Minneapolis, Minnesota, May 29, 2020.CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images
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The Burning of Minneapolis

Visiting the site of the American Golgotha reveals an ongoing catastrophe that seems unlikely to end anytime soon

Armin Rosen
August 24, 2020
Minneapolis, Minnesota, May 29, 2020.CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images
This article is part of Wokeness, Social Justice, and Cancel Culture.
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Uncle Hugo’s Science Fiction Bookstore was located on Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis, one block north of Lake Street. It was burned down the night of May 30, five days after the murder of George Floyd. In life it had been a dream palace hiding amid the frigid streets—there, by the snarled rebar, I’d gazed at shelf upon shelf of authors whose toil had been repaid with a foot or two of yellowing trade paperbacks. How much of themselves, I wondered during that lone visit last November, had gone into these salvaged bibliographies? Who among them lived here and only here?

Today, sections of ceiling are sandwiched atop sections of floor, with the whole mess collapsing into a blackened wedge down the east-west axis of what is now a rectangular crater in the center of Minneapolis. A funeral mound of charred literature is piled beneath felled metal and briar patches of wiring, the low stupa of printed matter rising out of the central point where the floorboards caved in.

Directly across the street from Uncle Hugo’s is a large and abandoned building whose blandness, voluminous parking lot, and cheap exterior material gives it away as a former chain hotel. The parking lot offers a fine view of the numerous burned-out storefronts and ash-strewn empty lots that now line either side of Chicago Avenue—a panorama of destruction that is invisible to consumers of mass media narratives that insist on the essential peacefulness of the events following Floyd’s killing, but achingly present for the people who live and work amid the ruins.

The story of the former Midtown Sheraton is the story of America in 2020. Built to help anchor the redevelopment of the Lake Street area in 2005, it morphed into a volunteer-staffed homeless shelter during the riots as soon as the paying guests evacuated. As many as 300 people moved in almost overnight; the communitarian project ceased just two weeks later when the building’s owner kicked everyone out amid reports of drug use and general unruliness. Many evicted residents did the only logical thing and walked about a quarter-mile south to Powderhorn Park, a blindingly green depression in the earth enclosing ballfields and an idyllic lake. Handsome Victorian houses line the surrounding hilltop streets. A large homeless encampment soon formed along the rim of the depression. The parks police initially gave the new arrivals 72 hours to leave, but the parks board did not want to deepen an existing humanitarian catastrophe and opted to suspend enforcement until a solution could be found.

“I grew up in a refugee camp. I know what it feels like not to have housing, not to have education,” said A.K. Hassan, a Somalia-born parks commissioner who lived in Dadaab, a squalid network of camps in the Kenyan desert, until being resettled in the United States at the age of 16. “There are also hardworking people that are staying in those tents—that get up every day and go to work.”

The camp along the east rim, splayed around a deserted playground, had evidence of a recently vacated volunteer operation, including signs advertising free busses to hygiene stations and a large white tent where food distributions had taken place. Joggers and dog-walkers ambled around the lake, directly beneath this horizon of suffering. Birds sang, clouds billowed, water gently lapped the shore—human misery had been integrated into the textures of life. In the east camp there were needle disposals velcro-strapped to a tree trunk. In nearby Stewart Park, there was a needle disposal lodged in a heavy concrete pedestal and decorated in an invitingly and almost cartoonishly multi-color syringe pattern. The disposal was right behind a wading pool where children frolicked. There were needle boxes, portable toilets, and portable sinks along many of the bridges over the tent-filled Midtown Greenway, a bike path that runs through a gentrifying residential neighborhood—yet another place where recreation, yuppiedom, and social collapse co-exist.

To some, toleration of the tent enclaves, along with the near-total retreat of the cops from large sections of Minneapolis, is a sign of an emerging movement of compassion and self-reliance in the wake of a civic tragedy. Communal self-regulation, which became a necessity during the five lawless days between Floyd’s murder and the mobilization of the National Guard, is a point of pride, as well as an elegant means of rendering the now-hated Minneapolis Police Department obsolete. A.J. Awed, a legal mediator and leftist City Council candidate, envisions a “community-led process” leading to the replacement of the police department with “a public safety system based in community accountability”—a refrain heard all over Minneapolis, where the police have had a much lighter footprint since the Floyd killing. But crime has seen an abrupt increase. Minneapolis surpassed the number of murders for the previous year on August 18, 2020.

One of the many striking features of the destruction in the Twin Cities is that nobody can quite agree on who carried it out. Awed, who participated in the protests, said the burning was the work of “white kids from the suburbs,” some of whom had guns. “I think it was more local in nature than people coming in,” said Bruce Goldstein, a lawyer representing a number of business owners impacted by the riots. “Outside of the Third Precinct every building we believe was burned by white supremacist groups and landlords who wanted to take advantage of the chaos,” Jaylani Hussein, director of the Minnesota office of the Council on American Islamic Relations, said on the sidelines of a July 17 Black Lives Matter protest in Saint Paul.

Minneapolitans are baffled as to how and why so much of their city ended up in ruins. The straight line between Floyd’s death and the burning of the Third Precinct is easily discerned: The building, a menacing freestanding structure on East Lake Street, is now ringed in temporary fencing; boulder-like concrete blocks wall up its former entrance and metal screens cover its windows. The American flag still flies over the building but the police have not returned. The targeting of the Arby’s next door was carry-over from the righteous fury that ejected the cops from their fortress—the building’s gone but its cowboy hat-shaped sign survived atop its high column.

The potential social justice value of the destruction of the Mama Safia Somali café across the street is hard to tease out. On a fence around a nearby rubble heap someone had left a drawing of the art-deco entrance to the Town Talk Diner, which had stood on that spot until May 27. PANCAKES, it said on the window of the remembered façade.

No one in human history has ever nailed the grim arithmetic that balances units of progress against a justifiable quantity of suffering. Even the crude ends-means assessment is just about impossible in Minneapolis—“was it worth it?” is conveniently short circuited if no one can agree on what “it” is. Maybe that explains why many of the victims of the riots feel so neglected: The moral weight of their pain has vanished into an epistemological black hole.

“The community has been burned. We’re underwater, kids are killing each other daily, businesses are looted, and the elected officials don’t want to speak up because they’re afraid of the truth,” a local activist named Mohammed Kahin who helped organize a recent listening session between riot-affected East African business owners and local decision-makers alleged.

There is anguish nearly everywhere one goes in the Twin Cities. You run into protests while you’re on your way to other protests. En route, you’re liable to get an unexpected education in just how far the damage really extended during the May unrest. While the siege of the Lake Street Target was national news, the burning of businesses along University Avenue, a main artery connecting Minneapolis and St Paul, scarcely merited any outside mention. As Kahin explained, many of them had been East African-owned. Goldstein said that a Somali restaurant belonging to one of his clients had been in business just four days before it was torched. On July 21, a scorched body was found inside the ruins of a pawn shop on Lake Street that had been deliberately burned down three days after Floyd’s killing.

For businesses on Lake Street, a locally rooted self-defense scheme isn’t a utopian ideal but a sudden and pressing necessity. At 16th Avenue and Lake is a boarded-up Somali grocery store called the Durdur. The block on which it sits is another microcosm of contemporary American life. At one end is Las Cuatro Milpas, a temple to Mexican cuisine that serves three succulent varieties of birria. Mid-block is the arching green neon sign announcing Cadillac Pawn, whose owner, a white man from Wisconsin, is alleged to have shot and killed a 43-year-old Black protester named Calvin Horton on the night of May 27.

Nur Ahmed, the grocery store’s manager, said that despite attempts to maintain a constant physical presence at the shop, the store had briefly been left unattended on one of the middle nights of the May unrest. Security camera footage showed a group of “seven or eight” young men—who Ahmed believes to have been Somali—smashing the exterior glass with hammers. The police had vanished. “When they looted Metro PCS,” Durdur’s next-door neighbor, I called 911. They told me we’re well aware of the situation, we cannot do anything, stay safe,” Ahmed recalled.

Many of the city’s Somalis, including Ahmed, arrived in America as refugees from a civil war, which gave them a certain hard-earned perspective on social catastrophe. “The people weren’t outside to kill each other—that was the good thing,” Ahmed remarked. It was the retreat of the authorities that troubled him. “They just left here for five nights in a row,” he said. “For the last two nights of the civil unrest, we were patrolling the area.”

Even in a pandemic, even with the facade smashed, the Durdur remains a miraculous convergence of logistical chains (the store was open, though customers had to enter through a back loading area). At one point, Ahmed leaned against a stack of boxes of Mahmud Shurab chewing gum, made in Amman’s Sahab Industrial Estate. There were fliers for the cancelled Hajj, stacks of fresh-baked Somali flatbreads, and alluring vials of black sesame oil, a Somali staple whose healing powers, per their label, shrink before only death itself. Elsewhere on the label was the name of a Kentucky-based importer. Camel meat came from Australia, but camel milk originated from closer afield. Ahmed grinned: “Camel milk they produce in the U.S.—Colorado, Missouri, Texas. Americans became camel-boys now, not only cowboys.”

Such was life in contemporary America: Settled enough for Somali merchants to participate in the domestic camel-milk economy, though amid a looming potential for great volatility, disillusionment, and loss. When I visited in late July, riot-hit businesses in Minneapolis had received no substantial government assistance, and nearly every Somali coffee shop, grocery store, and restaurant on Lake was behind plywood.

For Mohamed Kahin, the neglect began from the moment events turned violent. “If it happened in a suburb, every officer would have been on the street,” he said of the unrest. “Things would be different.”

Less than two months after Floyd’s murder the Twin Cities remained a crucible of raw grievance, some of it only obliquely related to American racial mania. On the steps of the state capitol, I came across a half-dozen demonstrators standing at the mercy of a punishing late afternoon heat. They held signboards with photos of lethargic shirtless men lying down on cardboard atop a crowded tile floor. Their bodies were covered in welts, and their faces were stricken with exhaustion and fear. Like the protesters, these sufferers were members of Ethiopia’s Tigrayan minority. In Saudi Arabia and on both the government and Houthi-controlled sides of Yemen, Tigrayan migrants have allegedly been rounded up and thrown into squalid detention camps. Ethiopia refused to repatriate them, alleging them to be political subversives. “Tigrayan people are in prison because of their identity,” one woman explained.

In July, more than 1,500 members of the Twin Cities Oromo community, who hailed from the largest of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups, had occupied I-35 in solidarity with protests that erupted after the security forces’ killing of an Oromo pop star 7,000 miles to the east. “What makes it so unique is the George Floyd movement,” an activist and barber named Faysal Osman explained when I asked why the protests had been so large all the way in Minnesota. “The same thing happening here to African Americans is happening to the Oromo people.”

On the opposite side of the state capital, a few hundred Black Lives Matter demonstrators were picketing the State Senate office building. The body was in an emergency session to discuss police reform measures. The demonstration vividly contrasted the niceties of democratic process with the horrifying realities of the issue at hand. One after another, family members of people killed by Minnesota law enforcement shared their stories.

“I can’t wait until the day when I can tell you what I know,” cried the mother of 21-year-old Kobe Heisler. Brooklyn Center police killed Heisler in 2019. She said the authorities would not tell her how many times her son had been shot, but she knew from seeing his body that he had been shot in the head.

“You killed our loved ones, the people I love the most. … You’re gonna feel my pain, you’re gonna feel every bit of what I’ve lived through until we get what we deserve,” bellowed Toshira Garraway, whose fiancé was shot and killed by the St Paul police 11 years ago, her voice ascending to full prophetic fury.

A line of stoic state troopers stood at attention in front of the building, dressed in crisp uniforms and wide-brimmed hats. The officers were perfect rhetorical foils for the speakers—because they did nothing and said nothing, it was possible to project nearly anything onto them. “It’s traumatizing seeing them with their guns and their mace knowing they killed our precious loved ones,” Garraway told me. The phalanx came alive only when a white man jumped out of a red SUV and began screaming at protesters. “He doesn’t know a day of our pain,” Garraway said as she watched the troopers talk the man back into his vehicle.

The chaos in Minneapolis was a moment of personal as well as civic crisis. Police reform had been on the agenda before the Floyd uproar—indeed it had been central to mayor Jacob Frey’s entire electoral pitch. But Minnesotan tolerance had now been exposed as a deadly lie. The Somalis, Mexicans, South Americans, Native Americans, African Americans, and white bohemians of Midtown had glimpsed a horrific cycle of interrelated events: A murder committed in broad daylight by an officer of the law leading to protests, which led in turn to the destruction of at least one of the city’s major immigrant business corridors. It had all happened in a place with a vaunted history of toleration: The city of Humphrey, Wellstone, and Keith Ellison and Ilhan Omar; the home of the country’s only urban Native American reservation, and the place where Hmong and Somali refugees had built an American future for themselves.

“Minnesota Nice has always been Minnesota Nice for white people, not for people of color,” Jaylani Hussein declared at the St Paul protest. Even the progressive former mayor of Minneapolis decried the inequity of the place she’d once governed. “White liberals, despite believing we are saying and doing the right things, have resisted the systemic changes our cities have needed for decades. We have mostly settled for illusions of change,” Betsy Hodges, municipal chief executive from 2014 to 2018, wrote in the New York Times after Floyd’s killing.

Consciousness had surely been raised. On one block in Midtown, nearly every single house had a lawn sign reading “We Care.” Who’s “we?” “Care” about what? The signs did not say.

The ruined city is now dotted with beacons of corporate virtue: A tweet reading “Protesters aren’t trying to start a race war—we’re trying to end one” was blown up to billboard-size over downtown Minneapolis, the bird logo tucked discreetly in the upper right-hand corner, though of course not so discreetly as to be invisible from street level. “We’ll stand together and we’ll build together” was the best Target could come up with, per a banner on the exterior of the shuttered Lake Street location.

Other signs betrayed the puzzlement of good, liberal Minneapolitans newly aware of how intolerable conditions in their city had apparently become. “We want our children and grandchildren to read in the history books that Minneapolis was the birthplace of change in our country’s deep history of racism,” read one such manifesto in front of a large house on Chicago. “We see your royalty, we share your grief,” beamed the boarded-up windows at a Scandinavian design store on Lake, words possessing roughly the same specificity and moral depth as “we care” and serving roughly the same purpose.

For some, the mere expansion of empathy had not been sufficiently conscience-salving. We care, but now what? The political answer to that question is to vote in favor of abolishing the police department in a city charter amendment referendum that may or may not ever take place. But some could not wait that long.

One of the most instructive documents of the American crackup was posted on the door of the Modern Times diner on Chicago Avenue in early June, and was still there into late July. Like Uncle Hugo’s, Modern Times was a redoubt of weirdness and a warm hug brought to life—its logo is a cartoon cat with an acid tab-sized sunny-side-up egg on the end of its tongue. The notice reads:

We have been watching and participating in the events that have unfolded in our neighborhood since the Minneapolis Police Department murdered George Floyd. In that time we have seen a lot of people of color terrorized by the police, houses and businesses burned down or damaged beyond repair.
It does not feel right for us to try and reopen for business and continue operating as we previously had. There is a momentous wave of transformation happening that must be accelerated and supported.
After becoming nearly inoperable because of the COVID-19 pandemic, followed by police terror and civil unrest, we decided to temporarily transition to a business model whose sole purpose is to foster and support our greater community. Myself and the Modern Times’ staff have all agreed to work as volunteers for the month of June ... we will reopen Monday, June 8, serving a limited menu as a donation based cafe. We will be giving 100% of our profits to local BIPOC businesses and organizations affected by this tragedy. ... Thank you for your continued support as we adapt to the changing needs of our community.

A second, nearby notice read: “Closed for July.”

What an astonishing place to arrive at after all of this, I thought—to decide that creating a living for yourselves and a psychic oasis for your customers and wealth for your community and tax revenue for public sector do-gooding is somehow so inherently evil or exploitative that your only remaining option is not to exist in the world. Still, the note contained an honesty that only the coldhearted could fail to admire. Its authors were living their convictions: To them, it was simply not ethical to continue operating a business along capitalist principles of profit and labor value extraction in a gentrifying neighborhood in a post-Floyd world. The restaurant was willing to risk self-sacrifice in the advancement of progress and as an expiation of what it now understood to be its sins.

This selflessness is almost superhuman. And yet for some radicals it is a kind of default demand. “When the protests started, there were several business owners of color who said, have it. ... They burned [the Indian restaurant] Gandhi Mahal, and they didn’t shed a tear ... they said this is bigger than making money,” began a vehement young activist named Toussaint Morrison when he addressed a protest outside of Cadillac Pawn commemorating Calvin Horton’s 44th birthday in late July.

When I pointed out the potentially ruinous life trauma immigrant merchants had suffered as the result of the riots, A.J. Awed, the leftist City Council candidate, had replied: “Yes, some of us might lose revenue. Yes, you might have paperwork. To me that’s all worth it if we stick to the course. And for me that course is true transformation.”

It was simply not ethical to continue operating a business along capitalist principles of profit and labor value extraction in a gentrifying neighborhood in a post-Floyd world.

At least this view is honest about what it is asking: If the correct position was for minority workers and business owners to accept the disruption and even the destruction of their livelihoods as the price of a new opportunity for justice, how much more should the oppressor be willing to give up in order to make the world whole?

After Toussaint’s speech, protesters marched from Cadillac Pawn to the nearby home of Alondra Cano, a left-wing city council member deemed insufficiently in favor of police abolition. Cano was denounced in vicious terms, and for thirty minutes her purple-washed peak-roof house became an effigy of everything that ailed Minneapolis. Her support of police abolition was meaningless in light of her earlier silence on the concept, Morrison charged; the LGBT flag-inspired rainbow sculpture on her lawn didn’t have a black bar in it, fumed another speaker. Worst of all she had never said Horton’s name.

“Alondra has private security,” Morrison claimed while standing in the middle of a large group of people directly outside Cano’s home, which sure is an interesting context in which to inveigh against the physical safeguard of an elected official. “Tens of thousands of dollars are spent protecting her.” If so, her army was nowhere in evidence. The blinds of her house were drawn. I imagined the legislator in a back room, staying perfectly still, careful not to suggest anything of her presence to the world beyond.

A speaker addressed a white family gathered on their porch across the street, two young parents with a baby. “I need Black lives to matter in your heart,” the speaker said. “The next step is for them to matter in your vote. Because this person who lives across the street from you does not care about Black lives. … Neighbors, use your privilege and your power to hold Alondra accountable.” The couple raised their fists in response.

Earlier in the protest, back in front of Cadillac Pawn, Horton’s elderly mother, who had driven up from Arkansas, remembered the final photograph they had taken together. They were at a casino; she recalled that she didn’t want to be distracted from a slot machine to take the picture, having had no way of knowing this would be their last recorded moment together.

A crux presented itself: On one hand, there is the urgency of a Black life stolen and a killer left unpunished. On the other, there are the moral and practical limits of the great mass of liberal-minded people of all races and creeds who lack the capacity to accept violence, social chaos, and other forms of self-diminishment as the necessary price of virtue.

But accept it they must, in Minneapolis at least: The city is trashed, the police barely respond to 911 calls, crime has soared, and people of all ideological stripes have found something to despise about the political class’s response to it all. On the march to Cano’s house there were no cops to be seen; the whole of Lake Street was commandeered by protest facilitators in neon vests. For better and worse, a politics that detects betrayal in moral limits has met a civic vacuum.

A mile down Chicago from Modern Times and the Cano residence is the intersection where George Floyd drew his final breaths. The Floyd memorial is an American Golgotha, a holy site in the political theology of anti-racism. “Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out of me (Luke 8:46)” a billboard over the intersection read. Below those words: “Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? (John 8:46).” Then finally, in the largest letters of the three: “I CAN’T BREATHE...MAMA. (George 8:46).”

The religious analogy is inexact, though: The road outside of Cup Foods where Floyd was choked on camera for eight minutes and 46 seconds is indeed the site of a revelation, but what was revealed was ourselves. There is no God at 38th and Chicago to displace anything onto, just the unique, almost post-diluvian silence that comes from standing in the middle of two major roads and hearing no traffic. A large wooden fist now rises out of the point where the streets cross. The spot where Floyd died is marked in an oval of flowers under an elevated canopy. Nearby, people look into a large portrait of Floyd and see whatever they want to see, or whatever they are capable of seeing.

‘The Floyd memorial is an American Golgotha, a holy site in the political theology of anti-racism.’
‘The Floyd memorial is an American Golgotha, a holy site in the political theology of anti-racism.’KEREM YUCEL/AFP via Getty Images

“I’d never felt the presence of God as much as I did down here ... this is what heaven will be, all different people worshipping together,” said one peppy white woman, part of a multiracial group from a Black-led progressive evangelical church that holds services at the intersection every Sunday. On a Friday morning, a trio of middle-aged whites contemplated a sign reading “White Silence is Violence” blaring from amid an effusion of flowers and other tributes. One could see shirts from Wheaton College and UNC and a Mac DeMarco tour. An entire AAU basketball team from Arizona milled about; a Black Minneapolis hip-hop artist filmed a video in front of the giant fist as a white family watched.

“I kind of get the feeling of like a zoo animal,” said Tahasha, a lifelong south Minneapolis resident and volunteer at the Floyd memorial’s medical tent when I asked her about all the white visitors. “They’re coming, taking pictures, saying ‘oh, I’ve been here.’” She pointed at a graffiti-covered wall across the street and recalled an elderly white couple “standing over there where it says ‘my cries are for humanity,’ and they were like 80, and it was dark.” They watched as an altercation broke out between neighborhood youths. “It was odd they were still there.”

White visitors were like that old couple: They were rubberneckers who didn’t really understand where they were. After a few minutes a white couple in their upper teens wandered over to the tent and politely audited our interview. Tahasha was happy to have them stay. “This is educational. This is something I needed to come see,” the boy said of the Floyd memorial. “Thanks for letting us listen,” said the girl.

Across the street from Cup Foods is a Speedway gas station, now vacated. The lot is a site of petty commerce: locals sell snacks and Black Lives Matter T-shirts. On the Friday I visited, a white woman who introduced herself as Carla had set up a tintype camera, the antiquated method of photography responsible for the heavy shadows and deep lines that make portraits of Civil War soldiers look so eerily timeless. People of color could get their pictures taken and developed for free; others had to pay. “This is a sacred space for a lot of people. It’s become a meeting point,” said Carla. “I want to document the faces that are here.”

Why did people come? I asked. “People are coming to terms with the fact they live in a very segregated city,” Carla replied. “Uncomfortably for some people it’s their first time understanding that they live in a racist country. It’s a hard thing for white people to wrap their heads around.”

On a Sunday evening, a young white couple set up a table in the old Speedway lot, and placed on it a large wooden box filled with hundreds of pre-rolled spliffs packed with CBD they’d legally grown on their hemp farm in Wisconsin—“Holy shit!” a young Black man exclaimed, speaking for everyone on hand. Abby Testaberg explained that as a white person, it was necessary to identify targeted and tangible means of realizing racial equity, cannabis legalization being the one of them she was best positioned to affect. The goal of the spliffs was “to keep people down here and talking,” her husband Jody said. It was “a lifelong dream to be able to roll up a pound and say relax, enjoy ... a lot of folks are hurting and cannabis is a healer.”

The site of Floyd’s death was the most vibrant and vexatious place in the entire wounded city, a vision of redemption through shared pain. But that’s not what it was at all: An agent of the state had murdered Floyd, who didn’t die intending to make anyone feel better about themselves. In fact he’d died in unimaginable agony. Floyd had been a star high school athlete, a rapper who’d appeared on a mixtape with the legendary DJ Screw, a college dropout whose life had unraveled in adulthood. Symbolism and suffering had eclipsed even the non-quotidian details of his brutally extinguished time on earth. Any redemption was unearned and imaginary; any pain unequally distributed. Some undoubtedly leave Chicago and 33rd angry, while others might feel comforted in their own virtue or rejuvenated in their commitment to bettering things. Some, if they are honest with themselves, will be unsure of what it was they really saw.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.