My old haunts burn



I watched on television as Lake Street in Minneapolis burned from Hennepin Avenue to the Mississippi River, and tried to imagine what I was seeing. I am well familiar with the entire stretch, even if I really didn’t understand where I was living for five years as a young man.

My old college, St. Thomas, sits a block south of the bridge where the St. Paul Police lined up to bar rioters from coming over the river from its twin city. Many friends and family live nearby. Minnehaha Liquors and its neon art deco sign were torched, where my college roommate’s father worked his way through St. Thomas. My friend Tom Wallace, who worked as a photographer at The Storm Lake Times and recently retired as a photo editor at the StarTribune, has a photo studio in the Ivy Building that was burning Friday night a block and a half north of Lake. A metal fire door saved a career’s worth of photos from Algona to Storm Lake to Ames to Chicago to Maine to Minnesota.

Tom is married to an African American actor, Regina Williams. He has seen the slights in stores against her, how the employee watches her but not him or waits on a white customer when she was at the cash register first. But he doesn’t really understand what that is like.

“All I know is that I believe her,” says Tom, a native of Worthington.

Marty Case, my high school classmate, has spent his career working with Native Americans. His office about six blocks from home is across from a store that was looted. He isn’t far from the Third Precinct station where cops were plucked from the roof after authorities decided not to try to hold the building against the riot. Helicopters came in to lift them off, reminiscent of the US Embassy in Saigon. This is American life.

Saturday and Sunday he could hear a chopper overhead all night. He lives on the beautiful edge of a war zone along a babbling creek.

“It was really strange,” Marty said. “And then I woke up, maybe about 2 in the morning (Monday) and it was eerily quiet.”

The rage apparently exhausted itself, at least temporarily, after it peaked Friday and Saturday in the wake of the death of George Floyd.

Yet on Sunday two people were shot to death in Davenport, and a police officer was injured in an exchange of gunfire. Tear gas spread through the Merle Hay parking lot in Des Moines after violence broke out. The police had to quell disturbances in the Old Market area in Omaha.

When Des Moines and Salt Lake are blowing up, something is happening.

Two hundred years after the revolution I lived cloistered with 1,800 other white men behind the Mankato sandstone walls of St. Thomas, a fortress against the reality of the Midway area near the fairgrounds that burned last weekend. These were the men who would go on to run the Twin Cities. Later, I lived in the Selby-Dale neighborhood, a white preppie interloper in a predominantly black community. I would walk past the Martin Luther King Center cognizant of black men my age watching me as I got on the bus to ride for an hour down Lake Street on my way to work the night shift at the Minneapolis newspaper.

Anxiety born of ignorance and prejudice prevented me from stopping to learn their stories. I was vaguely aware of why the Native American men at Lake and Chicago, now rubble, lived in a stupor of despair. I saw them but not the Native-owned businesses and service agencies all around. The street grew in prosperity over the decades into a business corridor of diverse array. I knew of past race riots in 1968 in North Minneapolis, but could not have dreamed that all these old haunts would go up in a smash of glass and flames today.

Marty and Tom were incredulous, too, so close to it and trying to understand all of it.

The skinheads who drove in from other cities. The white anarchists. Black looters too. That the protests were peaceful until the sun went down. That everything in America is colored by race. That people were willing to risk catching the coronavirus to walk onto a freeway and protest. Why was a building full of artist studios burned down along with the Target and the Cub Foods? Is it safe to get some milk? At night thousands burned it down. Come morning, thousands more came out and cleaned it up. They left bags of groceries at the Ivy Building for all who needed it. And then the governor called up every National Guard member to converge and snuff out the violence. Who is the enemy? The President and the Attorney General are hunting for one when they should be wondering why entire metroplexes are prone to explode. Antifa in Davenport? Please.

Why now, and why this?

Royce White, the former Iowa State basketball star, was helping to lead the protests on Interstate 35 until a truck drove through the peaceful crowd. White, a Minneapolis native, said he could rationalize how a police officer could lose it in a split second and kill an innocent. But this —this was a cop with a knee on a black man’s throat for 10 minutes. There is just no doubt about it. This picture illustrated 400 years of lynching for people like me, who could not see it while freezing next to a poor bag lady at the bus stop 40 years ago.

There is the rage of poverty, and a system that never lets you up for air. It seems that not enough people care if black and Native American people die of coronavirus and other disease at rates exponentially higher than whites, mainly because they never had the chance to matriculate like I did.

They say they will rebuild the community. I hope so, but I am skeptical what sort of community emerges. Who wants to invest in young black men? If you can leave it, then it is no longer your problem. I knew I would be leaving Selby-Dale, now gentrified. Others don’t have that choice.

This time might be different. We are coming to that recognition — that this is enough, and that things actually have become worse for people at the bottom despite all the wealth flowing on either side of the Mississippi. Royce White got the police to kneel with him. The sheriff marched with the protestors at Flint. That’s a start.

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