Residents who have been on the front lines for George Floyd are finding their lives—and their city—transformed.
Terrence Floyd, who lives in New York City, arrived with a security entourage in the afternoon. As he approached the entrance to Cup Foods, guided by supporters and swarmed by an international mob of photographers and camera crews, he paused to admire a vibrant mural: his brother’s face, set inside a giant sunflower. In the background were the names of more than two dozen other black victims of police violence, including Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray. At the base of the mural, among cardboard signs, stood jugs of milk, which is used to alleviate the effects of tear gas. A couple of nights earlier, the police had conducted a raid at the site, clearing out people in violation of a citywide curfew.
Eventually, Terrence reached the curb where two officers had pinned down George’s back and legs and where a third officer, Derek Chauvin, had pressed his knee into George’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds while George repeated “I can’t breathe” at least sixteen times before his eyes closed and his pulse stopped. Terrence sat down on the pavement where someone had painted the white silhouette of a prostrate body, its hands manacled behind its back and angelic wings spreading from its shoulders. Bowing his head, he let out an anguished cry. He remained there for several minutes, then stood to address the crowd
“I understand y’all upset,” he said, using a megaphone. “But I doubt y’all half as upset as I am. So if I’m not over here wilding out—if I’m not over here blowing up stuff, if I’m not over here messing up my community—then what are y’all doing? What are y’all doing?” He went on, “Let’s do this another way. Let’s stop thinking that our voice don’t matter, and vote. . . . That’s how we’re gonna hit ’em. . . . Let’s switch it up, y’all. . . . Do this peacefully. Please.”
Terrence fell silent. Or almost silent. The megaphone amplified his exhalations. A reverend, standing at his side, rubbed Terrence’s back, leaned over, and whispered in his ear, “Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.”
The protests that have proliferated across the country for the past two weeks have been both intimately specific and sweepingly ambitious, honoring a single human life while indicting a national history. In Minneapolis, they have also been about a city. The relationship between Minneapolis’s law-enforcement officials and its communities of color, though always plagued, deteriorated dramatically in the five years before Floyd’s death. In 2015, a white officer shot and killed a twenty-four-year-old unarmed African-American man, Jamar Clark, in North Minneapolis. (Another officer on the scene claimed that Clark had tried to take his gun; witnesses said that Clark was already in handcuffs.) Activists from Black Lives Matter camped out in front of a precinct house for eighteen days, in snow and frigid temperatures. One night, a white man opened fire on them, wounding five. His trial, which ended with his conviction, revealed that he had a history of making racist comments. The police forcibly tore down the encampment, evicting the protesters and arresting eight of them; in the end, no charges were brought against the officer who killed Clark.
A year later, in a suburb of Saint Paul, a thirty-two-year-old black man named Philando Castile was shot by a policeman during a traffic stop for a broken tail-light, after stating that he was in possession of a firearm. Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her infant daughter were in the car. Reynolds live-streamed the immediate aftermath of the shooting on Facebook. In the video, Castile, who was licensed to carry, sits at the wheel, blood spreading through his T-shirt, while Reynolds cries “Stay with me” and the officer continues to aim his gun through the window. Castile died on film; Reynolds was handcuffed and detained; the officer, Jeronimo Yanez, was charged with manslaughter but acquitted.
In 2018, in North Minneapolis, Thurman Blevins, a black father of three, was killed by two white officers. A body camera worn by one of them captured Blevins running away—apparently with a gun—while calling over his shoulder, “Please, don’t shoot me! Leave me alone! Leave me alone!” Blevins was shot multiple times. The county prosecutor found “no basis to issue criminal charges against either officer.”
Thirty-eighth and Chicago is on the Southside of Minneapolis. African-Americans have been concentrated there and across town, on the Northside, ever since anti-black housing covenants, in the early twentieth century, prohibited them from buying homes elsewhere in the city. Subsequent infrastructure projects and redlining policies entrenched this de-facto segregation, diverting resources from the Northside and the Southside while perpetuating poverty by inhibiting African-Americans from obtaining mortgages and business loans. At the same time, predominantly white neighborhoods have grown progressively more affluent. Today, Minneapolis appears on lists of the “best places to live” even as its racial disparities rank among the worst in the country. The median annual income of black residents in the Twin Cities is less than half that of whites, and, though about seventy-five per cent of white families own their homes, only about a quarter of black families do. Unemployment is more than twice as high for black residents as it is for white residents.
Many people in Minneapolis believe that the police department both reflects and enforces these inequalities. In 1999, a law requiring officers to live within the city limits was repealed, allowing suburbanites to join the force; now most officers are white, and few live in or come from the neighborhoods they police. (Chauvin lived in Oakdale, twenty miles from where he killed Floyd.) The black community makes up about a fifth of the city’s population; nevertheless, when officers there physically subdue people—for instance, by hitting or Tasing them—sixty per cent of the time the subjects are black. A 2015 investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union found that black people in Minneapolis were nearly nine times more likely than whites to be arrested for low-level offenses such as trespassing or public consumption of intoxicants. That year, the city finally did away with ordinances against “lurking” and “spitting,” which had been disproportionately applied against black residents. In 2007, five high-ranking black officers sued the department, alleging pervasive institutional racism, including death threats, signed “KKK,” that were sent to every black officer, through the departmental mail system. The city settled the lawsuit out of court.
City officials have cited the Minneapolis police union as an obstacle to accountability. The union’s president, Lieutenant Bob Kroll, was named in the 2007 discrimination suit, which claimed that he wore “a motorcycle jacket with a ‘White Power’ badge sewn onto it.” Kroll has called Black Lives Matter a “terrorist organization” and has promoted training officers in “killology” instead of in de-escalation techniques. “I’ve been involved in three shootings myself, and not one of them has bothered me,” he said, in April. “Maybe I’m different.”
Everyone I met who lived close to Thirty-eighth and Chicago viewed the police as an alien force of constant menace and harassment. A common objection was the default belligerence of officers—their tendency to initiate physical confrontations, often under bogus pretexts. “The cops have written so many false reports on people just because they wanted to whup somebody’s ass,” one black resident told me. “It’s pure hate. Sometimes they don’t even take you to jail. They’ll take you to an alley and beat the hell out of you. It’s insane here, and people are sick of it.” Another local, who had grown up ten minutes away from the intersection, said that any infraction, no matter how minor, risked inciting police brutality: “The way they conduct themselves for very insignificant situations is way, way beyond what’s necessary. At what point do the citizens of a community say ‘enough’?”
One of the people listening to Terrence Floyd speak was Simone Hunter, a short nineteen-year-old with red-rinsed hair; she lived on the Northside, but had become a fixture at Thirty-eighth and Chicago since George Floyd was killed. Hunter told me that the infamous cell-phone video of the incident had filled her with anger and disgust. “I felt like I was going to throw up,” she said. Until then, Hunter had never attended a large-scale protest, but two days after Floyd’s death, when people gathered outside the police station in Minneapolis’s Third Precinct—Chauvin’s precinct—she joined them. A line of officers protected the building. Hunter, whose small stature can obscure her pugnacity, pushed her way to the front and furiously reproached them. “How would you feel if this was done to your sons and daughters?” she said. One officer pepper-sprayed her, at close range; another whacked her leg with a wooden baton, knocking her down. (The Minneapolis Police Department did not respond to requests for comment for this article.)
The next day, Hunter woke up with a large, dark bruise on her inner thigh. Her whole body burned—“like someone dipped me in VapoRub”—but she was eager to rejoin the protesters.
“It’s not just about George Floyd,” she told me. “It’s about all the unseen shit, where we don’t have the video.” Hunter had been removed from a difficult family situation when she was six, separated from siblings, and raised in a foster home. She had felt buffeted by an invisible, malign system her entire life, and, for her, the list of unseen shit was long. An unrelenting procession of encounters with racism had confirmed her station in a world that seemed organized against her. Recently, she said, the police had stopped and combatively interrogated her and a friend, also a black teen-ager, for driving with an air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror—technically a safety violation. “We’re used to it, but we shouldn’t be,” Hunter said.
At around 9:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 28th, the night after Hunter had been pepper-sprayed and beaten, Minneapolis’s mayor, Jacob Frey, ordered the beleaguered officers defending the Third Precinct to evacuate. Frey later explained that he had wanted to “prevent hand-to-hand combat.” The officers fled out the back of the station, on foot and in a convoy of vehicles, while protesters hurled rocks at them. A few hours later, Hunter returned to the area and was stunned by what she found: thousands of raucous young people had congregated in the street, with no law enforcement in sight, and the station was on fire. Smoke billowed from the ground floor, and people were roaming the hazy second floor, tossing through the windows anything not bolted down: documents, folders, phones. A nearby post office was also ablaze. In the middle of the intersection, an upside-down mail truck burned. A second mail truck suddenly appeared and crashed head-on into the flaming steel. The driver jumped out, and people cheered. Cars spun doughnuts, motorcycles popped wheelies, fireworks and gunshots punctuated the mayhem; a liquor store had been broken into, then burned down, and alcohol circulated among the crowd. People in ski masks and bandannas wielded hammers and baseball bats.
Later, when I asked Hunter what it had felt like to see the Third Precinct overrun, she answered, “Like fucking therapy. It was amazing. It felt like ‘Finally, we’re attacking them instead of our own people. Finally, we’re not allowing ourselves to be threatened by them.’ It felt like victory. Like, We can do this.”
I’d arrived at the scene not long after she did. The atmosphere was an electric combination of the rage that had compelled people to battle the police and an astounded euphoria over having actually prevailed. But there was also something peculiar: some people, many of them white, seemed to be deriving an inordinate amount of pleasure from the spectacle. A white guy wearing board shorts and Apple earbuds, walking a bicycle, and sipping a bottle of malt liquor approached me to announce, in a slurred voice, “They keep giving me booze!” At a strip mall opposite the station, looters of all stripes had breached a Target, a Cub Foods supermarket, and a Dollar Tree. The Target had been nearly emptied; water from ceiling-mounted sprinklers rained down, and a fast-flowing stream carried debris into the parking lot. Several teenagers emerged from the entrance, their pant cuffs rolled up, nude mannequins under their arms.
Hunter had graduated from high school a year ago, and had recently been working at a Target distribution center, in Woodbury, just outside Saint Paul. From 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., she had stood at a conveyor belt, packaging merchandise to be shipped to retail outlets such as this one. Though Hunter did not participate in any vandalism, it didn’t bother her. In fact, she said, “it was very satisfying.” She viewed corporate capitalism as an integral component of structural racism in America, and working for Target had felt as demoralizing as shopping there—a capitulation to the same rigged game whose unfair rules were upheld by the police. But now everything had changed, and, Hunter realized, her life would have to as well. She said to herself, “There’s no way I can come out here and support this and be O.K. with burning shit down and also go to my job and be, like, ‘This is fine. I’m cool with accepting money from these people.’ No. I can’t be cool with that.”
The damage wasn’t limited to big-box stores. Next to the Target, a charter school looked as if a bulldozer had plowed through it. Nearby, people holding metal pipes stood outside an apartment building. When a carful of young people pulled up, eying a tobacco shop on the ground floor, a thin, bearded man in reading glasses and a colorful button-down shirt told them that there was nothing to steal. “We got children here!” he yelled, waving at the upper floors.
Maye turned up his palms and said, “I’m from Mogadishu—what do you want from me?”
As the night wore on, the looters focussed their attention on a block of small businesses up the road from the precinct house. Midori’s Floating World Café had been trashed, and a group of locals who knew the restaurant’s owners salvaged potted plants amid the rubble. “They didn’t deserve this,” William Tully, a twenty-five-year-old outreach-and-inclusion officer for the Democratic Party, said. “What is the point of destroying the community you’re protesting on behalf of?” One of Tully’s friends, an immigrant from Mexico who asked to be identified only as Juan, pointed at a corner building engulfed in flames, in front of which a man posed for pictures. It had been a Latino-owned restaurant, and Juan’s mother had once worked there. “These are not the real protesters,” Juan said. “These are opportunists.” Down the sidewalk, a white woman in a tank top and cutoff jeans used a fire extinguisher to smash the window of a barbershop.
A few minutes later, a car pulled over next to us, and a black man got out and started documenting the chaos with his cell phone. When someone in a mask told him to stop filming, the man wheeled around toward him: “This is my hood—I live here! I live fucking here!”
“I live here, too! Why you mad?”
“Everybody’s mad right now!” the man shouted, incredulous. “We’re supposed to be mad right now!”
Tully and Juan were convinced that most of the looters had come from outside Minneapolis for reasons having nothing to do with the killing of George Floyd. In the following days, politicians also seized on this idea. Minnesota’s governor, Tim Walz, a Democrat, speculated, apparently without evidence, that eighty per cent of the people destroying property and attacking law enforcement were not residents of Minnesota. Walz attributed the rioting to “ideological extremists” pursuing a campaign of “international destabilization.” Trump, for his part, blamed Antifa. In the city, rumors spread of white-supremacist infiltrators hoping to delegitimize the protests and white “accelerationists” attempting to instigate a race war.
Some people of this type do appear to have been present, and many looters unquestionably were white. On June 8th, the first arson charge for the Third Precinct fire was filed in federal court—against a twenty-three-year-old white man from Saint Paul. Of the demonstrators who have been arrested, however, none have been linked to anti-fascist groups, and few have been from out of state. Ascribing what happened in Minneapolis to murky external forces elides the profound grievances of its black community—grievances that, at least in the early days of the protests, were partly expressed through rioting. A day after the Third Precinct fell, Leslie Redmond, the president of the Minneapolis branch of the N.A.A.C.P., declared, “What you’re witnessing in Minnesota is something that’s been a long time coming. I can’t tell you how many governors I’ve sat down with, how many mayors we’ve sat down with, and we’ve warned them that, if you keep murdering black people, this city will burn.”
Chauvin was arrested, for third-degree murder, that same day. This appeased nobody. I was at Thirty-eighth and Chicago when the news was announced, and the reaction among the mourners there was disappointment about the charge, and indignation that the other officers involved had seemingly escaped punishment. A new chant arose: “One down, three to go!”
At dusk, throngs of people filled the street between the still smoking precinct house and the gutted Target. State troopers and National Guard units had cordoned off the area that morning but had since inexplicably withdrawn. Simone Hunter was back again. This time, she’d brought supplies: saline and milk, for treating tear gas; tampons and sanitary napkins, for packing flesh wounds. The precautions felt prudent. Trump had tweeted that the protesters were “THUGS,” threatened to deploy the military to “get the job done right,” and warned, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
Hunter was not alone in preparing for the possibility of violence. Some people arrived equipped with helmets, goggles, and sheet metal; others wore plywood shields strapped onto their forearms. A rusty van, marked with a cross of red tape, served as an ambulance—two teen-agers stood on its roof, making out. Near the station, in front of a burned Arby’s, ramparts had been built with tables from Midori’s Floating World Café. In the distance, the blue and red lights of squad cars flashed. The protesters faced them, crying out, “Say his name—George Floyd!” When the squad cars unexpectedly retreated, exultation gripped the crowd.
People began heading west on Lake Street, a long boulevard leading to another station, in the Fifth Precinct. The chants grew hostile: “Fuck the police!,” “Who shuts shit down? We shut shit down!,” and “We want freedom, freedom! All these racist-ass pigs, we don’t need ’em, need ’em!” Nevertheless, the subsequent two-and-a-half-mile march was mostly celebratory. People piled onto the hoods of slow-moving cars, and residents waved from lawn chairs on the sidewalk, as if watching a parade.
The mood changed when the crowd reached the station, as night was falling. Two perimeters made of concrete barriers topped with tall fencing surrounded the building. Officers in helmets and gas masks stood on the roof, holding rubber-bullet guns. The protesters pressed against the fence, taunting the officers. At a Stop-N-Shop across the street, people with crowbars had removed plywood covering the entrance, and were hurrying out with cigarettes and snacks. “This is not why we’re protesting!” a young woman yelled. Another woman added, “Y’all need to fuck up the suburbs!” A middle-aged white man, wearing a motorcycle helmet with the face shield pulled down, ducked out of the store carrying bulk boxes of Advil and Tylenol.
The looting soon spread to an adjacent strip mall. For a surreal period, the people gathered outside the precinct house chanted and gave speeches while not fifty feet away other groups ransacked an Office Depot, a Kmart, and a Dollar Tree. Several protesters pleaded, “Keep it peaceful!” Chantaveia Burnett, one of the young women who had tried to defend the Stop-N-Shop, had given up rebuking the looters, and resigned herself to collecting loose bottles of water and stacking them in a neat pile. “People are probably going to need water,” she explained.
By midnight, anyone looking to protest peacefully had left the scene. As a helicopter idled overhead, people taking cover behind a car wash launched bottles, bricks, and large mortar fireworks at the officers on the roof of the precinct house. Others broke into a Wells Fargo bank. In a room with overturned filing cabinets, smashed computers, and money-counting machines, two men, one white and one black, stood in front of a tall safe, arguing over a ring of keys that somebody had found. When it became clear that there was nothing inside to rob—or nothing left—a consensus rose in volume and vehemence: “Burn it down!” A black man vanished into the bank carrying a red can of gasoline; when he reappeared, the can was gone.
“We don’t need money anymore!” someone shouted.
“We are the police now!” another added.
A teen-ager, wearing wraparound sunglasses with the price tag attached, stumbled past me. “Is this shit real?” he muttered. “Am I fucking dreaming?”
Ten minutes later, the flames leaping from the bank were bright enough to throw into relief the officers still standing on the precinct roof.
Simone Hunter watched the fire with what was becoming a familiar mixture of vindication and disbelief. “I can’t lie—I was happy,” she told me later. “If we need to make the world stop for people to pay attention to what’s going on? Then we’re gonna make the world stop.”
Hunter’s sentiment was shared by many of the protesters I met in Minneapolis. Although the vast majority of them had not committed any crimes, they recognized the political utility of such conduct. Nobody was killed, and neither law enforcement nor the military reported sustaining any injuries during the riots. Activists have argued that human life matters more than wealth and material objects, whose loss can never undermine the social compact as egregiously as the murder, by state agents, of black people. Property damage is therefore justifiable if it prevents such murders in the future. Whether or not you agree with that calculus, one thing seems indisputable: the uprising in Minneapolis has already resulted in meaningful change.
In addition to fixing the world’s attention on the problems of police brutality and structural racism, the demonstrators in Minneapolis have succeeded in winning a number of concrete concessions that likely would not have been made under normal circumstances. The week after Floyd’s murder, Minnesota’s attorney general upgraded Derek Chauvin’s charge to second-degree murder, and charged the other three officers with aiding and abetting him. Minneapolis’s school board and its parks department severed ties with the police. The Minnesota Department of Human Rights launched an investigation into the police force and moved to ban its officers from using choke holds and neck restraints. Most remarkably, on June 7th, nine of the thirteen members of the City Council vowed to “begin the process of ending the Minneapolis Police Department.” Although the practical import of this pledge remains vague, a radical overhaul of law enforcement in Minneapolis appears assured.
After decades of civil petitions for a reckoning with systemic racism, what finally achieved it was the issuance of an ultimatum—one with teeth. As the chant goes: no justice, no peace.
Simone Hunter, like many protesters, sees other positive consequences of the upheaval in Minneapolis. She told me that, though “there was always friction” among the city’s communities of color—African-Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, various immigrant groups, and refugees—“this has broken all that down.” Solidarity between the Somali-American and the African-American communities, in particular, has been galvanized by an urgent sense of common struggle that supersedes differences in history and culture. Somali-American women were ubiquitous at the protests. On June 6th, when Ilhan Omar, the Somali-born U.S. congresswoman who represents Minneapolis, spoke at a demonstration in town, she acknowledged, “I might not have been born in the United States. I might not have inherited the trauma and the tragedy that black Americans have who come from enslaved ancestry.” However, she said, the ordeal of racism had initiated her into the black-American experience: “I have lived as a black person in this country. I have lived as a mother raising black children.”
Nowhere has a sense of unity been more movingly on display than at Thirty-eighth and Chicago. At once a site of solemn mourning and of festive commemoration, the intersection drew more volunteers, artists, performers, and activists every day. The police had, for the most part, stayed away: buses and barriers sealed off a portion of the neighborhood, which was patrolled by residents, some armed. A medical tent was erected, and couches and lounge chairs were arranged under the canopy of the filling station opposite the Cup Foods. A stage, a d.j. table, and an industrial sound system were installed. A towering portrait of Floyd was mounted to a bus stop. Like an evolving art installation, the intersection was increasingly populated by statues and paintings. Visitors mingled, spoke, listened, danced, chanted, and prayed. Fresh bouquets piled up on top of desiccated ones. Pastors, priests, and imams gave sermons. You could sense the unprecedented extent to which Floyd’s death, compared with previous police killings of African-Americans, had unsettled white Americans. Soccer moms wept openly, old hippies burned sage, and white parents kneeled with their children before the spot where Floyd was killed. Black parents brought their children as well, and it was impossible not to consider how the respective conversations would differ.
The vigil site also became the hub of an organic, citywide mutual-aid campaign. Many poorer residents had already been struggling because of lockdown measures related to covid-19; shops that hadn’t already been shuttered by the pandemic were now damaged, or covered in plywood. Nearly every business on Lake Street, the primary commercial corridor for Latinos and Native Americans, was closed. So were the bus and light-rail lines, which meant that travelling outside the area to buy groceries was impossible for those without vehicles. At Thirty-eighth and Chicago, people had set up tables loaded with canned and boxed goods, fresh produce, diapers, toilet paper, kitchen supplies, homemade face masks, and other provisions, all piled around signs that read “free!” and “take what you need!” Near Cup Foods, the headquarters of a labor-rights organization called Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha had been converted into a food pantry, its offices swamped with donated items. A line of people snaked out the door, below the words “comida gratis.”
Other spontaneous initiatives felt less revolutionary. The day after the rioting around the Fifth Precinct, hundreds of volunteers, most of them white, descended on the neighborhood to clean it up. Although some of them found useful tasks—one group filled garbage cans with water at nearby homes, wheeled them to the smoldering ruins of a small business, and formed a bucket line to douse the flames—others seemed primarily interested in being there, or having been there. Most of the people I spoke to said that they had come out “to support the community.” Yet it was not altogether clear whether sweeping away the wreckage left behind by the protests amounted to an endorsement or a censure of them.
This ambiguity was most palpable—and uncomfortable—at the Wells Fargo, where a broken pipe spewed water into the scorched shell of the lobby. Dozens of young women used push brooms to usher the ankle-deep water out of the building while men rescued desks and other furniture. Many of them were evangelicals from Saint Paul. “We’re trying to help in any way we can,” one said, a little breathlessly. The oldest person there was soaking wet and sweeping the water with visible urgency. When I asked him if he was with the church, he said, “What church?,” and went on to explain that he was from Somalia. A safe-deposit box in the flooded basement contained the passports and birth certificates of his eleven children.
The absence of hierarchy, and the need for direction, thrust many previously disengaged citizens into public and political life. On May 30th, while the church members worked to salvage what they could of the Wells Fargo, Governor Walz, having declared an 8 p.m. curfew in the Twin Cities the previous day, fully mobilized the Minnesota National Guard—“an action that has never been taken,” he noted. At 7:55 p.m., every cell phone in the city received an emergency alert: “Go home or to safe inside location. Avoid the outdoors. The curfew is enforceable by law.” When the message went out, I was sitting with Lisa Kargou, an immigrant from Liberia, amid thousands of protesters in the intersection between the bank and the Fifth Precinct house. I asked her if she planned to stay out past curfew, and she replied, “Hell yes. I’m out here. I’m in it for good.” Kargou had three sons, ages twelve, ten, and four. “I’m fighting for my kids,” she said. “When they grow up to be men, I want them to be able to walk down the street without fear.”
People took turns talking through a public-address system, and most of the speeches were more personal than political. If anyone was in charge, it seemed to be an African-American man in a long T-shirt with golden fringes, who had earlier scaled a street light and draped from it an enormous cloth tapestry bearing Floyd’s image. When the emergency alert sent a ripple of apprehension through the crowd, the man grabbed the microphone and implored everyone to remain calm. “We gotta have some order, and we have to have decorum!” he said.
Given this projection of authority, I assumed that he was an experienced activist, or at least affiliated with an organization. In fact, it was the first protest he had ever attended. His name was Cornell Griffin, and he was thirty-nine years old; he lived with his wife in Maple Grove, northwest of the city. He’d worked as a mechanic, but for the past year and a half he had been depressed and living like a “recluse”—seldom leaving his basement and spending most of his time reading the Bible and posts on Facebook. He hadn’t spoken to his extended family in months, and, when the protests began in Minneapolis, he’d felt no more desire to take part than he had after similar outrages. “I ain’t gonna lie,” he said. “When Trayvon Martin happened, Freddie Gray, I didn’t do shit. Like, nothing.” When Floyd was killed, Griffin’s best friend tried to persuade him to join the protests, and for the first three days Griffin refused. Then, a few hours before I first saw him, he’d told himself, “Either I’m gonna live my life in fear, or I’m gonna try this one dang thing and see what comes of it.” After Griffin offered to climb the street light, the group running the P.A. system started handing him the microphone. He found his voice, and realized that people in the crowd were looking to him for guidance.
After the emergency alert, a man on roller skates approached Griffin and told him that police officers, state troopers, and National Guard soldiers were assembling nearby: the crackdown would be violent, and the ensuing panic could cause a stampede. The man proposed that Griffin lead away as many protesters as he could. Griffin took the microphone and announced that a march was currently departing. A large group began following him toward downtown.
Not long after, a phalanx of state troopers in riot gear unleashed rubber bullets, marking pellets, stun grenades, and tear gas on the remaining protesters—more than a thousand people, including children and senior citizens, all of them peaceful—then rushed them with batons. Following behind the assault was an armored tactical vehicle; from its open hatch, a trooper aimed an assault rifle with a silencer at people. Within minutes, the intersection had been cleared. Disoriented and bleeding protesters, and some journalists, staggered through the gas. Griffin’s wife, who’d stayed behind, texted him, asking where he was, and he quickly headed back. Just outside the Fifth Precinct, he came upon a woman rooted to the ground, immobilized with fear. Griffin was attempting to get her to move when he spotted a nearby officer levelling a gun at them. A rubber bullet hit his neck.
When I met up again with Griffin, a few days later, his neck was still scabbed over where the round had broken the flesh, and his voice was raspy from the trauma to his throat and vocal cords. But he was in high spirits. The protest had shifted something into focus for him. “For the last year, I’ve been feeling like there’s something wrong with me,” he said. “And then this happened. And, all of a sudden, it all made sense. It wasn’t me. My city is hurting. My city is depressed. My city is on fire.”
The manner in which law enforcement has responded to the demonstrations in Minneapolis has only intensified the resentment fuelling the demonstrations. Although no police officers are known to have been harmed by protesters, many protesters have been injured by the police. One man, Soren Stevenson, lost his left eye after being hit with a rubber bullet. The rioting lasted only a few days; since then, except in a few isolated instances, the main crime that protesters have committed in Minneapolis is being out past curfew. The day after Griffin led people away from the Fifth Precinct, hundreds of peaceful demonstrators gathered downtown at the U.S. Bank Stadium. As eight o’clock approached, a man with a bullhorn announced, “If anybody’s confused or has questions about what’s going on here, if you continue to stay in this area just know that they have been ordered to shoot to kill us.”
The warning set off arguments over its credibility—surely the police couldn’t use lethal rounds on protesters? Then again, hadn’t the President himself threatened such violence? Tony Clark, a twenty-eight-year-old construction worker from the Southside, had no doubt. “Did you not understand what Trump said?” he asked a group huddled around him. “He said, ‘We’re at war now.’ ”
Clark had been a mainstay on the front lines—a vibrant presence, vocally and sartorially. That day, he had on a camouflage-print down vest, no shirt, and his signature adornment: a quarter-size earring gauge bearing the words “not today satan.” A cross was tattooed under his right eye, and a diamond under his left. The previous night, I’d walked alongside him as he’d driven slowly up Thirty-first Street, through a neighborhood of wood-frame houses with front porches and fenced-in lawns, encouraging the protesters who had fled the Fifth Precinct. At times, he’d stopped his gray sedan and climbed onto its roof to jeer at pursuing police officers. As people had gathered around his car, he had told them, “I don’t give a fuck if you’re Vice Lord, P. Stone, Blood, Latin Kings. We all together.” Clark then waved toward the police: “They the gangsters. They the mob.” Later, he’d stuck a megaphone out his window and held his phone to it while it played the video of Floyd’s death. “Y’all hear George crying?” Clark had shouted. “This is why we’re out here!”
As Clark and the other remaining protesters debated whether to violate the curfew, they were joined by marchers who had walked from Thirty-eighth and Chicago, three miles away, led by a group of California activists, including Joe Collins, an African-American congressional candidate from South Los Angeles. Collins and his colleagues directed the combined groups to follow them toward Interstate 35, which had been closed to traffic. Clark stepped into the march, as did Simone Hunter.
The city was deserted, and eerily silent, and as the protesters filled a wide four-lane avenue their chants resonated between sleek office towers and high-end apartment buildings. At the front, next to Collins, a marcher with a scarf tied around his face, his hat brim pulled low, and headphones in his ears nodded and privately sang along to The-Dream: “I’m feeling real black right now, real black right now. . . .”
Reaching an on-ramp, the marchers headed onto the empty interstate, where they found themselves suddenly trapped: in both directions, a few hundred feet away, a wall of police obstructed the highway. People were clearly nervous, but one of the organizers from California—a middle-aged man, anomalously clad in a pin-striped suit with gold cufflinks—assured everyone that as long as they remained peaceful no harm would come to them. “You do not have to worry—we are not here for violence,” he yelled. “They’re not gonna touch you. Trust me.”
Clark shook his head, unconvinced. “It’s about to get dangerous,” he told the man. “Y’all are playin’ with fire.”
As the protesters linked arms, someone handed out protective helmets from a garbage bag. “No,” the man in the pin-striped suit said, snatching a helmet away. “We’re not here for that.” The officers, however, soon started advancing toward the protesters, firing tear gas and forcing them up a dirt embankment leading to a Mobil gas station, where they regrouped, coughing and gagging. “Everybody remain calm!” Clark urged, his face dripping with milk. State troopers and sheriff’s deputies, with long batons, encircled the gas station; behind them, Joe Collins, the congressional candidate, was on his knees in a patch of tall grass, being detained. Troopers in camouflage uniforms, with Kevlar helmets, flak jackets, gas masks, and assault rifles, paced the ranks. As a sense of alarm spread, the marcher who’d been singing to himself earlier raised his voice and sang aloud: “ ’Cause everywhere there’s a Chicago / The only way we’re getting out of here is if we hit the lotto.”
Simone Hunter walked up to a row of troopers and—just as she had outside the Third Precinct, when she was beaten and pepper-sprayed—boldly confronted them. I had trouble hearing what she was saying: there was a lot of racket, and after five days of tireless demonstration Hunter’s voice was almost gone. Still, it was obvious that she was using what little of it remained to give the troopers hell. The organizer in the pin-striped suit did not appreciate this. “Ma’am, please, can you back up?” he asked Hunter, to no avail. “Ma’am, please. Please. Please. Please.”
Eventually, several other protesters steered Hunter away. She was crying. As she continued to talk, undeterred, people gathered around her, listening. “My sister has kids who live here,” she said of the city. “They walk up and down these streets every day. This is our home. This is our home right here. We have enemies on all sides—not just on the streets. I’m tired. I’m fucking tired. I’ve dealt with racist shit my whole fucking life. I’m tired.” Then, clutching the front of her sweatshirt, Hunter told the protesters that she was wearing a stranger’s clothes and had spent the previous night in a stranger’s house—a white stranger’s. Later, she explained to me that she had been walking through the neighborhoods near the Fifth Precinct, after the protest there, when an S.U.V. pulled up alongside her. Inside were white men brandishing assault rifles. One of them shouted, “Go home!” Hunter sprinted down alleys and side streets, eventually encountering two white women. They invited Hunter to their place, where she slept on an air mattress in their living room. “I had never experienced anything like that before,” she said. “I was, like, This is the kind of stuff that gives you hope. It was just shocking.”
At the Mobil, she told the protesters, “Your neighbors got your back!” And, pointing at the troopers: “These people don’t got your back!”
Sometime later, the troopers and police began closing in, firing stun grenades and rubber bullets, even though we were already corralled, and no one had presented any threat. The deployment of force provoked intense panic. Several protesters wept and screamed. I remember feeling that the reaction was excessive, and thinking to myself, “Come on, they’re not going to kill us.” Later, while reviewing photographs and videos that I’d taken, I realized that many of the protesters who had stuck around up to this point were black, and that their experience of the incident was not identical to mine. Deep down, I was not afraid of the police; on an instinctive level, I understood that there was a limit to what they could do to me. If the legitimate fear that law-enforcement officers instilled in black protesters was fundamentally unknowable to me, so was the courage that people like Hunter had to summon when standing up to them.
As the officers converged on us, Deondre Moore, a twenty-five-year-old African-American from Houston—George Floyd’s home town—held his arms high and pleaded, “Don’t shoot! Let us leave!” A few minutes later, a rubber bullet struck Moore squarely in the chest. He fell to the ground, writhing in pain. “I thought it was a real bullet,” he later told me. The protesters were commanded to lie on their stomachs with their hands behind their backs—the same position as the silhouette painted on the pavement outside the Cup Foods. As National Guard units arrived in armored Humvees, the state troopers began zip-tying people by their wrists and leading them away. The protesters were surrounded by more than a hundred officers, troopers, deputies, and soldiers—almost all of whom were white. Hunter seemed less frightened than other protesters. Producing a Sharpie pen from her bag of supplies, she started writing the phone number of a local bail fund on people’s forearms. A young police officer, crouching behind his riot shield, trained his rubber-bullet gun on her and held it there. He looked terrified.
Ultimately, around a hundred and fifty protesters were loaded onto buses and taken to jail. (Journalists were not arrested, although state troopers punctured the tires of my rental car.) After being issued citations for breaking the curfew, the demonstrators were released early the next morning. The violation, a misdemeanor, is punishable by up to a thousand-dollar fine or three months’ imprisonment. Back home, Hunter brought her citation outside, held a lighter to it, and watched it burn.
Alittle after midnight, while Hunter was still in jail, I swung by Thirty-eighth and Chicago, where people were still congregating. Tony Clark was there, having slipped away from the protest moments before it was besieged. There was a palpable edge: after the past week, residents were exhausted, their emotions raw and their nerves frayed. A global uprising had emanated from the intersection, but for many locals the stresses and pressures that had defined their world before Floyd’s death were no less consuming than before.
He was Corey Moore, a forty-four-year-old North Carolina native who had moved to Minneapolis in 2000. A veteran combat medic, he served in the Army for eight and a half years, until he was honorably discharged, in 2013, after sustaining an injury in Iraq. Moore was no fan of the Minneapolis Police Department, and he later told me that Floyd’s killing had been a tragic ending to an all-too-common scenario for black Northsiders and Southsiders: “His situation went from zero to sixty, like that. That’s what it’s like for people out here, if you get accused of anything.” But he also believed in peaceful protest. He had been at the Third Precinct house on the first day of demonstrations, and had “got into it” with a group of “Antifa-type people” spitting at the police. When Moore told an especially strident white man that he “wasn’t helping our situation,” the man contemptuously asked Moore for his badge number.
Now, with everyone at Thirty-eighth and Chicago sitting around the circle of candles and flowers, Moore paced in front of them, dressing down those who’d been fighting. “That’s what they want!” he shouted, like a drill sergeant. “I don’t give a fuck who bumps into you, who talks about your mama—that’s your brother! We are not gonna entertain them with us acting like animals! We are not animals!”
“That’s what’s up, big bro!” someone yelled out.
“I don’t know any of y’all’s names, but I swear on Jesus I will die for every last one of you!” Moore went on. “We gonna do this the right way.”
“Keep that peace, big bro!”
Pointing at the spot where Floyd was killed, Moore said, “This man’s life will not be in vain. This is going worldwide. The entire world is hearing us.” Scanning the faces of his rapt young audience, Moore continued, “Every O.G. out here knows: we failed y’all. But it won’t happen another night. We got your back, come hell or high water. . . . If you an O.G., put your hand up!” Tony Clark, who’d joined Moore inside the circle, raised a fist in the air. When Moore finished, Clark offered a prayer: “Lord Jesus, I pray that we can wake up and stand still with each other.”
I left not long after this, but Moore later told me that he and about twenty other people had sat there until dawn. As the night deepened, people stood one at a time to express themselves and share their stories. “You started hearing individual voices,” Moore recalled. “It was awesome.” There were also interludes of silence. Squad cars periodically approached the barricades, but never crossed them. The intersection, Moore said, felt like an oasis.
For the most part, he moderated and listened. He did not talk about the time, in Alabama, when he was en route to a Basic Noncommissioned Officer Course and was pulled over by white police officers, because he fit the description of a suspect. He did not recount how he was made to get out of his vehicle, at gunpoint, even though he was in uniform, with his military orders in hand and an Army duffelbag on the back seat. Nor did he explain how, after so many similar encounters, being stopped by the police scared him more than anything he’d experienced in Iraq—especially when one of his four children was in the car. Over there, he could at least defend himself.
But Moore did try to crystallize for the white people who were at Thirty-eighth and Chicago what it felt like to be black in America. He put it this way: “It’s like you’re standing in this tight line that you can’t get out of. And everything that’s happening up ahead is horrible as hell. And you know that eventually you’re going to be next.”
The following afternoon, Terrence Floyd made his visit to the intersection, sat by the painted silhouette, and asked the protesters to “do this another way.” Although at that point the demonstrations in Minneapolis had already become peaceful, Terrence’s appeal, like Moore’s the night before, arrived precisely at the moment it was needed. The mood in Minneapolis had shifted from one of fervid insurrection to fatigue—a kind of dazed astonishment at all that had happened, and tentative uncertainty about what to do now.
If protesters on the ground were suddenly unsure how to proceed, activists and organizers, who until then had been largely absent from the streets, were not. Throughout the past few years, Minneapolis’s black-activist network had coalesced around an overarching policy objective that, so far, had gained little traction: defunding and disbanding the city police department. Tony Williams, the Reclaim the Block member, said that many activists in Minneapolis came to promote this solution after seeing the ineffectiveness of reform measures—such as mandated body cameras for officers—that were adopted after the Jamar Clark and Philando Castile killings.
During the Obama Administration, Minneapolis was one of six cities that participated in a progressive three-year federal program intended to “increase trust between communities and the criminal justice system,” and, in 2017, Medaria Arradondo, one of the African-American officers who had sued the department for racial discrimination a decade earlier, was appointed chief of police. But Williams said that such steps had been “primarily about image rather than about substance”; eventually, he and his peers concluded that “this is really a cycle, and the reforms that are a part of the cycle don’t actually change the math that leads to these killings in the first place.” He continued, “If we don’t want to just put a Band-Aid over the bullet wound, we need to fundamentally reassess how to do public safety.”
Until two weeks ago, the view that no amount of reform could fix the police department—that its essential architecture threatened people of color—was little discussed outside of activist and academic circles. “But we’ve seen an enormous groundswell of support since the murder of George Floyd,” Williams said. As well-coördinated demonstrations have supplanted the spontaneous uprising of late May, pointed calls to disband the Minneapolis Police Department have eclipsed less programmatic and more emotional demands for justice. Notably, the majority of the people at “abolish the police” events have been white, and few of the front-line protesters I spent time with attended them.
On June 6th, Black Visions Collective, a group aligned with Reclaim the Block, organized a march that ended in Northeast Minneapolis, outside Mayor Frey’s apartment. Frey, a white, thirty-eight-year-old Democrat and a civil-rights lawyer, emerged from his home and navigated the crowds to where Kandace Montgomery, the director of Black Visions Collective, stood in the bed of a truck. If Frey had planned on delivering an apologia, he was in for a surprise. Looming over the mayor, Montgomery asked into her microphone, “Yes or no—will you commit to defunding the Minneapolis Police Department?”
When, after some vacillation, Frey responded, “I do not support the full abolition of the police department,” Montgomery yelled at him to “get the fuck out of here.” Frey walked away, through a sea of middle fingers, shouted insults, and chants of “Shame!”
The next day, nine members of the Minneapolis City Council—a veto-proof majority—announced their pledge to dismantle the police department. The president of the council declared, “Our efforts at incremental reform have failed. Period.” The historic decision has launched the city of Minneapolis into uncharted territory, and it remains unclear what, exactly, will happen if the department is indeed dissolved. (Frey remains opposed.) “We’re all figuring it out in real time,” Tony Williams, who is involved in discussions with the council, said. “There are a lot of questions. This has never been done before.” But, Williams emphasized, “we can’t build a new model from scratch without engaging with the community about what we want that to look like—that’s how we ended up in this mess.”
Just how broadly the community supports disbanding the police is, however, also unknown. Evidence is anecdotal. There has been no referendum, or even recent polling. On the evening of June 7th, I was at Thirty-eighth and Chicago, sitting with Tony Clark across from the Cup Foods, when reports of the council’s pledge appeared on my phone. Clark looked taken aback when I told him the news. “Like, no police?” he said. It was the first time he’d heard of the idea.
Clark turned to his friend, a twenty-seven-year-old named Lavish James, who’d grown up three blocks away. “Bro, you want the cops to go home?”
James had been among the protesters arrested near the stadium, along with Hunter, and he was not shy about denouncing the racism and abusiveness of the Minneapolis police. Yet he responded without hesitation: “No. If the cops go home, we’re fucking turning into Hamas.”
Corey Moore is of a similar mind. Like James, he believes that violent, armed bad actors would inevitably dominate and exploit any environment free of law enforcement. It’s not the institution that should be done away with, he said, but, rather, “the mentality that it’s us against them.”
Williams and his fellow-activists counter that Minneapolis is already dominated by violent, armed bad actors: the police.
The day after Cornell Griffin was shot in the neck with a rubber bullet, he went with his wife and several friends to the Third Precinct house, where the protests in Minneapolis had begun. Huge slabs of concrete sealed the entrance to the partially incinerated station. People were boarding up the Target across the street and rolling white paint over graffiti. In a corner of the parking lot, Griffin and his friends constructed a small stage from two-by-fours and plywood. A crowd gathered. Griffin mounted the structure and recited a credo: “We’ve decided we are not divided, because we’ve decided to take a stand. I don’t care who you are, or your skin color, if you’re with me today you’re my sister or my brother.”
He’s been out there each day since. When people come, he asks them to repeat his refrain. Then they add their signature to the stage, which is now covered with hundreds of names. “They’re held accountable from that point on,” Griffin told me.
Tony Clark is considering travelling to other cities to tell protesters about what took place in Minneapolis. He is worried that the energy of the uprising is dissipating, and that the global attention it briefly attracted has already drifted elsewhere. On June 12th, he told me, “I want to keep up the fight. I want to keep the fire burning. I feel like this was just Round One.”
Several weeks have passed since Floyd was killed. Simone Hunter still goes to Thirty-eighth and Chicago every day. The intersection has become a second home for her—or a first home. Recently, she joined a volunteer security detail, and now works nights, standing guard at one of the barricades from evening until sunrise. She instantly took to the role, tossing out journalists and outside visitors after dark. One morning, at the end of her shift, I gave her a ride to her friend’s house. She looked exhausted. Her voice was still raw from chanting and yelling at police. Her fingers were blistered from grabbing a tear-gas cannister and throwing it at state troopers.
“I’m so tired,” she said.
I asked her if she would be at the vigil site later.
“Hell yeah,” Hunter said. “I’ll probably walk back in an hour or two.” ♦