Everyone has a crazy pandemic story (or three). Mine found me traveling to Heidelberg for a 12-day working vacation (part spring break, part set-up for a course I was hoping to co-teach in Heidelberg that summer) in March 2020, and then getting “stuck” there for 9 months. The same travel restrictions that kept me from coming back to the US on schedule would also (had I never left the US in the first place) have prevented me from coming to Germany in May, in which case that course — “Diversity in Cultural Studies and Kulturwissenschaft(en)” — would probably never have happened. Even then, though, the pandemic meant that my colleague and I taught the course entirely online, using a combination of audio lectures/prompts, online forums, and Moodle.
Roughly a month into the semester, George Floyd was murdered, Minneapolis erupted, and those events necessarily interrupted our teaching. Partly because they were directly relevant to issues at the core of the course, but also because I was (suddenly and unexpectedly) a kind of “native” informant for my students about what was happening in Minnesota. The text below (the latest in the sporadic ephemera series) is a lightly edited version (mostly to clean up typos) of what I wrote in early June 2020 to help our German students try to make sense of the disturbing stories they were seeing in the news.
This is not a regular part of the course. Given the events that inspired it, it’s safe to say that it was not something that could have been planned. You do not have to read it, though I hope you will. You do not have to respond to it, though I’m happy if you do. If you choose to respond, whatever discussion that ensues will not be factored into your grade. If this were a regular “in-person” course, I’d be inclined to toss aside the usual lesson plan for a day and devote a class period to a discussion about what’s been going on in Minneapolis for this past week. Or, perhaps, to take some time after a regular class session for a more informal conversation with anyone who wanted to be a part of that. In a purely online course, however, such options are not readily available. So instead I have written something way too long (sorry!) and posted it on Moodle in its own module. You should think of this corner of our Moodle site as an entirely optional, open-ended conversation space about a major news event that’s related to the course in significant ways.
[Sidebar #1. I need to contradict myself, at least partially, from the start. On the one hand, neither Giulia nor I could have predicted that “race riots” (though see more below for a critique of this terminology) would occur in my hometown halfway through our diversity course. On the other hand, pretty much every semester when I’ve taught a comparable course has been punctuated or interrupted by a big news story that has managed to be a “live” illustration of at least one major issue from that course. Sadly, such events are common enough that one can almost guarantee that any given course on diversity/racism/etc. will get a “live” example of its own to engage with. So I’m not entirely surprised that we got one too. But I wouldn’t have predicted it to hit quite so close to home. Or with such force.]
What follows is written with at least two different voices — the personal and the scholarly — but those are tangled in a messy way, and I’m not sure I could do things differently. More precisely, if I tried to do things differently, it would feel inadequate and inappropriate no matter which direction I went. Writing about the ongoing events in Minneapolis “objectively” — as if I had no personal connection to them at all — would be dishonest (at best) and impossible (at worst). I’ve lived there too long to be able to step back and pretend that anything I might say about the city isn’t unavoidably shaped by my firsthand knowledge and experience. Writing about those events “just” as a long-time resident of the city — as if I had no academic knowledge of media representations or racial politics — would be just as difficult, given that most (all?) of my scholarly work deals directly with phenomena that are inextricably part of my everyday life. If my research focus were, say, the history of Etruscan pottery, or international fishing treaties, or British novels of the 19th century, then it would be much easier to draw clean lines between “the personal” and “the professional.” But I study contemporary media and the politics of race, and so I can’t just close a book or my laptop at the end of a workday and turn my attention to a world where my primary research objects are hard to find. Quite the contrary: the stuff I study is almost impossible to avoid, even when I’m “off the clock.”
But while it would feel awkward to write this either as a purely academic analysis or as a purely personal reflection, it would feel even more awkward for me to stay silent about what’s going on in Minneapolis right now, especially given the multiple ways that those events intersect with issues at the core of the course. And so I write anyway, even though I know in advance that whatever comes out of this will be awkward and jumbled and imperfect.
That sort of messiness is probably unavoidable. There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle, which makes it hard to present this as a story with a clear through-line, or as a polished argument with a straightforward thesis built around a logical array of supporting facts. It’s also an ongoing set of events, which means that some of the details are shifting even as I try to write about them. And, on a personal note, I’m wrestling with a broad range of emotions — anger, grief, outrage, loss, pride, love, hope, frustration, worry, fear, and then some — which doesn’t exactly make the writing of this any easier.
[Sidebar #2. There’s some “unprofessional” language in what follows. I will not apologize for that. The events in question — both in the immediate moment and in the broader historical context — are worthy of rage. To be sure, angry words will turn some people off and make it harder for them to pay attention to the message. And, as an old saying from the US South goes, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. At the same time, however, there’s a kind of euphemistic dishonesty involved in trying to discuss systemic brutality and violence as if it were merely a matter of genteel philosophical disagreement. More pointedly, there is a serious problem with the expectation that people should always respond to violence, abuse, trauma, and horror with unflappable calmness and gentility — and this is especially the case when peaceful, respectful, civil, quiet (etc.) efforts to give voice to people’s grief and frustration have proven to be ineffective (at best) or been met with more forceful anger and violence (at worst).]
But it’s also important for me to do this. I’m currently sitting in Heidelberg in relative comfort, but back in the US, the city I’ve called home since 2004 has been on fire for almost a week. More specifically, the neighborhoods I know best — the ones where I live or have lived, the ones where I shop for groceries and see movies and eat out and enjoy a drink or two — are among the ones that have been the most active sites for the current unrest.
[Sidebar #3. I use the word “unrest” deliberately. I am tempted to use the word “uprising,” but I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate. Lots of folks are using the word “riots,” but I think it’s important to recognize how loaded that term is, how selectively it gets used, and to avoid repeating those mistakes. In situations where people who have destroyed property and set things on fire have been predominantly white and/or the reasons for all that mayhem have not been overtly political, mainstream media descriptions of those events rarely (if ever) frame them as “riots.” People flood the streets and burn things down after “their” teams win an “important” game, and newscasters chuckle about celebrations getting “rowdy” or “out of hand.” People take to the streets with grief and rage because a member of their community has been unjustly killed by the police, and “riot” is one of the first words that mainstream journalists use. As a label, “riot” refocuses our attention on the property that’s been damaged or destroyed, and it carries strong connotations that what’s happening in the streets is irrational, unfocused, mindless, and random. It delegitimizes the grief and rage that people rightly feel, and it distracts from the events that gave rise to that grief and rage. People in Minneapolis are damned angry, and they have damned good reasons for being angry.]
[Sidebar #4. If, on the other hand, these really are riots, then they deserve the label in one of two ways (and maybe both) that diverge from the usual way the word is used in mainstream discourse. Divergence #1 is a callback to what happened in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, after Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown. There was also violence in the streets then, but most of it was instigated by the police — who showed up with military-grade weaponry to protests that were angry but peaceful — and so some critical commentators referred to what went down then as a police riot. It was, after all, the police who showed up prepared for a massive fight. And it was the police who lost control and beat people in the streets. Police in Minneapolis have shown up “dressed to oppress” and have fired “non-lethal” (but still dangerous) rubber bullets into crowds of peaceful protesters. Divergence #2 is rooted in multiple reports that a significant amount of the looting and property damage has been instigated by white supremacist “accelerationists” who are using the protests to provoke the “race war” that they so desperately want. Surprisingly, some of these reports have come from government officials — including the governor of Minnesota and the mayor of St. Paul — which may be the first time in US history that elected leaders have blamed right-wing groups for turning peaceful demonstrations into violent/destructive riots. (Trump’s attempts to blame “radical left-wing” agitators for the violence are far more in keeping with the historical norm.) Less surprisingly (at least to me), my Facebook feed is full of posts from friends and colleagues back in Minneapolis whose accounts are in line with the notion that the protests are being hijacked from the right. Pickup trucks without license plates filled with heavily armed white men are rolling through my friends’ neighborhoods. Unless everyone I know back in Minneapolis has suddenly adopted the exact same crackpot conspiracy theory in an effort to spread “fake news” about what’s really happening there, I am inclined to believe that the reports of alt-right opportunists have some merit to them.]
In case you haven’t been following the story — though I know some of you have been — the immediate reason for the unrest is the death of a black man named George Floyd at the hands (or, more literally, the knee) of a white police officer named Derek Chauvin. Last Monday, Chauvin and three other police officers arrested Floyd under suspicion of using a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. The officers handcuffed Floyd and placed him face down on the street. Chauvin held his knee on the back of Floyd’s neck for almost 9 minutes while two other officers sat on him. Floyd repeatedly told the officers, “I can’t breathe,” but they continued to hold him down until long after he was unresponsive. He was taken away by ambulance and pronounced dead without ever regaining consciousness again. Floyd’s arrest was captured on video by multiple witnesses, and those videos have been circulated widely on social media.
[Sidebar #5. Those citizen videos are crucial parts of the story. The official report on the incident filed by the officers claimed that Floyd had physically resisted arrest. The videos show no signs that this claim was true. The videos also make it clear that both Floyd and several witnesses expressed concerns that the police were using excessive force and putting Floyd’s life in danger, and that the officers either ignored or dismissed such concerns. Police violence in the US, especially against communities of color, is by no means a recent phenomenon. But, until recently, it’s been rare for actual examples of police brutality — even ones that have resulted in deaths — to attract public attention at all, and even rarer for the officers involved to face criminal charges. Put simply, police officers have long been able to present their version of whatever events took place and safely assume that anyone who mattered — e.g., their superior officers, prosecutors, judges, juries, journalists — would accept their versions against those of any eyewitnesses who might be brave enough to contradict them. The widespread dissemination of smartphones has helped to change that equation a bit. It’s now harder than it used to be (though, sadly, not impossible) for juries and journalists to simply take an officer’s word for it that (for example) a suspect resisted arrest and thus needed to be forcefully subdued. If there hadn’t been video of Floyd’s arrest, it’s more than likely that Chauvin’s account of the events would have become the official truth about what happened, there would have been little to no social media uproar (or at least not any effective social media uproar), there wouldn’t have been any public protests, and Chauvin would still be on active duty and free to brutalize more people of color.]
People in Minneapolis took to the streets in protest of yet another needless police killing. I say “yet another” because this is not the first time (not even close) that the US has experienced such a killing in recent years. For that matter, it’s not the first time that the Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul have seen such a thing. Minneapolis police shot and killed Jamar Clark in 2015. St. Anthony police shot and killed Philando Castile in 2016 (St. Anthony is a Minneapolis/St. Paul suburb). Minneapolis police shot and killed Justine Damond in 2017. All of these cases involved police officers who claimed to be defending themselves against perceived threats, even though witnesses and evidence contradicted such accounts. Significantly, the only one of those cases that resulted in charges being filed against the officer (and, even rarer, a conviction) was Damond’s killing . . . which is also the only one in which the victim was white, and the officer was black.
[Sidebar #6. That history is another reason why I’m willing to give credence to the “outside agitator” narrative. When Jamar Clark was killed in 2015, protesters camped outside of the 4th Precinct station house for 18 days before the police forcefully broke up the encampment. The people occupying the space in front of the police station were righteously angry, but they were also peaceful and non-violent. The only violence that took place during those 2.5 weeks involved people who fired shots at the protesters. When Philando Castile was killed in 2016, protests and vigils lasted for weeks and included an extended encampment outside the Governor’s Residence and a brief occupation that shut down one of the major highways that runs through the cities. There was one skirmish between protesters and police that turned violent, but no major destruction of property and nothing else that could plausibly be called “riots.” To be sure, none of that history guarantees that everyone who has been smashing windows and setting fires in Minnesota over the past few nights is an outsider bent on hijacking the protests. But Minneapolis has been down this particular road more than once in recent years and has not responded with anything close to the chaos of the past week.]
If one takes all that history and context as seriously as one should, it becomes hard to believe that the real problem here is individual “bad apple” cops and their racial prejudices. There are simply too many cases like George Floyd’s, those killings have happened in too many different places across the US, and they’ve been happening for way too long. When police officers in the US unleash deadly violence on people of color, it is not an aberration: it is simply business as usual. It is men and women — regardless of who they are or what they may personally feel or believe or think — doing the job that the institution expects them to do. That job requires them to protect “good” people (and, more importantly, their property) from “bad” people, and the underlying logic of the institution dating back to before the US Civil War (which was 1861-1865, so this is not a recent phenomenon) has consistently assumed that white people are “good” and people of color are “bad.”
[Sidebar #7. That last sentence sums up the story a bit too neatly, and some people are quick to respond to comparably blunt claims by pointing to examples of white people who’ve been victimized by police violence, or to examples of people of color who’ve benefited from police protection, or to examples of healthy relationships between specific police forces and specific communities of color. Such examples are real, but they don’t actually demonstrate that the broader pattern isn’t real: simply that the “fit” between the institution’s logic and its enactment is never perfect. Angry white men armed with assault rifles can march into the state capitol building in Michigan en masse, yell directly in the faces of police officers, and walk away unscathed (for folks who missed it, this happened just a few weeks ago because the protesters objected to the state’s governor’s pandemic-related “stay at home” orders). Meanwhile, black men get shot by police (sometimes even in their own homes) because they are holding a cell phone (Stephon Clark, Sacramento, 2018) or a wallet (Amadou Diallo, New York, 1999) or a sandwich (Vonderrick Myers, St. Louis 2014) or a hair brush (Khiel Coppin, New York, 2007) or some other object that cops believe to be a gun. Police manage to capture white people who are suspected of mass murder and assumed to be armed and dangerous (e.g., Peter Manfredonia, Connecticut, 2020; Dylann Roof, Charleston, SC, 2015) without harming them at all, but black people suspected of very minor crimes (Eric Garner, selling unlicensed cigarettes, New York, 2014; Sandra Bland, failure to signal lane change, Texas, 2015; Michael Brown, jaywalking, Missouri, 2014; George Floyd, using a counterfeit bill, Minnesota, 2020) wind up dead from their encounters with the police. Even when one accounts for honest mistakes made by police officers, or for other forms of bias (e.g., against people who are poor, who are queer, who are female, who are foreign), people of color still suffer disproportionately high rates of death and injury at the hands of the police.]
On the other side of the barricades, and on a slightly more hopeful note, it’s important to recognize that the good work that people are doing isn’t just because a bunch of individuals were independently outraged over the news about Floyd’s killing and they all happened to turn up at the same place and the same time to express their anger. To be sure, that undoubtedly describes a portion of some people’s experience — at least insofar as some people presumably saw the news of Floyd’s death and felt moved to “do something” as a result. But to the extent that the protests have been successful, it’s largely been because of collective work that has a history of community organization behind it. The networks that make such things happen rarely (if ever) spring up spontaneously overnight. They are built (and rebuilt, and revised, and restructured) over extended periods of time. They depend on neighbors and communities working together, and on solidarity between groups that don’t necessarily have anything to do with one another. A lot of what I’m seeing in my Facebook feed right now involves people sharing information on where and how best to support each other as a community. People are pooling important resources at central collection points so that other people who lack those resources can benefit from them. Neighbors are taking shifts at night to watch over their blocks and try to scare any would-be instigators and looters away. People who’ve been through major protests before are writing and sharing “how to” guides to help everyone involved (but especially “newbies”) know how best to stay safe, to keep the message on point, and to coordinate any necessary actions as much as possible.
[Sidebar #8. It admittedly seems odd to talk about the “success” of the protests when so much of the city is hurting right now. But there really are genuine successes here. The four police officers involved in Floyd’s killing have all been fired. Chauvin has already been arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. This is a dramatic shift from the usual pattern in such incidents. [Extra mini-sidebar. It’s absolutely infuriating that there is enough of a “usual pattern” here to measure current events against, but there is.] At this point, less than a week after someone has died at the hands of the police, it would be normal for the officers in question to have been placed on “administrative leave” or “temporarily reassigned” to desk duty, and for the prosecutor’s office to be “reviewing all the facts” and “conducting a full investigation” before deciding whether to file charges against anyone. To be sure, what has happened so far is still not an ending that looks like justice. There are people who are upset that only one of the cops has been charged. There are people who are upset that Chauvin wasn’t charged with first- or second-degree murder. There is still a strong chance — given the historical pattern of what happens to police officers who actually do get indicted for violence against civilians — that Chauvin will be acquitted or that the charges against him will be dropped. But it is also safe to say that the main reason why the police department moved as quickly as it did to fire the officers and that the county attorney’s office moved as quickly it did to charge Chauvin is because there were organized protests in the streets and collective pressure for such things to happen.]
Mind you, what I’ve just written about collective work and solidarity makes it sound much simpler than it actually is. Real collective organizing can be damned hard work, even when the stakes are relatively low. When the stakes are high, the work is even harder. Partially, this is because there are often long, deep histories of abuse between different groups that make it hard to establish the kind of trust necessary for good collective work. People of color in the US, for instance, have good reasons not to automatically trust white folks who show up and say they want to be helpful. To be clear, that doesn’t mean that such offers are never sincere, nor does it mean that they shouldn’t be made in the future. But the long history of broken promises and betrayals (at both the institutional and the personal level) means that viable solidarity across racial lines requires a lot more work to build than, for example, the kind of solidarity that might be desirable between a truckers union and a dockworkers union.
More crucially, it’s hard to know what people will really do — even the most sincere and well-intentioned of them — if and when the shit finally hits the fan. Actually standing in solidarity with a community that someone else is attacking, after all, often means that you are putting yourself at risk at a moment when you are not being attacked. To point back in the direction of McIntosh from Block 1, an important aspect of privilege (white, male, upper class, straight, or any other flavor) is that one can choose whether or not to be a part of a particular struggle. In the US, if you are visibly a person of color, you don’t get to opt out of dealing with racism on days when you don’t feel up to it. To be sure, you can opt out of being an activist (and many people do), but you don’t get to take a holiday from your blackness or your chican@ness and move through the world for a long weekend as if you were white. On the other hand, folks with white skin privilege — and, to be clear, I include myself in that category, even if “white” is not an identity I have ever claimed for myself — get to pick and choose their battles when it comes to racism. One of the things I’ve been heartened by this past week is the number of white folks I know in Minneapolis who have not simply faded into the background, even though it might be personally safer for them to do so. I’m not there, so I don’t know how many of them are in the streets, but I see them online voicing their outrage at what the Minneapolis police is doing in their name, and sharing resources and support to their neighbors and communities, and working to build and maintain solidarity with the communities of color who are most directly at risk from police violence.
Mind you, I want to be very careful not to make these white folks into the ultimate heroes of this story. Partly, this is because the story is far from over, we don’t know when or how it will end, and it’s way too early to start pinning medals on anyone for their role in the struggle. Mostly, though, it’s because the hard, valuable work these white folks are doing — and it is hard, valuable work — should not overshadow the hard, valuable work that people of color have been doing around these issues all along. My white friends and colleagues in Minneapolis are not “white saviors.” Ideally, though, they’re a large part of what we need to see more of if we’re ever going to see a meaningful end to racism. Put bluntly, racism will not end unless and until enough white people collectively do something to end it. (Similarly, sexism and patriarchy will not end unless and until enough men collectively do something to end it. Heterosexism will not end unless and until enough straight people collectively do something to end it. And so on.)
As I mentioned up front — and in ways that should be obvious by now — this is not a neatly bounded narrative or argument, so I have no clean conclusion to sign off with. My apologies for that. But let me leave you with some links that you can follow, if you’re so inclined, for more information on various bits of the text above.
On the Michigan anti-lockdown protest:
On the racial/racist history of US policing:
On George Floyd’s killing and the unrest that has followed: