My youngest daughter lives in Minneapolis. We visited her there this last weekend. On Saturday, we went to the intersection of East 38th Street and Chicago Avenue. It was near that intersection that George Floyd died on May 25 of asphyxiation as a result of a Minneapolis police officer’s kneeling on the back of his neck for almost nine minutes while he was handcuffed, face down on the pavement.
One of the most striking features of this intersection of what appear to have been two moderately busy streets is just how unremarkable the junction must have been before Mr. Floyd’s death. This intersection could have been in any city or town in any state in our country. There is a gas station on one corner, and restaurants and random retail stores and residences line the streets. It is neither a fancy nor a shoddy neighborhood; the buildings are older but in decent shape. This intersection literally could have been in Anytown, America. Nothing suggests that this innocuous place would be the spot of a tragedy that should not have happened anywhere but will hopefully forever change race relations in our country.
Now the intersection is remarkable. A memorial has spontaneously sprung up that is part shrine, part call to action, and part monument. Flowers, some dried and some fresh, are plentiful and scattered about, as are handmade signs and artwork and murals and mementos. The spot where Mr. Floyd died is roped off and marked by an outline. For about a block to the north of the intersection, names of victims of police brutality are printed in the street in letters about 10 inches tall, one after the other after the other in pastel colors, dozens and dozens of names as you walk south toward the crossing.
The streets were closed to vehicle traffic for a couple of blocks in all four directions. When we were there, we shared the streets with hundreds of other pedestrians drawn there by sorrow or anger or curiosity or hope or something else. The crowd included men and women of varied races across all ages; I’m sure some were Democrats, some were Republicans, and some were something else. We meandered around for an hour. Music played. Visitors were mostly quiet, peaceful, respectful — taking pictures and taking in the scene. Some made short statements at various volumes. Some people sought signatures on petitions. Food was available for purchase from street vendors; the smoke from the barbecue smelled wonderful. There were groups of what appeared to be families and friends, and there were people by themselves. Most who I saw were somber; some prayed, some teared up.
The peril of painting with too broad a brush — of believing that any generality could apply – here or to any complex human circumstance was palpable. Race, ethnicity, religion and nationality are definitive of nothing in the context of the everyday, much less the tragic. Efforts to divide people along such lines, or to generalize about individuals based on such characteristics, are ignorant, dangerous and dehumanizing. That one cop is a bad actor says nothing more about the thousands of dedicated and heroic peace officers who daily serve our communities than what the actions of one Caucasian or Hispanic or Lutheran or Italian says about all others of that race, ethnicity, religion, nationality.
At the intersection of 38th and Chicago, the thing I found most difficult to accept was that right in that spot along that ordinary street that could have been in any town or city anywhere, a spot that I could stand next to and walk by, a man was killed by a police officer kneeling on his neck for almost nine minutes while he lay face down and handcuffed, saying he could not breathe and begging to be let up. Then I realized that I was likely standing near someone who was not at all surprised by that occurrence. Neither reaction was right and neither was wrong; each response was a result of different life experiences.
But I hope all people everywhere share the knowledge that this cannot continue to happen, that we must change, that we have waited too long, that the time for patience is past. Racism is intolerable. We are better than this. America is better than this.
A sign at the intersection in Minneapolis said, “‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.’ Martin Luther King, Jr.”