I’m a white man living in a white neighborhood of Minneapolis. Like the majority of Minnesotans, my quality of life isn’t rattled by systemic racism and maybe that’s part of the problem. That lack of personal experience leaves white Minnesotans in a dangerous denial about racial inequality in this state.
Although I work only a few blocks from the 4th precinct in North Minneapolis that Black Lives Matter protesters recently occupied after officers shot and killed Jamar Clark, I avoided taking part in the protests. I became an online advocate instead, liking posts that called for action, watching on my computer screen in silence as protesters blocked I-94 and traffic built up for miles. I watched as police moved the tents of protesters at the 4th precinct, how protesters became involved in heated confrontations with officers who used mace and beanbag bullets to subdue the crowd.
Working with homeless youth in this neighborhood, I know the patterns of discrimination and abuse many people of color face at the hands of police, and the general public’s apathy toward that abuse. The social response to the death of Jamar Clark, and the Black Lives Matter protests, are significant, showing a city – a country – divided. As a result Minneapolis has gotten to see itself more clearly. Loyalties are largely secured along racial lines. North Minneapolis, a primarily black neighborhood, responded to growing tensions and the mistrust black residents have toward law enforcement due to allegations of mistreatment. Some white Minnesotans, defying their Minnesota Nice reputation, are rebuking the Black Lives Matter movement and showing their continued ignorance of the obstacles people of color face.
When I saw the video of white supremacists preparing to visit the 4th precinct, flaunting guns and hiding behind bandannas and hateful language, I knew I needed to stand with the protesters. Sitting back and remaining silent felt like an abdication of basic decency. Then news spread that the three white supremacists shot and maimed five unarmed protesters. This neatly kept, polite city seemed to be unraveling.
The next day I followed the smell of burning firewood to the 4th precinct and found a working community. There was an area for warm clothes and gloves to hand out to protesters, fire pits and firewood were stationed down the center of Plymouth Avenue, plumes of smoke rising into the sky; a coffee and snack table was set up next to a crowd of protesters talking to journalists. I asked what was needed, what could I bring that would be useful. The woman refilling the coffee canteens paused, her lips pursed as she struggled to figure out what they currently lacked. “We might need more lids for coffee in a few hours.” The community was supporting the protesters and sharing resources to keep the protests sustainable.
Looking around at the kindness and community on Plymouth Avenue I realized much of my hesitation to participate was due to my unconscious buy-in to media paranoia and panic that perpetuates irrational fear. People have rationalized their hate online, filling Facebook feeds with an utter lack of compassion and vitriol. Some argued because Clark had a criminal history he somehow deserved his fate. Others said black people behaved like animals and needed to learn to be respectful. A common argument against the movement is that the Black Lives Matter tactics are loud and accomplish nothing. Historically, people’s movements—from Gandhi to Martin Luther King—have agitated the status quo yielding long-term change even if the immediate effect was difficult for us to see.
Since the occupation of the 4th precinct, Black Lives Matter Minneapolis has achieved a great deal. They asked for and received an independent investigation by the state and federal governments. They asked for and received the release of the officers’ names. They met with Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, Gov. Mark Dayton, and lawyers from the Department of Justice. They also received a commitment that the tapes of Clark’s shooting will be shared with the family and made public as soon as it will not impede the investigation. The nation has taken notice. Black Lives Matter Minneapolis will be heard. What, exactly, white America hears is an issue of how we use our power and privilege in this country.
Driving away from the protests I listened as a prominent Minnesota radio host asked her guest, “What, if anything, are the protests trying to accomplish?” The question seemed tone deaf, as if the host couldn’t imagine what could be improved. Minnesota has some of the worst racial disparities in education and employment in the nation. Analysis of police stops in Minneapolis and St. Paul has shown black men are stopped at a rate disproportionate to their presence in the population. Once in the criminal justice system, black men in Minnesota are prosecuted, convicted and sentenced at a higher rate than whites. People of color represent only 15 percent of the population in Minnesota, but make up more than 90 percent of the homeless families and children across the state. About 62 percent of black students in Minneapolis attend high-poverty schools, compared with 10 percent of white students. Beyond the Twin Cities, the state of Minnesota has one of the largest gaps in black-white student achievement. Recently, WalletHub evaluated the black-white gap in areas such as educational attainment, household income and homeownership. Minnesota was ranked the worst state for financial inequality.
Despite the fact that these inequalities exist, many white Minnesotans fail to recognize systemic racism as a serious problem. We can no longer ignore the deep divides in the state. We need to challenge our assumptions, fight against how we’ve been conditioned to believe that calls for accountability and equality are extreme. What’s extreme is how long and loud black people need to scream in order to be heard. If anything, Black Lives Matter is a measured response when compared to this country’s legacy of violence against black bodies. The movement is a necessary step, a corrective to a history of erasure and abuse.
Systems of oppression will not change unless those who benefit from those systems acknowledge this and demand change. It’s an uncomfortable and messy acknowledgment. It forces us to hold ourselves accountable, to examine our own biases, and our role in how others are treated. But we will continue to fail our communities as disparities in education and employment rise, as the collateral effects of incarceration remain pervasive and corrosive, and rates of homelessness in our state grow unless we address how a system that works for some is oppressive and harmful to others.
Minnesota is known for its charitable history, rooted in white liberalism. The theory of charity is commendable but the act of charity creates a divide between “us” and “them.” We need to create a culture of inclusion, of solidarity, to replace the “us” and “them” mentality with an “us” and “us” philosophy. We need to bridge the gaps that segregate us, and learn to care across differences. We will continue to give, to shelter, to offer platitudes, but nothing will truly change unless we change.
Ryan Berg is the author of “No House to Call My Home: Love, Family and Other Transgressions.”