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After the turbulence, Minneapolis looks forward

In the nervous moments before former police officer Derek Chauvin's conviction was announced last week, there were maybe 250 people gathered at the blocked-off intersection now known as George Floyd Square in south Minneapolis.

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade and Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale

News that a verdict had been reached prompted local companies to send employees home early. Many stores were boarded up. A few journalists had respirators hanging from their bags, in case of teargas. At the edge of the gathering, there were a handful of very obvious undercover cops — one wore a poorly concealed Kevlar vest.

Then someone called out: “Guilty!” The news rippled through the crowd. In those first few moments, most everyone seemed to be exhaling, not celebrating. That would come later. In the meantime, someone ascended a ladder beneath a sign at an abandoned gas station that read “Justice for George Floyd”. The crowd were beginning to swell with celebrants from the neighbourhood. The man looked over his shoulder, then added new letters: "Justice served?"

On Wednesday, I returned in hope of finding an answer to that question. State senator Omar Fateh, a 31-year-old who represents the neighbourhood, met me beside the now-famous raised fist statue in the middle of the square.

Fateh is new to the job: in 2020, he defeated a longtime Democratic incumbent by emphasising issues such as police reform. But he's not without political standing. His prior work as a community activist gained him votes, and the respect of other officials. As we talked, Andrea Jenkins, the vice president of the city council, walked over to say hello and remind him: "We need money!"

Fateh assured her that he was working on it, and then suggested that he and I take a seat on the kerb just below the “Justice served?” sign. Behind us, news crews from around the world did stand-ups as a steady stream of visitors, mostly White, came to pay their respects.

“We see a lot of people coming in to show solidarity,” Fateh said. “It was a public lynching and they’re really upset at that and want to make sure it never happens again. But what does that solution look like?” A good answer first requires defining the problem, and the most obvious one is racism. “Police officers seem to see our skin colour as a weapon, rather than being sensitive to the situation,” he said, as he reflected on the fake $20 bill that quickly led to Floyd’s death. “They don't know how to react to people of colour.” The recent shooting of Daunte Wright in nearby Brooklyn Centre, by a police officer who allegedly mistook her gun for a Taser, only heightened Fateh’s frustration. “In his situation, multiple officers couldn’t handle a 20-year-old boy as he jumped back into his car?”

Fateh isn't the only one voicing concerns about police violence in Minneapolis. In fact, the data is brutal: between 2015 and 2020, the city’s police department documented using force about 11,500 times. Of those incidents, at least 58 per cent involved Black people, including 68 per cent of all gunpoint displays, 66 per cent of all chemical irritant uses and 66 per cent of all neck restraints — in a city that’s only about 19 per cent Black.

The disparities aren’t limited to policing. Minnesota’s White children generally perform better than their national peers on standardised tests, while children of colour — who often have less experienced teachers — do worse. The state’s vaunted healthcare system tells a similar story. Black people have lower rates of optimal care compared with the statewide average for many health issues, including diabetes, vascular care and depression screening. Whites exceed the state average in the same metrics. Even the air seems to discriminate: Communities of colour are far more likely to be exposed to high pollution levels.

These factors and others play out in Fateh's district, where roughly half the population is non-White, 42 per cent live on less than $35,000, and 22 per cent of families with children under 5 live below the poverty line. Of those residents who rent their homes, half pay more than 30 per cent of their income.

"Folks complain about crime," Fateh said, referring to critics of his neighbourhood. "Well, what's causing that crime?"

Fateh says inaction by his colleagues in the state's Republican-controlled Senate is part of the problem. Of course, there are no shortages of issues for lawmakers to respond to, especially during a pandemic. But what frustrates Fateh is that police reform was hardly a second-tier issue in Minnesota after Floyd’s death. This year, he has sponsored bills that would remove some legal protections — so-called qualified immunity — for officers who violate a suspect’s constitutional rights, ban officers from affiliating with White-supremacist groups and restrict no-knock warrants. So far, neither he nor any other senator has been able to get a hearing — much less a vote — on any of these Bills from the Republican leadership.

“People are taking to the streets because they really do believe that we don’t give a damn,” he said. “That’s the reality that we have right now.”

At times, the community and its leaders seem to be talking past each other. Fateh points to the multimillion-dollar mobilisation of police and National Guard troops across the Twin Cities during the Chauvin trial as particularly damaging to his constituents’ faith in elected officials. “They want to see investments in our community, investments in our schools,” he said. “Because they see that we are quick to invest in policing or the National Guard or law enforcement. When people ask for a quarter-million for a rec centre, we don’t have money for that, right?”

For now, Minneapolis is grappling with some more immediate problems, starting with the August trials of the three officers accused of aiding and abetting Chauvin in Floyd’s killing. So I asked Fateh: If governor Tim Walz called and asked for advice on how to prevent unrest in the event of an acquittal, what advice would he give?

In short, he would like Walz to show his constituents that Black lives matter, and to do so by informing the Republican senate that all negotiations — including over the state budget — are being halted until meaningful police reforms are passed. “Show the people that you care. We don’t want talk. We don’t want fact-finding hearings.”

It would be a dramatic move, and one that the governor seems unlikely to make. But Fateh’s concerns about people of colour losing faith in elected officials and public institutions shouldn’t be dismissed, in Minneapolis or beyond. So long as marginalised communities think that their concerns and aspirations — and even their physical wellbeing — aren’t being valued, that lack of trust will only worsen.

Fateh remains both optimistic and realistic as he negotiates the grim landscape of race relations in Minnesota. Justice for his constituents remains the real goal, and he sees reason for hope, especially in the White visitors to George Floyd Square. As to the question on the gas station sign — “Justice served?” — he takes the long view.

“Hopefully, we'll see justice, and when I say ’we see justice’ I don’t mean holding police officers accountable for their actions. I mean having a system in which Black people aren’t murdered. Period.”

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade and Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale

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Published April 27, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated April 26, 2021 at 7:51 pm)

After the turbulence, Minneapolis looks forward

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