west. After sunset, the police and Guard patrols increased, and several helicopters set about monitoring the city from as much as a mile up, hovering so high you had to strain to hear the fluorescent light buzz of their propellers. I passed a man at a street corner who had for hours been holding a sign that read “Hold Them Accountable.” He lowered the cardboard at last, and told two friends he was knocking off for the day. It was growing dark quickly.
Curfew had been changed from 8 p.m, the night before, to 10 p.m. tonight. The streets were deserted well before then. I kept going, all the way to the end of Lake Street, and then south from there. The police-and-National-Guard caravan passed me several times, along with several solo police vehicles, their emergency lights set to a slow eternal twirl. One officer called out, “Past curfew!” but he didn’t even hit his brakes as he rolled by. And this may be all I hope to illustrate for you in this awkward, rambling account of wandering abroad into a landscape where I had no business. At the very least, I should have been arrested. And if I had been black, I most certainly would have been—and likely worse.
It was two miles back to where Floyd
had been killed. Groups of neighbors who had gathered at corners to protect
local businesses offered me water and told me to stay safe.
I would guess (very roughly) that there were 1,500 people gathered at Chicago and 38th. There was no apparent racial majority among them. The entire intersection was, and likely will remain, a shrine. Those gathered listened to impassioned speakers and practiced chants: “We Can’t Breathe!” and “Hands up! Don’t Shoot” and, most affectingly, “Say His Name! George Floyd!” It would be wrong to deny that there was something performative about it all—and perhaps there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a world of sound bites and GIFs, and we all struggle for stray ounces of attention and relevance. The media was out in force. I observed a number of interviews in progress. A young black woman with a cell phone aimed at her told a livestream audience, “To all you white people out there scared that violence will result from all of these protests? Well, now you know what it’s like to be black in America.”
There was a scare around midnight when it looked like the police might come storming down Chicago Avenue to enforce the curfew. There was a struggle to keep people organized, and the many gathered photographers were thrilled to step out in front of a makeshift wall constructed from wooden pallets, to snap images of protesters—both white and black—who shook their fists and chanted at nothing in the distance. When the scare was revealed to be a false alarm, several of the photographers—geared up as though to assault Troy—gathered to peek in at one another’s images and chat. “How’s your Covid going, dude?” “Great, but access is a bitch.” “Whoa, look at that! Great work, Ben!” “I’m supposed to be taking pictures for some writer’s book, but I don’t know.…”
I took a seat for a time on a stray chair—I was seven miles into my evening. A black woman approached me, one of the activist organizers, emboldened by the evening’s atmosphere of conviviality among strangers. She sat down immediately beside me. Covid-19 felt as far away as the moon. Apropos of nothing—I asked her no questions—she said, “What’s happening here isn’t about black and white, it’s about right and wrong. Because what happened here could have been my child. Could have been your child. Everybody’s child. It’s not right.”
A quarrel among some of the activists distracted her. She rushed off to quell the dispute. “Don’t give them what they want! That’s exactly what they want! Us fighting amongst ourselves.”
I walked back behind the wall, stepped my way through spirals of bouquets arranged on the asphalt to where George Floyd had died. His chalk outline had now been reimagined as a full body portrait, outfitted with an angel’s wings. In a week’s time, the entire world has come to chant the name of an anonymous man, a man known only for general congeniality and (now) for a single act of alleged petty theft. At first glance, this might make George Floyd seem like an unworthy recipient of a hastily enacted mass canonization. But that misses the point. It is precisely in his ordinariness, precisely because he may be flawed as you or I are flawed, that he first proved to be a suitable embodiment of the message of the movement that adopted him. And now he carries aloft a message for the entire world. George Floyd is not the name of a special man or an accomplished or remarkable man, but it is the name of an everyman. And if every man can ascend so quickly, by dint of death or sacrifice, then perhaps age-old legends of freedom and promised lands and American dreams can still be made to ring true. Perhaps every life really can matter.
I had three miles more to go, along dark streets. Lake Street was entirely abandoned now, and it was only here that I recalled my most important encounter of the day, which I barely took note of as it happened. Near the Third Precinct, I had been tailing a film crew from the PBS News Hour as they were trying and failing to find anyone willing to speak on camera. They passed a group of four—two activists and a mother and child. After they moved on, I listened to the mother try to explain to her son what was happening, what they were looking at, where they were.
“This is where the bad police officers worked,” the mother said, pointing. “It’s where they worked. And they were bad.”
“It doesn’t feel like Minneapolis,” the boy said.
“You’re right. I know.”
“They were bad?”
“They were very bad. Not all police officers are bad. These were some bad ones, but there were probably good ones who worked here, too. Is it confusing?”
“It’s OK,” the mother said. “Adults are confused, too.”
Hours later, I kept walking toward a comfortable home where a warm room and a bed awaited me. It was 3 a.m. Lake Street was desolate, but not like a battle site; it was desolate in the way that purgatory is supposed to be. Then, almost at the same moment, I heard music, and I saw a half-naked man sprawled across the sidewalk 40 yards in front of me, as though dead. The music was someone playing a recorder, nothing fancy, some kind of easy-listening sonata. The man did not move. I put on my face mask again. I approached and got close enough to see the rise and fall of his bare belly. I listened to the music, and resisted the impulse to lie down beside him, and fall asleep.