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The enduring image of 2020 will be Minneapolis's Third Precinct burning

To say that 2020 has been a hellscape would be beyond an understatement. And as we're still stuck in its midst, there is no way to fully articulate all of its horrors. How do you adequately sum up a pandemic that isn't over? How do you take the ever-rising death count, the devastation of communities of color left to die by the government (which is no change from the usual but a horror nonetheless), and translate it all into words that are, somehow, enough?

Beyond the pandemic, this year was also marked by a series of revolts following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. While I was born and raised outside of the Twin Cities, for all intents and purposes, Minneapolis is my hometown. I lived there while organizing around the police murders of Jamar Clark, Philando Castile, and the countless Black people who were killed outside of my city, but whose deaths we felt anyway. The day Floyd was killed, I stared at the backdrop of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in stills on my timeline, and thought about how I used to pass that corner on my way home. How often had I looked outside the windows of the Route 5 bus and laughed at "Cup Foods" so obviously ripping off the much larger chain, Cub Foods?

Just as I struggle to find words for the pandemic, I cannot sum up the revolts either. I could try picking from the multitude of chants that filled the streets; while I live in Philadelphia now, I heard them in little clips and livestreams. Some were the same chants I once led, and others were strange, new mantras. But no matter whether I knew them or not, those protest cries formed a new cacophony of Black expression. I could try picking words from an iconic sign, somebody's curses, a tweet, but none of it is enough.

It may seem strange to comment on the inadequacy of words in an essay. However, as I began writing, I realized this essay is all about recognizing where words fail and something else must pick up the slack. Because when I close my eyes and think of 2020, there are no words. There is only broken glass scattered on concrete, flashes of orange against shadow, and a fire's dance frozen in time as photos captured the Minneapolis Police Department's Third Precinct building finally, finally, burning.

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Before this summer, thoughts of precincts and protest in Minneapolis likely conjured images of the Fourth Precinct. Minneapolis is divided into five police precincts, and the fourth sits on the north side of the city. There, protesters occupied the street for over two weeks after the 2015 police killing of Jamar Clark, essentially laying siege to a building whose lot ironically once housed a Black community center.

But when I lived in Minneapolis, it was usually in neighborhoods under the jurisdiction of the Third Precinct, where the officers who killed Floyd worked. One of my earliest protests was a 2015 solidarity rally over the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Missouri, regarding the police killing of Michael Brown. Right outside of the Third Precinct, protesters blocked the intersection of Lake Street and Minnehaha Avenue South, and a driver ran over a 16-year-old girl. A police report said the driver was "attempting to flee from the mob," but the Star Tribune reported that a video showed the driver first paused behind a stopped vehicle, then driving around that vehicle and into the crowd blocking the intersection.

This is all to say: I know the Third Precinct well, and so when I watched a livestream where people forced police to dramatically flee, I laughed. I sat with my feet on my office chair, hunched over my phone, and if I was a crier, I might have done that, too. To me, that moment was a sign that there was something different about these protests. Maybe it was because people were responding to both Floyd's murder and the ongoing pandemic. I can't say. All I know is that night, protesters pulled off something special — when is the last time you saw a city's police precinct overrun? — and managed what I wish we could have done for Jamar Clark.

Of course, many who pretend to support the protests have sought to blame someone else for the fire. These "supporters" try painting Black people as too docile to start a fire, so that we don't represent a threat to anybody. People look to blame so-called "outside agitators," despite that narrative's history in quelling dissent — and in doing so, they erase the Black anarchists and radicals who are more than down for burning a precinct or two. We could argue all day about who set the fire, but as I watched the Third Precinct burn, I clocked the Black people on the ground who cheered and the ones on my timeline praising my city.

I see the fire as a form of Black writing ... reaching beyond what we know, grasping at the barriers of our language, and reducing it to ash to expose what else could be.

Now, though, I linger on the purpose of that fire, and the role it took beyond burning. In her book The Black Shoals, Tiffany Lethabo King wrote about a 2015 defacing of a statue of Christopher Columbus. The monument was covered with red paint, meant to represent blood, and tagged with the words "Black Lives Matter." While the identities of the protesters are unknown, it's presumed that they are Black because of their invocation of a Black movement. King lingered on the theatrics of the act, writing, "The performed revolt and defacement of Columbus ... is also an alternative form of Black writing. This particular form of Black writing disfigures the notion of the normative human as it makes space for something else or otherwise."

The "normative human" referenced by King is a post-Enlightenment project, whose white subjects can only exist through the non-humanity of Black people. With King's words in mind, I find myself thinking about the role of police in protecting and maintaining that so-called normative human. There is a big difference between fire and red paint, but did they not perform the same function? In Minneapolis, something beyond the precinct itself was confronted. Those flames disfigured more than the physical building. Perhaps most importantly, I come back to King's articulation of the performance as errant grammar. I see the fire as a form of Black writing, too, reaching beyond what we know, grasping at the barriers of our language, and reducing it to ash to expose what else could be.

I cannot fully articulate 2020 and its protests through text — the technology of words fails. But, I do have this fire. It stands alongside calls to defund the police. While many today pretend to not understand what that slogan means, I look at those images of the precinct, and I ask: How do you not see that the conclusion is abolition? The fire is more than a fire; its smoke fills the gaps between words, literally making space in the city. We often think of technology in terms of the digital. But in Minneapolis, the fire became the technology of abolition, falling into a larger tradition of destruction in Black pursuits for liberation — a way of bringing an otherwise into being.