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Let This Radicalize Us: After the Minneapolis Uprising

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George Floyd's last words, as protest grafitti, Minneapolis. Photo by Kate Derickson.

I’ve never lived through a sustained uprising for abolition – until last week. The other protests, demonstrations, and occupations I’ve been a part of, righteous and at times explosive though they were, seemed to have a slow and plodding effect on the broader public, changing discourses, entering demands to the record, resulting in reforms of various weights. In an uprising, though, the terrain shifts fast under your feet. I could have predicted the particular combination of unrest and euphoria that smells, it turns out, like a police precinct burning, but I didn’t anticipate the rumors. Or the electric feeling that people get when our collective imagination cracks wide open, and together the previously unthinkable becomes thought. “We are going to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department” the city council president tweeted on June 4th. All credit to the abolitionists – women of color in particular – who have been chopping the wood, arranging the kindling, and tending to every single spark. I only hope the rest of us can give this fire the space and time it needs to burn.

The protests in Minneapolis started Tuesday, May 26th, in front of Cup Foods on 38th and Chicago in the Southside of Minneapolis. This was the site where, a day earlier, a police officer murdered George Floyd by suffocating him to death in broad daylight as onlookers begged him to stop. The plan was for a socially distant protest at the site of the murder, with a long march to the 3rd precinct of the Minneapolis Police Department. It was a hot day and for many people it was the first time being out in public, never mind a crowd, in months. On Tuesday evening the cops antagonized protesters, and by Wednesday night the fires and rioting started. By Thursday night the 3rd precinct of the Minneapolis Police Department was taken over by protestors in spectacular fashion.

My friend Kevin Ehrman-Solberg told me that this radicalized him in ways that he could not have imagined, saying “when the 3rd precinct was taken, that seemed so unprecedented to me, that it compelled me to do things that were, for me, unprecedented.” The next night he was shot with a rubber bullet by the Minnesota National Guard as fires blazed around him while he guarded the Midtown Sanctuary, the appropriated former Sheraton franchise that is now a shelter for the unhoused

But it might be Saturday, May 30th that radicalized mainstream Minneapolis. Residents who weren’t out in the streets on Friday night woke up to a city still smoldering on Saturday. At the intersection of Lake Street and Minnehaha Avenue, hundreds of people gathered to clean up and establish mutual aid sites for the residents who had been impacted by the fires, now in a food and transportation desert. At least 100 people pushed brooms in front of the office of Migizi, an organization that serves Native youth, and in front of Ghandi Mahal, a beloved Indian restaurant whose owner had said of the property destruction during the uprising, “Let my building burn, justice needs to be served.” Next door, people handed buckets of rubble to one another from a US Post Office still on fire. Smoke continued to pour from the 3rd precinct and flames flickered in adjacent buildings. Protest marshals directed traffic. The state (in its various guises) was nowhere to be seen on a sunny Saturday afternoon in Minneapolis.

Minneapolis is a city inextricably made through a long history of racialized exclusion, a ferociously racist police force, a white supremacist police union boss, a devastating educational opportunity gap, and, as Rashad Shabazz points out, a history of revolutionary protest and occupation. As my colleague Aren Aizura details in his piece for The New Inquiry, “A Mask and a Target,” the relationship of the neighborhood around the precinct to the business district and the police department that surveilled it was uneasy, so much so that no one here wondered why people would burn “their community.” (Whatever impoverished idea of community would include a Target?) But Minneapolis is also a place that scores high on every livability index, and has been dubbed by Atlantic magazine a “miracle” of urban development. In other words, weather aside, it is a delightful place to live – if you’re white.

So the feeling of being abandoned by the state is unfamiliar to white Minneapolitans, who make up 60 percent of the city. Rumors began to fly on Saturday that the “Boogaloo Boys” – far right extremists – were targeting Minneapolis and that white supremacists were behind some of the widespread arson on Friday night. Credible first-hand accounts of men with assault weapons at protests, trucks all over the city with license plates removed, people taking pictures of Black Lives Matter signs in yards, and eventually pictures of accelerants left in alleys  like piles of wood and dried out Christmas trees circulated on social media and in group texts. It was hard to know what to believe. At one point the local news reported that my neighborhood library was on fire, which was not true – at another point, someone texted me that the KKK was marching in our neighborhood in full regalia, also not true. Residents organized at the block level in majority-white neighborhoods and diverse neighborhoods to practice community defense. There were two nights, Saturday and Sunday, where it seemed clear that if you called the police or fire department, they probably wouldn’t come. Feeling threatened by heightened white supremacist violence and abandoned by the police was a new feeling for most white Minneapolitans.

Meanwhile, Twin Cities mayors Jacob Frey and Melvin Carter and Minnesota Governor Tim Walz were falsely claiming that no one arrested was from the either city and that most of the arson was done by “outside agitators” not from Minnesota. This story might have dominated cable news, but in the neighborhoods of Minneapolis it was a red herring; the people I spoke with weren’t afraid of the rioters, but they were afraid of white supremacists, no matter where they were from. The “outside” that was being tentatively constructed was not geographical, it was political – there was a collective “we” being mobilized at the block level that included rioters, while the “outside” was made up of those not in solidarity with the uprising, not in solidarity with justice for George Floyd (even as what "justice" means remains undefined). The outside included the police.

Many observers not in Minneapolis raised concerns that the “outside agitator” narrative has a history of distracting from police violence, undermining support for the uprising, delegitimizing the rage that fueled property destruction, and centering white experiences. I think this was true in this case too. But I also think what’s been lost in some of the remote analysis is the way in which people were practicing abolition through community defense. Of course, this is messy as hell. Some neighborhoods were actively organizing to protect residents that had been targeted or were afraid they’d be targeted by white supremacist violence. Some were just protecting their own house, and some were practicing a reactionary form of vigilantism. My white neighbor, who is a therapist, told me she’d been reflecting on why she felt so attached to the idea that it was white supremacists we were protecting ourselves and each other against, even though the landscape felt so murky. I think it is because during those long nights, new subjectivities were formed, and the grammar of the social order was suspended, allowing arrangements to be newly sensed, new forms of solidarities to be detected. These tentative arrangements repositioned the police as not on “our” side.

There are so many stories to tell about the Minneapolis Uprising – from the front lines, from the streets, from inside the 3rd precinct, from the jail support mobilizations, from the mutual aid sites, from the achingly beautiful memorial to George Floyd in front of Cup Foods, from the occupation of the 4th precinct in 2017 after the murder of Jamar Clark, and from the organizing meetings before May 25th that made the last two weeks possible. Why tell a story about majority white neighborhoods? Because, as Cornel West has pointed out, this is a rebellion, not (yet) a revolution; but it might be the start of one  It shouldn’t center the nascent abolitionist inclinations of white people, but it should exploit them. 

During a supply run for the Midtown Sanctuary last week, my 10-year-old kid took in the scene on Lake Street for the first time – the husks of buildings, the boarded-up storefronts, and the street art and said, “You know what I think, mom?  In two years this will all be condos.”  I could see what he was seeing, a pattern of disaster capitalism and urban development so familiar even a semi-disinterested little kid could predict it. But on the way to an appropriated hotel, with a car full of hot meals from a trendy seafood restaurant, I could feel something he wasn’t feeling – what Saidiya Hartman calls the subjunctive, “a grammatical mood that expresses doubts, wishes and possibilities” infusing the everyday life of Minneapolis. I could see it in the defeated posture of Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey’s long slow walk out of a recent protest as he was jeered and booed for saying he did not want to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department. What if…? 

It is not inevitable that this will lead to abolition, but it might. One week ago, the Minneapolis Public Schools divested from the Minneapolis Police Department after years of activism by students of color to stop the school to prison pipeline.  This felt impossible two weeks ago and now it is done. With apologies to Mariame Kaba, the abolitionist who wrote the mantra “Let this radicalize you, rather than lead you to despair,” the pressing question on my mind is, how can we let this radicalize white Minneapolitans? How can we develop ways of knowing about riots, uprising and revolutions that can accompany, as my friend Adam Bledsoe put it, the process of radicalization? Let us be curious about how the uprising has changed people, and maybe radicalized them. Let us fan the flames of revolution with optimism, hope, and solidarity.

Kate Derickson is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography, Environment & Society and Director of the Urban Studies Program at the University of Minnesota