The Cradle of the Best and the Worst: Some thoughts on Minnesota, policing, and the last few days in America

When I tell people I’m from Minnesota, I get a few different reactions, beyond the usual observations about Prince, The Replacements, the sports teams, or the colorful local politicians.

It’s often assumed that I had never met a racial minority until I left (damn, that Chris Rock joke about Prince and Kirby Puckett.) In the last five years or so, no thanks to  Fox News propaganda about the Somali community, others have raised with me the assumption that the entire Twin Cities metro area is under Taliban-style sharia law. So if any good comes out of the last week, perhaps the world will know for sure that neither of those things is true.

I’ve been watching the horrible events in the Twin Cities for the last week, and it’s been very surreal, unbelievably sad, and absolutely infuriating. I haven’t been able to get to sleep very well any of the last few nights.

I love Minnesota, and I’m proud to be from there. If you know me, you know I talk about Minnesota all the time, even though I haven’t lived there since I graduated from high school almost 25 years ago. My Minnesota upbringing is something that’s a huge part of what I am.

But something I’ve been thinking about a lot in the past week is there’s an ugly side to the place where I grew up, a history of discrimination and racial disparities, that I didn’t allow myself to see for a really long time. I should have seen it earlier, but I didn’t. Other writers who come from Minnesota- Rafi Schwartz, Jon Krawczynski, Steve Rushin- have written similar things in recent days.

I don’t blame my family or teachers for this. I was taught, I like to think, good and positive values by my family, my schools, and Jewish institutions. I always learned a lot in school about black history and the civil rights movement, and even participated in a black-Jewish dialogue program through my synagogue in high school.  And I’m always happy to see, to this day, that Jewish community leaders are at or near the forefront of most social justice actions in the Twin Cities.

When you move to somewhere like Boston, or New York, or Philly as an adult, as I did, you learn certain things about aspects of the towns’ ugly racial histories, like the Boston busing crisis or the MOVE bombing.  But it’s a little different when it’s where you grew up.

I just don’t think it was standard procedure, at the time that I was growing up, for kids to be taught about things like how African-Americans are treated by police, or the local history of redlining. With the benefits of age, hindsight and the passage of time, I’ve started to get it.

I grew up loving the Minnesota Twins, but I’m not sure how old I was when learned that their former owner Calvin Griffith,had once admitted, in a drunken tirade, the reason why he moved the team from Washington, D.C. to Minnesota: “I’ll tell you why we came to Minnesota… It was when I found out you only had 15,000 blacks here. Black people don’t go to ball games, but they’ll fill up a rassling ring and put up such a chant it’ll scare you to death. It’s unbelievable. We came here because you’ve got good, hard-working, white people here.” When Target Field was built in 2010, the Twins placed a statue of Calvin Griffith in front of the stadium. 

I always known that Minnesota has that majority, Scandinavian monoculture that I was never a part of as a Jew- think of the hunting neighbor in A Serious Man– which other minorities aren’t a part of either. But I’d imagine black people and immigrants are even further removed from that than Jews were.

Speaking of the Coen Brothers? Fargo is, in most people’s estimation, the greatest Minnesota movie. What’s it about, after all, if not hidden darkness beneath a veneer of Minnesota Nice?

What really clicked for me was five years ago, when the Philando Castile shooting happened outside Minneapolis, and high school classmates of mine were posting to Facebook about how he should have complied more and therefore deserved to die. Which, if you remember anything about the details of that case, is some true horseshit. Of course, the Mohamed Noor/Justine Damond case happened in Minneapolis a couple of years later, and everyone took the opposite side, maybe owing to the cop being a black Somali man and the dead person being a pretty white woman.

Since then, I’ve seen people in Minnesota do things like elect the proto-Trump Michele Bachmann to Congress, frequently spread horrific and racist lies about immigrant communities in Minneapolis, and host Donald Trump for a rally at Target Center. Last fall, the same square between the arena and First Avenue which just a couple of years earlier had hosted thousands of singing, crying people mourning Prince’s death, went on to host a snarling crowd in MAGA hats and “Cops for Trump” t-shirts. The cradle of the best and worst, once again.

As we’ve seen lately Minnesota, like a lot of blue states, probably isn’t as progressive as it likes to think it is. Which isn’t to say they’d get any more progressive, especially racially, if Republicans took over. More likely, the opposite.

So that brings us to last Monday, when Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin put his knee on George Floyd’s neck until he died, as three other officers watched and did nothing.

What followed were protests and burning and looting and anger, taking place all over the country and even in smaller cities where you wouldn’t expect it. It’s opened up about ten different major culture war flash points, as well as endless arguments over Antifa, “outside agitators,” and who’s ultimately to blame for the unrest. I’ve seen one unbelievable sight after another on television, mostly in specific parts of cities, whether Minneapolis, Philadelphia, New York, Chicago or Washington- that I know very well.

I saw a police officer drive-by pepper spray a peaceful crowd on bikes, on the same downtown Minneapolis block where I walked with my kids one day last summer. I saw a gang of baseball bat-wielding thugs, the kind of big aggro shitheads normally seen punching people in the parking lot at Eagles games, menacing Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood and breaking a local journalist’s face. After more than two years of writing a column about crime involving Apple products, I watched the looting of Apple Stores in several major cities.

I’ve also seen police officers, in the Twin Cities, arresting a CNN crew on live television, firing at a citizen’s porch, and doing all sorts of terrible, indefensible things to people who don’t deserve it.

The issue of policing, especially centered on race, has been a highly fraught one, really, for decades. I don’t get the sense that much as changed, except for the arrival of cell phone cameras. Had George Floyd’s death not happened on camera, I’ve got a feeling we’d have gotten a story that barely resembled the truth, and that story probably would have stuck.

I have police officers who I consider my friends. I’ve covered the police and crime as a journalist, and I have admiration for what they do. Most of them do a dangerous job very well.

But that’s the thing. I’m a white guy who grew up in one suburb and who lives in a different suburb. I’ve never had any reason to have a negative interaction with the police. The closest thing was I’ve had to one was when I got pulled over, last year, by an officer in my town who cited three different driving violations, and I was let off with a warning for all three.

I have two young sons. I might have to worry, one day, about having to pick them up from a police station after they partied too hard. I probably don’t have to worry that they’ll get shot by the police. Black people I know have a very different view when it comes the worries they have about their sons.

Over the last few years, I’ve also noticed other some things about policing in America, and the reaction to it. Much of which was gleaned from the work I’ve done in the media, including from my experience working in TV news a few years ago.

For one thing, city police departments play an extremely outsized role in how crime is covered by media outlets in this country, as way too many crime stories reported by the news use the police report or statement as the primary source, if not the only source. Also, there are massive PR efforts afoot to push police’s version of events, and to play up fluffy stories like cops buying shoes for homeless people, or police department lip-syncing videos. I implore everyone to listen to the “Kitten Rescues, Lip-Syncing & Christmas Traffic Stops” episode of Citations Needed, quite possibly the most illuminating podcast episode I’ve heard in the last few years.

Another thing I’ve learned, possibly as a result of all that, is that significant amounts of everyday people – and not necessarily conservative-identifying ones –  treat it as a bedrock belief that police can do absolutely no wrong.

No matter how egregious and brutal the police misconduct, no matter if it’s caught entirely on tape, there’s a significant number of people who will reflexively defend it, and make excuses for it. Police unions may do this, in a particularly amoral way, but at least it’s their job to do it. But for civilian bystanders to do the same? They’re just choosing to. It’s treating the police as a matter of tribalism and fandom, which brings with it a lot of the many problematic aspects we’re used to seeing with other kinds of toxic fandom. And that’s not something that’s good for law enforcement, either.

This hasn’t happened, for the most part, with the George Floyd video. But once some time passes, especially if there’s a trial? I don’t expect that to remain the case. There will absolutely be “I Stand With Derek Chauvin” Facebook groups before long.

There’s something really dark and bloodthirsty about the way civilian stans react to police brutality and misconduct. Even beyond all the “Karen”-instigated call-the-cops-on-a-birdwatcher stuff, a lot of civilians, if they’re not just being fanboys, think of the police as their own personal goon squad. We’ve all seen civilians demanding from the sidelines for the police to knock the heads of people they don’t like.

Back in the summer of 2016, I spent a day covering the protests at the Democratic National Convention, here in Philadelphia. It was an 80-something-degree day, and a wild scene, with thousands of protestors from different factions, lots of arguments between Hillary and Bernie partisans, and even a 51-foot joint that was paraded down South Broad Street. All in all, it was one of the most memorable days I’ve ever spent as a reporter.

There was, as you might expect, a huge police presence. The police and protesters, though, mostly got along, much more than the different protesting factions did with each other. I saw them chatting with each other throughout the day, and I believe the whole day concluded with single-digit arrests, compared to hundreds of them at the RNC in the same city 16 years earlier.

But when I got home, I read Facebook and newspaper website comments wondering why the cops hadn’t broken out the nightsticks, like Frank Rizzo used to. This is the go-to sentiment for a lot of Philadelphians of a certain age, who simultaneously argue that the city was a dystopian hellscape in the ’70s, that Rizzo “kept the streets safe,” and that we’ll never solve the pathologies of today unless we get back to Rizzo-style ass-kicking. That crime rates were much higher in Rizzo’s time than they are today is never quite squared in that whole worldview.

If you’ve read Rick Perlstein’s brilliant book Nixonland, you’ve probably thought of it constantly over the course of the last week. You may remember, in particular, that rank-and-file civilians really, really loved it when Mayor Richard Daley’s Chicago police put the billy clubs to hippies in Grant Park during the 1968 Democratic convention. The more things change…

This sort of bloodlust has been stoked in the past by President Trump, who has called at rallies for police to rough up suspects. And the president is clearly hoping, shades of Nixonland, to make like Nixon in ’68 and ride fears about rampant social unrest to re-election. The difference, of course, is that Trump is the president right now. He can’t exactly run on the premise of putting a stop to the sort of thing he didn’t stop as president in the first place. And it’s not like there’s a single moment, since this all started, when the president has shown anything even resembling leadership.

But then again, I’m not naive enough to think that, if Trump loses, these issues and national pathologies are going to go away along with him. They’re way older than Trump, and while a Biden presidency might bring about some policy changes around the margins, I don’t get the sense those conversations are going to end anytime soon.

At that rally in Minneapolis last October, Trump appeared with the frothing neo-fascist chief of the Minneapolis police union, Bob Kroll, who put out a statement Monday that called Floyd a violent criminal and vowed to fight for the jobs of the four fired officers.

I don’t know what the policy solution is to tragedies like the Floyd killing and all that followed, as there’s clearly not an easy one on offer. But a part of it has to be getting violent, racist, and/or dangerous cops off the streets, and to reign in people like Kroll and the FOP in Philly, who have a nearly unblemished record of getting fired bad cops reinstated, usually with back pay.

Then there’s the cartoonishly thuggish cop unions in New York, best known for unhinged social media posts, and who most recently exposed the personal information of Mayor De Blasio’s daughter. This comes less than a year after they whined like little babies when the killer of Eric Garner was finally fired, five years after the fact.

Last Saturday, I went for a bike ride along the Schuylkill River, in what was my first visit to the city of Philadelphia since coronavirus started in early March. I knew protests were scheduled for that day, but had thought they’d be over by the time I was there. In fact, when I looped around a huge march was approaching the Art Museum.

It was angry, but peaceful, with a crowd of all kinds of races and ages. All the burning and looting was quite a ways away. I feel like that’s been the dynamic in a lot of parts of the country. There are many, MANY people showing up to protest, in cities where this sort of thing doesn’t normally happen. This thing has struck a chord in a huge way.

And while certain knuckleheads are doing a lot of damage, that’s not everyone out there, or even most people. Especially not the large crowd in Minneapolis, on the I-35 bridge, that was protesting peacefully when a semi truck barreled towards them. (It now appears that was an accident, although I saw at least one Facebook warrior the other day defending the driving into a crowd, because “walking on the highway is illegal.”)

No, the protests weren’t caused by the Russians, or by bots, or by George Soros, and you can easily discount the credibility of anyone who says they were. Whether “outside agitators” was a thing or not, I have no idea, though I’m not convinced Antifa is an organization at all, much less a terrorist one.

I’m on record as strongly opposed to trying too hard to emphasize positive things in negative times, especially from a news standpoint, as that’s a way to pretend horrible events weren’t so horrible. That said, I’ve found some true inspiration from recent events, including both police officers who have done the right thing, and reporters who have done amazing work from the front lines.

And I’m also in awe of the Pimento Jamaican Kitchen, the Minneapolis restaurant cofounded by my high school classmate Yoni that’s emerged as a community gathering place and relief spot during the crisis- and even reportedly was targeted by white supremacists for their trouble.

Black lives matter. It shouldn’t be the slightest bit controversial to say that, nor is it necessary to change the “black” to “white,” much less “blue.”

I don’t know how this is going to go, or how it’s going to end. I’m guessing not well, and the rebuilding is going to be long and painful, even if there wasn’t a pandemic going on at the same time. I can only hope and pray for peace, for greater understanding, and a better America, a better Minnesota, a better Philadelphia, and a better world than the one we’ve seen for the last week.

1 thought on “The Cradle of the Best and the Worst: Some thoughts on Minnesota, policing, and the last few days in America

  1. Sheldon Bernick

    Grew up in St. PAUL, BUT in Philly for over 50 years Beautiful writing.
    Yes they have problems in Mpls.
    I also liked what the St Paul mayor said yesterday
    My family’s store in St. Paul was not damaged but just a block away my Nephew’s Axman Surplus was destroyed


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