Minnesota Burning

29 May

2020 is nothing if not relentless, a barrage that takes different forms, sometimes invisible and sometimes in raging flames. Here in Minnesota in late May, the coronavirus’ lingering malaise turns to death and fire in the streets. History creeps closer like a dread storm, the gyre now wide enough to swallow us whole. If this isn’t my generation’s 1968, I shudder to think of what may come next.

Ash rains down on friends’ yards in South Minneapolis. Businesses I have patronized lay in ruin. In a bitter piece of awfulness, an affordable housing development appears to be the most prominent property loss. None of that, however, stacks up against the loss of human life. Some friends struggle to explain this world to their young children; others wonder if their cars are safe in their normal parking spots. Walls go up, defenses come down, raw emotion pours forth. As it should.

I have no great new insight into police violence or riot dynamics, nor can I claim to tell the tale of centuries of systemic oppression. How can I? I’m a white kid from a very white corner of a very white state, and while it is basically my life’s work to understand as much as I can understand about my world, nothing in this life will ever give me the perspective to tell that story as it should be told. I can only fire off an email or two and be a vicarious witness. I lurch down a grotesque social media hole, the revolution Snapchatted live, and pull myself out only after wallowing for most of an evening. These lenses put us in the moment but shut out everything beyond, a skewed perspective that hones in on what some random individual has chosen to capture but offers no narrative, no story, no compelling arc that might guide us incrementally down that path toward comprehension or dialogue or reconciliation. They offer only raw, violent shocks to the system. Violence begets a violence, an eye for an eye, the whole world blind.

What is it we have lost, here in the spring of 2020? Lives, first and foremost, the product of a society that at times seems worryingly callous about human life, a fear that is always there but these days comes in cues from the top. Livelihoods, for those who had the misfortune of living in the crossfire. Many senses of security, at least for those of us who were fortunate enough to enjoy them in the first place. Some never did, though we all have been compromised further in some way. The rational mind can find some distance, sort through which reforms might actually work, move us toward a reduction in violence. But the rational mind has little to offer in an immediate crisis, when people are dead and generations’ worth of rage teams up with a quarantined society on edge to burst forth.

Minnesota may seem an unexpected flashpoint for American racial history: largely white, largely prosperous, rarely on the front pages. But the things that make Minnesota such a pleasant place to live for so many of us remain inaccessible to others all so often, that inequity that much more glaring. Without a reckoning, we will repeat this cycle again in a few months or years or decades, left again with clueless questions of how this could happen and why people behave this way when their own lives have given them no reason to believe things can change. In the coming days and weeks, Minnesota will have the power to rectify some of what has happened, to keep an individual tragedy from becoming a tragedy of history.

This Minneapolis May might seem distant for those of us not there on the ground, but the world that fomented it surrounds us. A few hours north, in my city of Duluth, the first few summer-like days stay calm, though I appreciate the horns a few blocks from my place last night at the site of our very Duluth protest, where there is some confrontation but mostly honks of support and police posing for photographs in solidarity. But this corner isn’t safe either: we are just two weeks away from the 100th anniversary of Duluth’s greatest sin, a horrific act that today feels like just another episode in a painfully predictable, endlessly repeated American tragedy. This time it truly is impossible to remain silent, and even as things smolder, I find a sense of hope, if that can really be the right word, that we’re showing some signs of learning from past mistakes.

It is hardly an original insight to condemn violence and plead for recovery and healing at this stage, a feeble bleat that feels ill-suited for our times. But this conflagration makes me believe anew that the responsibility to respond in whatever way we can is a collective one, a societal need to reaffirm certain values in the wake of brutality and subsequent anarchy. As the fires die down and the rational mind can assert some control again, it is time to make good on Minnesota’s promise, which touches every one of us in this state. 1968 did not bring the necessary American reckoning, but perhaps 2020 can.

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