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Minnesota Burning

Troubles in the Twin Cities started long before the killing of George Floyd

Ann Bauer
July 03, 2023

Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Stephen Maturen/Getty Images


I was in my living room, under executive order not to leave home except for shopping trips or socially distanced exercise, when I saw the video for the first time.

It hit local Twitter first, so I watched it hours before it was played and replayed and talked over by every news outlet in the nation. I got it raw, the full unanalyzed horror of the knee to the neck, the indifferent officer—a casual hand in his pocket—and the unmoving man below. I was disgusted and heartbroken. But I was not surprised.

Nor was I surprised by the fires and riots that followed. The only thing that surprised me was when the entire world paid attention. Suddenly, Minneapolis mattered. I believe, cynically, that this had less to do with social justice than with pandemic rules being lifted for protests. People were bored, tired of staying home and streamed out in the millions—in cities as far away from ours as Paris, Auckland, and Taipei. Public health gave them a get-out-of-jail free card.

Because in July 2016 a school lunch worker named Philando Castile was shot in the heart by an officer who fired into Castile’s car, which also contained Castile’s girlfriend and their 4-year-old daughter, strapped into the backseat. As he lay dying, Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, livestreamed the event to Facebook even as police handcuffed her and seized her child. Yet worldwide protests did not ensue.

The summer after that Justine Damond, a spiritual healer and yogi, was killed by law enforcement in the alley behind her house after she reported what sounded like a sexual assault. And in August 2019 Kobe Dimock-Haisler, a 21-year-old with autism, was standing on his grandparents’ steps when he was tasered, shot, and killed by police.

The unique brutality of police in Minneapolis—and the surrounding area—has been documented for more than 30 years. Earlier this month, the Department of Justice issued its report after a two-year investigation of the MPD, finding “rampant discrimination, unlawful conduct and systemic mismanagement.” They said officers in the MPD often use excessive force when no force is necessary and routinely engage in unconstitutional practices, discriminate against people with mental illness, and violate the First Amendment rights of journalists.

Bob Kroll, a longtime MPD officer and president of the Minneapolis Police Officers Federation from 2015 to 2021, had myriad excessive force violations going back to 1995 when he was accused of beating, choking, and kicking a 15-year-old while yelling racial slurs. Kroll was named in a lawsuit brought by five Black officers—including one who went on to become a police chief—alleging, among other things, that he created a racist culture in the department. Yet Kroll remained in charge of the police union until the year after George Floyd’s death.

It has been this way for my whole lifetime, under administrations of every stripe. But it is worth mentioning that Minneapolis has been entirely Democrat-led since 1978. We’ve had a string of chirpy telegenic progressive mayors who march for social justice, crowd surf at festivals, and fight to legalize marijuana while police brutalize the people they serve.

This is my city. Summers of carnage. Clashes of culture. Land of extremes.


It might be easier if this were a simple story of Black and white but it’s not, even though race or identity plays a role in every case. Castile, who was Black, was shot by a Hispanic man. The spiritualist was a white woman shot by a Somali officer who fired past his partner through the driver’s-side window of the squad car. Kobe, the young man with autism, was Native American—the two men who fired at him white.

It’s a story about the myriad tensions in our community that are exploited by ambitious politicians. This, too, is part of our legacy: dramatic presidential contenders who build their empires by courting wealthy coalitions and dividing the people they claim to serve. A community with fewer ties has less power; each individual group looks to the government for more. It’s a lesson our leaders take to heart.

The Twin Cities have nurtured the LGBT community going all the way back to 1939. In the ’60s and ’70s it was second only to San Francisco as a destination for queer people looking to be out. When AIDS hit in the 1980s, official support was admirably swift. Government and community worked together to provide care and keep bars and bathhouses open, even providing blood tests to patrons on-site. Police took gay bashing seriously and supplied extra task forces to keep the streets safe.

Minneapolis enacted the first transgender rights law in the country almost 50 years ago, back in 1975. The ordinance prohibited “discrimination on the basis of ‘having or projecting a self-image not associated with one’s biological maleness or one’s biological femaleness.’” This spring, Minnesota passed a “trans refuge” bill that grants legal protection to youth who come for gender-affirming care, even if one or both of their parents object.

But being Black (or Hispanic or Native) in the Twin Cities is a very different thing. Redlining was the law here until 1953. Three years after dissolving their racial covenants, city planners razed Rondo—the historically Black neighborhood in St. Paul where Dave Winfield and Gordon Parks once lived—to extend Interstate 94. One in every eight Black families in St. Paul lost a home to the expansion of I-94.

Today, the Twin Cities ranks in the bottom five nationally for graduation rates, home ownership and household income of Black residents. Latinos fare only slightly better. American Indians in Minneapolis are homeless at 17 times the rate of white residents; their average income statewide is the lowest of any racial group.

Shortly after the cop who killed Philando Castile was found not guilty, in 2017, Black activists opposed the inclusion of uniformed police in the annual Pride parade, but they were shouted down. Law enforcement was seen as enlightened friends and protectors of the LGBT community; what happened in poorer districts was regrettable, but not worth alienating allies. There was a brief delay when protesters blocked the route, staging a die-in on Hennepin Avenue, but they were quickly overcome. Tens of thousands of Pride revelers pushed through the blockade and marched on, hugging rainbow-adorned officers along the way.

Many of those same people would be moved to rip off their masks and hurl insults at police precincts just a few years later, in the riotous wake of George Floyd’s killing. Some would even throw Molotov cocktails. Suddenly the killing of a Black man was worthy, not just of disinviting parade guests but of torching entire city blocks. The zeitgeist had shifted and carried them along.


This pattern goes all the way back to 1967 and the violence that began on July 19, the night of the Aquatennial Torchlight Parade.

There were race riots throughout the country that year; Minneapolis was just one of many cities on fire. But here, the conflict played out between the Blacks and the Jews.

Before World War II, Black Americans and Jewish Americans shared some interests. Both groups were restricted, discouraged from mixing with the Germans and Scandinavians who dominated Twin Cities commerce and culture in the early 20th century. From roughly 1920 to 1945, Blacks and Jews were forced to live together in North Minneapolis, peaceably intertwined.

Then the Nazis made antisemitism distasteful; good Minnesotans no longer wanted to be associated with that. Slowly, grudgingly, our city awarded Jews more freedom. Business opportunities and home ownership were offered to Jews in tonier areas of the city. As they were able, Jewish families moved out of North Minneapolis—and flourished.

By ’67 the North side was populated mostly by poor Black residents but Jewish shops remained, their owners driving in daily from “better” sections of town. Then came July and the Aquatennial, our annual festival of lakes. What set the spark that night is unknown: Some say it was a Jewish retailer who shot a Black man for petty theft; others that it was a fight over a wig at the parade. Whatever the trigger, police were called and they beat back the people, throwing two young girls to the ground and striking a pregnant Black woman who later miscarried as a result.

Angry citizens gathered along Plymouth Avenue in North Minneapolis. Over the next two days, 18 fires were set and many Jewish businesses destroyed; two local grocery stores—Silvers Food Market and Knox Food Market—burned to the ground. What had started as a protest over police brutality grew to include anger over the city’s longstanding discrimination in housing and education. The violence surged out of control.

The governor called up 250 National Guard troops and stationed them in Black neighborhoods throughout Minneapolis. In the end, 36 people were arrested (including children); an all-white grand jury found police had behaved appropriately and declined to bring charges for the original use of force. Ultimately, the ’67 uprising left $4.2 million in damage—roughly $38 million in today’s dollars. And the two minority communities—Blacks and Jews—splintered forever.

A few years later, when my parents first discussed relocating to Minneapolis from the East Coast, my father resisted. “Their airport is named for Charles Lindbergh,” he told my mother. “How can we move there?”

And yet, they did. Our family lived in a four-bedroom house near the Mississippi River. My dad went to work for Honeywell and became a leader in the Indian Princesses program for fathers and daughters. Once a week in summer we’d put on faux leather vests and headbands with hieroglyphs, sit on blankets in the backyard, and beat drums with other men and their girls. We pledged to love the sacred circle of family and be pure in body, spirit, and heart.

Over time, Dad became the city’s loudest promoter. The schools were top rate! The cost of living was affordable, the health care among the best in the nation. As for the antisemitism, at least it was above ground and quickly fading. A man could work with that.

Evidence bears him out on that last: St. Louis Park, a first-ring suburb of Minneapolis where thousands of Jews (many from North) settled after the war, produced Al Franken, Thomas Friedman, Norman Ornstein, and Ethan and Joel Coen. Franken himself has called their group the “Jewish Mafia.” Men of great means who influence culture, media, and elections with their dollars and words.


Ask the average person to name three nationally known politicians from Iowa, or Ohio, or Montana, and it’s unlikely they can. But Minnesota? Humphrey, Mondale, Wellstone, Ventura, Franken, Omar, Klobuchar. Why does our flyover state—and the Twin Cities in particular—produce so many vivid, polarizing figures?

They all, the good ones and the bad, trade on niche alliances, bartering one group’s interests for another. They’re like parents who show favoritism—actively fostering contempt between their offspring—so they’re always at the center, always in control. That postwar period taught them well: Lifting one minority voter base at the expense of another will yield banner electoral results, assuming you get your metrics right.

This is hardly groundbreaking chicanery. It’s a twist on Tammany Hall, only the bribes are liberties instead of cash. Our Minnesota-schooled pols just happen to be very good at the political shell game. And for a minute, after the death of George Floyd, it looked like the Black community in Minneapolis had come due for its reward.

Governor Tim Walz—who had forbidden funerals for every regular Minnesotan—not only permitted but attended the packed, indoor service for Floyd. He prayed with the Reverend Al Sharpton and tweeted: “George Floyd’s death is the symptom of a disease. We will not wake up one day and have the disease of systemic racism cured for us. This is on each of us to solve together, and we have hard work ahead.”

Walz went on to preside over the largest case of pandemic fraud in the nation, in which a string of imaginary state-supervised NGO’s (mostly East African and Somali-held) stole $250 million in federal nutrition funds—at a time when more than 25% of African American families in the state didn’t have enough to eat. Due to school closures that the governor initiated and allowed to drag on for more than 18 months, Black and Hispanic children in Minnesota are, on average, two years behind in math.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey threw himself at Floyd’s coffin and sobbed, promising “deep structural reform of a racist system.” Last year, a 22-year-old musician named Amir Locke was asleep on his cousin’s couch when Minneapolis police broke in on a no-knock warrant, shooting and killing Locke on sight. One might have expected the world to erupt in protest again, but no. There was a collective sigh.

It was, however, an embarrassment for the mayor who’d campaigned on eliminating no-knock warrants and then neglected to do so. Frey explained this as a “miscommunication,” hastily repromised, enacted the overdue ban, and was reelected to office in the fall.

In March, the executive director of Minneapolis’ Division of Race, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging resigned and sent a public letter to the mayor’s office, charging that his office fosters a toxic work environment that reflects “anti-Black sentiment.” So far this year, Frey’s deep structural reform has consisted of lifting noise ordinances to allow the nation’s first five-times-daily Muslim call to prayer.


Sure, a “consent decree” has been issued and the Feds will now monitor the MPD. Aside from that bit of paperwork, not much has changed.

Due to inflation and new taxes, the financial challenges for low-income families have worsened. Loads of “affordable housing” has been built, but it’s not very affordable. Crime is historically high but down a tick. Mayor Frey has a new multi-million-dollar scheme to revitalize downtown Minneapolis with a pedestrian mall where people can walk and drink. Cup Foods, the corner store whose clerk called the police on Floyd, has been sold and renamed Unity Foods. Homeless encampments have been cleared from the creekside. The razor wire is mostly gone.

But there are still two summers in this city.

One is verdant and leafy, full of bicycles, farmers markets and ice cream stands. Because we’re at the headwaters of the Mississippi, our coffee and craft beer dazzle with rich, clean flavor. Walkable lakeside neighborhoods full of Queen Anne estates and “All Are Welcome Here” signs hold progressive fundraisers among residents who are more than 90% white. Pride is a thing to behold with Loring Park—facing Claes Oldenburg’s iconic spoon-and-cherry sculpture—turned into a mini version of the Chicago World’s Fair. Strollers and dogs abound. Meanwhile, on the highways: caravans of SUVs with kayaks and camping gear strapped to the top, bound for the cool, silent woods of the north.

The other summer is the one you saw on your screens for a yearlong month in 2020. The smeared bus shelters, gridwork shadow of poles and cables, the aimless men in cars. The pavement, the littered gutters. The knee to the neck.

Ann Bauer is the author of four books, including the novels A Wild Ride Up the Cupboards and The Forever Marriage. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, ELLE, Salon, Slate and The Sun. Follow her on Twitter @annbauerwriter.