The Eyes of the Nation and the World are on Minneapolis

Author:  | Wednesday, June 10th, 2020 | 

Schlagwörter »  |  Category: News

  by Sarah Stephens – Minneapolis, 9 June 2020

On Memorial Day, Monday, May 25, George Floyd was murdered in cold blood by the police in my hometown of Minneapolis. The horrific scene of a handcuffed black man lying face down on the street pleading for his life – “I can’t breathe” – while an unreceptive white cop held his knee to his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds as three other cops stood by was captured on video and went viral within hours. It gained national and international attention, also in Germany, and has since become a defining moment of reckoning for our nation.

Six weeks prior to Floyd’s death I fled the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown in New York City, where I live, to our family cottage in Minnesota, an hour west of the Twin Cities. For a short time, life seemed quieter at the lake compared to the streets of NYC that were reeling with sirens and ambulances carrying Covid-19 patients to the hospitals. But that didn’t last long. Immediately after Floyd’s death, protests and uproar erupted up and down Lake Street in Minneapolis, a six-mile-long corridor of restaurants and businesses stretching from the Mississippi River in the east to a popular city lake in the west. The anger and rage were palpable to everyone in the community. My daughter Karoline, a physician, lives in that neighborhood.

On the third night of unrest, angry protesters burned the Third Precinct police station and several surrounding buildings to the ground. The police and the fire department had evacuated the area. All night long she heard gun shots and explosions and saw the red sky from her house. It was mayhem. Parallel to the violence, peaceful protesters were flooding the streets night and day, even though the state’s stay-at-home order was still in place.

The next night, Friday night, the violence escalated to an unprecedented level: Hundreds of buildings were burned and looted, reaching across the river into St. Paul and neighboring communities. The city and law enforcement were outnumbered and totally overwhelmed. There was real and tangible fear that downtown Minneapolis would go up in flames. It was horrifying news to wake up to the next morning. The scenes looked like they were from Syria, not Minneapolis.

Saturday, May 30, was one of the most terrifying days of my life. Governor Tim Walz gave three press conferences with the mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul, the head of the National Guard, the State Patrol and the Department of Public Safety. He was visibly shaken. Over the course of the day he announced the state’s plan to fully mobilize all forces and shut down the cities to shield it from further violence. The St. Paul and Minneapolis police forces were notably absent from the press conferences. There was genuine fear that organized groups from outside the community, mostly right-wing agitators, were coming in – some with weapons – to fuel the flames, stoke race wars, and create chaos. Trump’s incendiary tweet the day before – “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” – was emboldening these groups to act violently. All day long we were glued in real time to the news and social media. It was confusing and unsettling trying to make sense of what was happening to Minneapolis. Karoline asked me to be with her that night, so I headed into town to help protect her home and turf, and join arms with her against this ominous threat to the city. It felt like we were entering into a war zone.

At 8pm the city-wide curfew went into force. Thousands of buildings had been boarded up all over the city. The freeways were shut down and Governor Walz appealed to all citizens to get off the streets. Law enforcement, he said, would not distinguish between the peaceful protesters and agitators. Emails circulated in the neighborhoods with instructions on how to protect your home: bring in your garbage bins, clear decks, yards and open porches of furniture, make sure your fire extinguisher is at hand, get outdoor hoses ready, turn on porch and outside lights, lock down all the hatches. We scurried around to do all this and then sat in front of the computer to follow the events of the night.

Helicopters flew overhead and occasionally large vehicles with red flashing lights passed down the street. Mostly there was an eerie darkness and silence hovering over the city. Eventually we went to bed, but neither of us slept much. The next morning, slowly, as we scrambled to get news, the city breathed a sigh of relief: Minneapolis had been spared further violence. The Governor’s plan had succeeded. But there was an ambivalence in our cautious joy: We felt the change, the ground-shifting change, happening right under our own feet in Minneapolis, and we knew: THIS is just the beginning; THIS is could be a real turning point for America.

While criticism of the burning and looting ramped up, it seemed most Minneapolitans, white Minneapolitans, understood the underlying reasons for the rage and destruction: a profound sense of injustice. Later we learned it was instigated predominantly by those inside the community. In the days after, the protests against police violence gained more momentum, local civil rights activist groups such as Black Lives Matter organized and neighbors came out in droves to clean up and bring bags of food. “That’s what Minnesotans do,” Karoline proudly said as she picked up her broom and joined her neighbors.

Stephens and her daughter at Floyd’s memorial service.

A week later a memorial service was held for George Floyd, and I felt the need to go. The service was by invitation only, so I gathered, face mask on and socially distant from others, with hundreds of mourners of all ages, genders, races and religions outside the sanctuary in Elliot Park to listen to the service over loudspeakers. It was there listening to those raw, passionate voices of sadness, anger and conviction that I think the city, the country and the world began to envision the possibility of real, lasting change.

“When I looked and saw the young whites outnumbered the blacks; When I looked and saw people in Germany marching for George Floyd,” Reverend Al Sharpton said, “It’s a different time and a different season.” Sharpton’s moving eulogy admonished the powers-that-be: “Get your knee off our necks!” he shouted. He also called us out on the power of this historical moment – a moral and spiritual awakening for the country – and the responsibility entrusted upon us now as citizens of our nation: “In one era, we had to fight slavery,” Sharpton said. “Another era we had to fight Jim Crow, another era we dealt with voting rights. This is the era to deal with policing and criminal justice. I’ve come to tell you, America, this is the time to build accountability in the criminal justice system.”

For me, the most powerful moment of the service was when Reverend Sharpton held 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence. He asked us to endure it and imagine what Floyd had gone through during the final moments of his life. He was asking us to feel the fear and the pain. “That’s a long time,” he quietly said afterwards. Deep sighs and tears were all around me.

As the memorial guests emerged from the sanctuary, our crowd became energized and began call-and-response protest chants. They joined in with us. “No justice, no peace, no racist police!” “Say his name – George Floyd!” “Black Lives – Matter!” The sound of our combined voices reverberated off the neighboring buildings and gave me the chills. It felt good to say his name, repeatedly.

I lingered for a long time afterwards in front of the sanctuary. It was not easy to walk away from that powerful shared experience of strong community, commitment and a renewed sense of hope. We felt we were experiencing hope and change, real change, and there was no going back. The calling is now reverberating around the world. The eyes of the nation and the world are on Minneapolis. “Daddy changed the world,” said Floyd’s 6-year-old daughter.

There’s nothing ambivalent about that now.


Photos courtesy of Sarah Stephens. Stephens is President and Co-founder, Stephens Nicolson Artists Management, an international management company for opera in NYC and Berlin.

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