OPINION | John Matisonn: How could anti-racism protests start in liberal Minneapolis?

People look on as a construction site burns in a large fire near the Third Police Precinct on in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the wake of George Floyd's death. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
People look on as a construction site burns in a large fire near the Third Police Precinct on in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the wake of George Floyd's death. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Only last month, on April 17, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, asked: “Why is Minnesota more liberal than its neighbouring states?” Yet this week Minneapolis, rather than the deep south or even gritty New York or Los Angeles, sparked violent US-wide racial unrest. Why?

The state's liberal traditions are well-known. In the 1960s Hubert Humphrey was a leading pro-civil rights senator, and Eugene McCarthy led the anti-Vietnam war campaign running for president in 1968, acting as the catalyst for Robert Kennedy and others to carry that torch.

Walter Mondale was President Jimmy Carter's liberal vice-president. Since then, Paul Welstone and Al Franken, the former comedian, were perhaps the most left-wing members of the American senate besides Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

The paper answered its own question by saying that the town and its state, Minnesota, were settled by public-minded, church-going Scandinavians and Germans, and referred to the liberal influence they have on the Democratic-Farmer-Labour Party. The DFL is the state's version of the Democratic Party, an amalgam of liberal traditions that continue to pull the national Democratic Party to the left.

And yet, after the city saw video footage of George Floyd, 46, being held down by a police officer's knee at his throat for eight minutes and 46 seconds while handcuffed, as he gasped, "I can't breathe" and "Don't kill me", the city exploded into a week of protests, looting and arson that gutted properties including a police station. Perhaps it was made worse by the fact that the whole time the policeman, Derek Chauvin, had one hand deep in his own pocket. Not only was the action casual, but it proved Chauvin held Floyd down despite not feeling in any danger from him.

Floyd was pronounced dead at the hospital. All four police officers at the scene were fired, but it took four more days before Chauvin was arrested and charged with murder in the third degree. More arrests may follow - police officers have a clear duty to intervene if they see someone in custody at risk. Bystanders at the scene appealed to the police officers to check Floyd's medical condition, but they were ignored.

Protesters took to the streets in many U.S. cities over the killing of George Floyd, a black man seen on video gasping for breath while a white police officer knelt on his neck in Minneapolis https://t.co/47ARv5B3xD pic.twitter.com/BVo4z2ujRK

— Reuters (@Reuters) May 30, 2020

The case has already influenced this year's US presidential election, almost certainly ruling out Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar for vice-presidential running mate to the Democratic Party's expected nominee, former vice-president Joe Biden. That is because Klobuchar was the relevant prosecutor when Chauvin came up for sanction after previous missteps, and she chose not to act. If she had, Floyd would probably be alive today.

Despite Minnesota's liberal reputation, over eight years beginning in 1999, the city of Minneapolis paid $4.8 million in legal settlements related to 122 police misconduct incidents. Police officers and county sheriffs were involved in 29 civilian deaths.

Klobuchar, however, chose not to criminally charge any fatalities involving law enforcement. Instead, she routinely put the decision to a grand jury, a process widely criticised for its secrecy and for mostly allowing the police version of events.

The painful sight of Floyd apparently being casually killed on camera sparked unrest in at least 18 cities by Saturday morning, including Washington DC, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Columbus, Phoenix, Denver, Manhattan, Brooklyn and Louisville. In Colorado, shots were fired near the statehouse. At a protest in Louisville, seven people were shot. Arson broke out in Minneapolis and Atlanta. Police officers were hospitalised in Houston and Detroit.

A black CNN journalist was arrested live on camera in Minneapolis, while a nearby white correspondent was unmolested. An official statement contained a lie - that the reporter was released when his press identity was confirmed. The viewer sees him clearly showing his credential before his arrest.

Protests, some violent, swept across the US as people demonstrated against the killing of #GeorgeFloyd while in police custody. pic.twitter.com/twm3QL1gcT

— DW News (@dwnews) May 30, 2020

Within hours of the release of the video of Floyd's abuse, I received a social media picture of Chauvin standing alongside President Donald Trump at a Trump rally, and calling for the picture to be circulated widely. That was fake news.

But the president was quick to fan the flames, tweeting that the looters were THUGS, and "when the looting starts, the shooting starts". In a previous time, that same phrase was used to encourage police to shoot back, which was how many interpreted it. Twitter took the decision to hide the tweet n the grounds that it "glorified violence", a violation of its code of conduct.

By Friday afternoon, Trump showed signs that he was not sure of his ground. After White House aides signalled he would talk to the media about the widespread unrest, presumably to soothe a shaken nation, he emerged alongside a phalanx of Cabinet secretaries to announce a new tougher line on China, and a permanent break with the World Health Organisation, then left immediately without allowing questions on the subject gripping the news and nation.

Some commentators are predicting the unrest will have more widespread consequences. "Gripped by disease, unemployment and outrage at the police, America plunges into crisis," headlined Saturday's Washington Post.

"The threads of our civic life could start unravelling, because everybody's living in a tinderbox," said historian and Rice University professor Douglas Brinkley.

"There are major turning points in history. ... This is one of these moments, but we've not seen how it will fully play out," said Barbara Ransby, a historian at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Colleagues who believed relations were harmonious found a real racial divide: several up-and-coming white journalists reacted with irritation to the diary of the most senior African-American, the paper's mild-mannered managing editor.

Before 1994, I went to Minneapolis while making a radio documentary series for National Public Radio about race relations in the US and South Africa. After Atlanta, Chicago and New York, I went there because the Minneapolis Star Tribune had tried to delve beneath the surface of race in Minnesota by running its own series which required every reporter on the project to keep a race diary, and to meet every week to discuss it.

The outcome was explosive.

Colleagues who believed relations were harmonious found a real racial divide: several up-and-coming white journalists reacted with irritation to the diary of the most senior African-American, the paper's mild-mannered managing editor. One turned on him and said: "But you went to Harvard, you live in Idina [one of the fanciest suburbs in Minneapolis] and drive a Mercedes." Unstated was a feeling that affirmative action had allowed the black American access to opportunities denied younger whites. What did he have to complain about?

Minnesota Gov. Walz estimates that about 80% of those being destructive are from outside the state:"Our heart and our solidarity are with folks who understand what happened Monday night to George Floyd ... But these folks are not them." pic.twitter.com/4wHWG6ldyM

— NBC News (@NBCNews) May 30, 2020

Then the managing editor spoke. "I cannot stop at a 711 for milk or a snack without being followed around the store to watch in case I steal. My wife is refused proper service when she stops to fill the Mercedes with gas."

One white journalist admitted to me at the end. "This project taught blacks nothing they did not already know. It was only a revelation to us whites."

What were the lessons for an idealistic South African excited about a future non-racial state? First, while you can build a non-racial society and you must, where a majority become "too busy to hate" and find genuine common ground to co-operate, you will never abolish every last moron who can't get rid of some prejudice.

And second, fighting racism isn't a one-off. It doesn't miraculously end with an election or even a constitution.

America is just facing these lessons one more time. Twenty-five years later, in a time of pandemic and depression, we've learnt a third: quality leadership is more important than ever. Without it, even the most advanced societies can unravel.

John Matisonn is the author of Cyril's Choices, Lessons from 25 years of Freedom in South Africa.

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