Justice for George and Solidarity in the Twin Cities

|Matt Levine|

Photo by Matt Levine

There are few parts of my country in which I can take pride as an American. Not its healthcare system nor gun control laws, both so nonexistent that they blur the lines between barbarism and civilization. Certainly not its oligarchy parading as democracy, by which the whims and desires of the wealthy and powerful leave us with few political options (a dire choice American voters will now have to face two elections in a row – we know how that worked out last time). And most obviously not the many ways in which institutional racism continues to oppress and threaten communities of color, manifested through this country’s systems of education, employment, housing, mass incarceration, and – unmistakable in light of recent events – police brutality. This is the plague spread by America’s criminal justice system that makes it a dangerous act for people of color simply to live their lives. It would be the shame of this nation if the United States weren’t built on the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans forcibly taken from their land.

One thing I could take pride in for the last decade was Minneapolis, my adopted hometown since 2010. Previously I had lived in Milwaukee, Madison, and Atlanta – all beautiful (and flawed) cities in their own right. But the Twin Cities were something else, a glimmer of progressivism in a country so often intent on looking backward. The parks, biking, public transportation, and majestic landscape were an everyday haven, allowing me to drag myself from my home in Near North to my job in Edina on a nearly daily basis without a car. The music, film, theatre, and literature scenes were vibrant and thriving; Twin Cities residents have always known that art is alive and well in the Midwest. Communities seemed diverse and harmonious: you could rely on neighbors and strangers for help, or at least a sympathetic conversation, if you needed it.

I know now this rosy view of Minneapolis was a reflection of my white privilege. I suspected as much at the time; you’d have to be severely myopic to see the way cops lingered around the intersection of Broadway and Lyndale (but ignored most kinds of drunken mayhem in Uptown) and pretend everything was okay. But I wanted to believe, in the years of Barack Obama’s presidency, that Minneapolis was a sign of where America was going: suffering from a difficult past but working towards progress, visibly unequal but trying to right those wrongs. I wanted to believe that the city’s pseudo-liberal leadership and my semi-diverse (i.e., gentrifying) neighborhood were proof that things were okay and would only get better. The ease with which I convinced myself of that weighs heavily on my shoulders, as it does for a great many white residents of Minneapolis.

To state the obvious: the last few weeks have made it disturbingly clear how stupid my assumptions were. When Derek Chauvin, Tou Thao, Thomas Lane, and J. Alexander Kueng murdered 46-year-old George Floyd, the city’s noxious history of police violence and racial inequality was thrust violently into the national spotlight. Floyd, who was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina and raised in Houston, was a star tight end and basketball player in high school and college. A rapper and musician, the father of two moved to Minnesota in 2014 and served as a security guard at several venues throughout the Twin Cities. “Knowing my brother is to love my brother,” said George’s brother Philonise. When police were called because Floyd allegedly paid with a counterfeit $20 bill, he did not resist arrest. He begged his murderer, Derek Chauvin, to release his knee from his neck and said, in a phrase that has come to encapsulate America’s racism, “I can’t breathe.” A preliminary autopsy (conducted by a state-led criminal justice system complicit in the ongoing slaughter of black and brown people) suggested that underlying health conditions and “potential intoxicants” led to his death (fucking potential – they’re not even trying to cover up the victim-blaming). An independent autopsy arranged by Floyd’s family later revealed that his death was “a homicide caused by asphyxia due to neck and back compression that led to a lack of blood flow to the brain” – asphyxia that lasted nearly nine minutes as Derek Chauvin’s knee stayed pressed against George Floyd’s throat.

Black people are 13 times more likely to be killed by Minnesota police than white people, accounting for more than sixty percent of the victims of police shootings since 2009. Merely remembering the names Jamar Clark, Philando Castile, and Thurman Blevins gives human faces to those statistics. (And the killings of Justine Ruszczyk and Chiasher Fong Vue make it clear that the MPD’s bloodlust is not strictly colorblind.) Racial inequality is more pronounced here than almost anywhere else in the country, as the typical black family earns less than half as much as the typical white family in Minneapolis. In the wake of Floyd’s death, national news outlets have made these facts known to the world – facts that should have been unavoidable long beforehand, and which more of the community (myself included) should have worked to resist.

The multitude of violent, chaotic forces besieging our city is staggering. White supremacists roam the streets after “curfew,” trying to stoke fear and hatred. Friends and loved ones who live in neighborhoods throughout south Minneapolis find weapons, supplies for committing arson, suspicious vehicles, deluded white men who think their toys lend them some kind of legitimacy. These diversionary tactics are meant to delegitimize the revolutionary force of the movement, distracting from activists in the Twin Cities who employ property damage and expropriation to foment an uprising. The chaos is heightened instead of alleviated by the murderous pigs who have little interest in restoring law and order. (Some people, I’m sure, will take issue with the word “pigs.” I agree it’s not very accurate. American Nazis? The modern-day KKK? A 21st-century lynch mob? There are more appropriate options.) The reasons why the Minneapolis police ignore their supposed duty of upholding peace – instead opting to shoot tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets at primarily peaceful protesters – are obvious: the agendas of the American police and white supremacists are generally the same. The MPD has done nothing to convince us this isn’t the case. 

And yet my pride in Minneapolis continues to grow. What I’ve seen in the aftermath are peaceful protests at which people come together, undivided by race or by attempts to stoke further animosity; they kneel or chant or march in unison because they refuse to live in a country like this. I’ve seen people converge on Lake Street or Bloomington Avenue armed only with brooms and rubber gloves and trash bags, working together to clean up the mess. I’ve seen people donate money and food and cleaning supplies and homes and vehicles, people that may have not been mobilized in the past. I’ve seen and heard a lot of traumatic things, but also neighbors who stay up all night to keep watch over their street, and business owners who would rather see their property damaged in an act of public demonstration than be complicit. Yes, I had a naïve view of Minneapolis as a blissful city that welcomed everybody, and on the political level that probably was never true; but at the street level, where so many of us are afraid and furious but still working together, that is the Minneapolis I’m seeing now.

If ever there was a clear indication of the time to abolish the police, it’s now. Protests throughout the United States and the world have ignited in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and the police have demonstrated, time and time again, their despotic brutality. An eight-year-old girl maced in Seattle. Elderly activists shoved to the ground in Salt Lake City and Buffalo. Peaceful protesters bludgeoned and killed in the street in too many cities to name. To believe that the police are a necessary institution that provides protection and justice is to operate under an assumption of white privilege. For large parts of the American population, the police exacerbate instead of mitigate violence in our communities, and the last week has proven that in shocking, highly visible ways that the people of this country will never forget.  

Photo by Matt Levine

It may seem insignificant to talk about art at a time like this – particularly movies, which have consumed my passion for so much of my life. But this is exactly the time when we need great, radical, angry art to mobilize us, to keep us pissed off at an unjust world. I remember applying to volunteer at the Trylon Cinema the very first week I moved to Minneapolis. I didn’t know anything about it; I saw its schedule online and was blown away by its programming, which included so many political and volatile films. My love for Minneapolis, its art and its people, has been synonymous with my time at the Trylon, which has lasted the entire time I’ve been in this city.

I remember seeing The Battle of Algiers there. Gillo Pontecorvo’s influential 1966 film depicts the resistance of Algerians and the FLN (National Liberation Front) against French colonizers. Used as a lesson in insurgent warfare (and the suppression of it) by both resistance movements and political authorities, The Battle of Algiers systematically portrays how freedom fighters can take down occupying forces (which the American police are). Both sides commit violent actions (with Algerian bombings in the European sector serving as responses to French torture and mass execution), but it’s obvious where the film’s sympathies lie: a coda declares that Algeria ultimately wrested its independence from the French military, presaging decolonization wars in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Zimbabwe, Morocco, Mauritania and other countries. The Black Panthers and Palestinian Liberation Organization, among others, used The Battle of Algiers as a textbook of sorts. To see it with an audience at the Trylon was to feel a buzz of insurgency in the air.

At the Trylon, I also saw The Spook Who Sat by the Door, an undervalued 1973 film by Ivan Dixon about the C.I.A.’s first black operative, who drops out of the agency and uses his expertise to train young black freedom fighters in Chicago; and Uptight, Jules Dassin’s late-career masterpiece about a disillusioned young man who, in the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, is shunned by his fellow black militants (he favors pacifism over armed resistance) and decides to rat them out to the cops. Both films depict the intense emotional and psychological toll that political resistance takes on individuals, as well as the violent suppression of such tactics by colonizing forces such as the police and military.

Earlier this year, as part of the Trylon’s volunteer programmer series, I had the honor of selecting Peter Watkins’ pseudo-documentary Punishment Park (1971) as my volunteer selection. The first time I saw it, about ten years ago, was a formative political experience for me: I had never seen a movie that so explicitly voiced the atrocities the United States had committed since its foundation and the flimsy rationale for continuing to perpetrate those atrocities into the 1970s. In the film, a group of countercultural prisoners, ranging from black militants to conscientious objectors to academics, artists, and Communists, are rounded up and forced to flee across the California desert. If they make it to a predetermined goal alive, they earn their freedom; but the odds are stacked against them, as the police and military are armed with vehicles, weapons, food and water, and have the right to shoot the prisoners on the spot. Bitterly furious and utterly cynical, the film clearly identifies with the outrage of the pursued leftists, who denounce the Vietnam War and police brutality as riots erupt throughout the country in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination and the suppression of the Civil Rights Movement. The conflict between a small number of dissidents who try to behave justly, and large forces of trigger-happy cowards who take human life instead of dealing with divergent opinions, is portrayed in all of its appropriate fury. But that negativity is only more catalyzing for the audience, who can’t bear to leave the theater and reenter a world so inconceivably cruel. Seeing this film at the Trylon, and then having a tense but cathartic conversation about it in the lobby afterward, was a political awakening all over again: this is a film for our times, as seething in its indignation as 2020 deserves.

It’s not only the Trylon, obviously. There were Mr. Freedom and Symbiopsychotaxiplasm (Take One) at the Walker, innovative films about gung-ho American xenophobia and the conflicted, persecuted construction of black identity. There was Crime + Punishment at the Capri, the best documentary I’ve seen about systemic corruption in American police departments and the minute, insidious ways that racism is not only tolerated but enforced within its sphere. There was T-Men at the Heights, which uses a gritty film noir storyline to imply that cops and criminals operate in the same exact ways despite the police department’s veneer of justice (and its impunity to kill at will).

The point is not to commemorate these physical places and the walls that construct them (though obviously, like everyone else, I long for the day when we can return to them). There are countless restaurants, bars, art centers, local stores, and community hangouts that are endangered or already damaged or destroyed, either due to instigators trying to sabotage the movement or to a genuine outpouring of anger and grief at the failed society that America has become (has always been). As James Baldwin said, “Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it.” The destruction of physical property can be intense, but bricks feel no pain; the destruction of human life by state-sanctioned forces of white supremacy is unforgivable, and that pain is felt by countless people and generations in its wake.

The point is that in commemorating George Floyd and Philando Castile and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and Iyanna Dior and Jamar Clark and Thurman Blevins and Tamir Rice and Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and thousands of others … in commemorating them and trying to protect our city, we look to the friendships and pieces of art and conversations that have formed our ideas of justice and solidarity. For me personally, many of those ideas come from movies – the films that radicalized me, shouted furiously at me in the audience, told me never to accept my country’s failures and the racist cops patrolling its streets. These films are what helped instill such boundless pride in my city, which offered to me provocative and demanding viewing experiences on a nearly nightly basis. But from there, my pride and love only grew by deepening relationships with some of the strongest, most dedicated artists, freedom fighters, activists, friends and neighbors I’ve ever known. It’s those people who are now fighting for equality and fending off thuggish cops, white supremacists, forces of hate and divisiveness that have defined this country for too long. I see those activists, friends, and neighbors in this wounded city and believe we can start to be known for something else.

James Baldwin said another thing that bears repeating right now: “Freedom is not something that anybody can be given. Freedom is something people take, and people are as free as they want to be.”

Edited by Michelle Baroody

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