I was an organizer in Minneapolis for years. This moment was a long time coming
On Memorial Day, four Minneapolis police officers — Derek Chauvin, Tou Thao, Thomas K. Lane, and J. Alexander Keung — responded to a call on the city’s south side. There, officers handcuffed and brought George Floyd, a Black man, to the ground. Bystander video of the incident shows Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds until he died. In response, Minneapolis ignited with protests, as demonstrators even reclaimed — then burned — Minneapolis’ 3rd police precinct building, where each of the four officers worked. Protests have since spread across the country, with cities like Los Angeles, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., seeing their own demonstrations. To many, this is the beginning of a revolution, all spurred by what seems like an unassuming city.
Let’s face it: Minneapolis doesn’t invoke images of a Black city. I know because I was born and raised in Minnesota. I organized in Minneapolis for years, including co-founding the now-defunct Black Liberation Project, a grassroots collective of Black youth. As someone from Minneapolis, I get a lot of jokey comments from people when they meet me, like “Oh, they’ve got Black people up there?” For a major city, Minneapolis is tiny, with a population of under 450,000. Just less than 20% of those people are Black.
But over the past week, Minneapolis’s uprising has catapulted the city — and by extension, the larger Twin Cities metropolitan area — to national attention. Early on, the protests even drew a response from President Trump, who threatened Minneapolis protesters on Twitter, writing, "When the looting starts, the shooting starts." But while this may be the first time that some people are hearing about Minneapolis in any real way, it's not a coincidence that my city sparked the unrest currently burning across the country.
Minneapolis’s preferred public image is that of a highly progressive city. In 2014, The Economist called it the sixth-most liberal city in America, and Minneapolis has run with that label ever since. As noted by The New York Times, Minneapolis’s City Council is made up of 12 Democrats and one member of the Green Party, and it includes two Black transgender members. Robert Lilligren, who was the first Native American elected to the City Council in 2001, told the outlet, “Minneapolis has ridden this reputation of being progressive. That’s the vibe: Do something superficial and feel like you did something big.”
Ironically, it’s the fact that Minneapolis is so good at this progressive performance that makes it so dangerous for Black people. See, I know a progressive, blue-washed Minneapolis, but that doesn't make it safe for me. In 2014, Minneapolis and its twin city, St. Paul, were both named among the most LGBTQ-friendly cities in America, with Nerd Wallet saying it "boasts an equality index of 100." But when I lived in Minneapolis around 2015, almost every single one of my Black LGBTQ friends was either homeless, or had been — myself included. Close to the city’s rapidly gentrifying Uptown neighborhood, we would gather at least five homeless or unstably housed Black youth to sleep in a white friend’s two-bedroom apartment.
My experience with homelessness there isn’t unusual, because Minneapolis has some of the worst racial disparities in the country. While the median white family income in the Twin Cities is almost $85,000 per year, the median income for Black families is just over $38,000. In addition, NPR pointed out that census data shows the Black poverty rate in the Twin Cities area is 25.4% — over four times the white poverty rate (5.9%). If that wasn’t bad enough, the white poverty rate in the Twin Cities is significantly lower than the national poverty rate of 9% among white Americans, but Black residents in the Twin Cities are worse off than the national Black poverty rate of 22%.
City police showing animosity and contempt toward Black Minnesotans is not new.
The unrest after police killed Floyd may be the first time many are hearing about Black organizers in the city. However, Minneapolis organizers — including myself — have seen this before. We led protests after the 2015 and 2016 police murders of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile, respectively; while Castile was killed in Falcon Heights, a suburb of St. Paul, the interconnectedness of the Twin Cities means Minneapolis organizers played a key role in the response to his death. I personally was arrested at an occupation for Castile, and Ramsey County police removed my hijab repeatedly while I was in custody. Similarly, St. Paul organizers trekked to Minneapolis’s historically Black north side after Clark’s murder, leading an 18-day occupation outside of the 4th police precinct.
At that demonstration for Clark, white supremacists came and shot five people. Immediately after the shooting, one Minneapolis police officer told my friend, “This is what you guys wanted.” City police showing animosity and contempt toward Black Minnesotans is not new.
Rather than addressing Minneapolis’s racial disparities or heeding organizers’ calls to abolish its police force, earlier this year Democratic Mayor Jacob Frey pushed the city council to approve an $8 million budget increase for the department, per Black Visions Collective, a local Black-led organization. Frey also wanted to hire more sworn officers in the city, putting forth a proposal to bring the number of police to more than 900, but the city council rejected that part of his plan.
At the same time, police in and surrounding Minneapolis have developed an extensive collection of surveillance technology, including facial recognition software, license plate readers, and more. The city’s love affair with surveilling Black residents is so deep that it was a pilot city for the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Violent Extremism program, which primarily surveilled and criminalized Somali youth in Minneapolis.
Minneapolis isn’t considered anything special. But, Black people have lived and struggled and organized in Minneapolis for generations. Many of the Black youth who are on the frontlines for Floyd today protested in response to Clark’s and Castile’s murders when they were only freshmen or sophomores in high school. Unfortunately, my city isn’t new to this. And maybe in five years, people will forget about Minneapolis again. (I bet reading that white supremacists shot five people in 2015 was a surprise to many of you when you read that, even though it was national news at the time.)
Still, when everyone leaves, Black Minnesotans will continue organizing and calling Minneapolis to task when it wants to pretend that Floyd's death never happened. It doesn't matter if people leave the state; his memory will be carried with them. Believe me. Home isn’t a location; it’s the place that made you. I couldn’t forget Minneapolis or Jamar Clark or Philando Castile or George Floyd even if I wanted to. If I close my eyes, I can still smell the wood fires from the 4th precinct occupation; I can still smell the mace; I can still see the “less-than-lethal” rifles that were held a foot from my face. If I listen, I can hear the chants — and how all the names eventually merge together into one exhausted cry.