The Minneapolis Uprising in ContextRoundup
tags: racism, inequality, Mass Incarceration, Protest, policing
Elizabeth Hinton is the author of From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America.
Thursday evening, protestors in Minneapolis seized the city police’s third precinct building and set fire to it. The immediate cause of the flames is a devastating incident of state violence with deep historical roots: on Monday, a white police officer jammed his knee into the neck of George Floyd, a black resident, for several minutes as three other officers held Floyd’s body down on the street. In his final moments, Floyd—unarmed and in handcuffs—pled for his life and repeatedly informed the officer and the crowd of bystanders that he couldn’t breathe.
Minneapolis residents have become all too familiar with this type of premature death. The city has been rocked by officer-involved shootings in recent years and subsequent protest. In 2015 two Minneapolis police officers faced no repercussions for shooting and killing Jamar Clark, a twenty-four-year-old black man. In 2016 police killed Philando Castile, a thirty-two-year-old black man, in nearby Falcon Heights, an encounter that was captured on social media and received national attention. A jury ultimately acquitted the officer who took Castile’s life, but it’s not as if Minneapolis police are completely above the law. A black Minneapolis officer killed a forty-year-old white woman in 2017 and is currently serving a twelve-and-a-half-year sentence in prison.
Thousands took to the streets in peaceful protest the night after Floyd died, demanding justice for his life. Demanding that, this time, the officers involved be held fully accountable for their actions. By Wednesday none of the officers involved in Floyd’s death faced criminal charges. Authorities have so far declined to prosecute any of the four men.
Minneapolis residents, in turn, responded to the buildup of unanswered grievances and the lack of concrete changes to their immediate living conditions—problems of under-protection, intentional segregation, and structural exclusion that have only been exacerbated by COVID-19—by using the available resources at their disposal: throwing rocks, bricks, bottles, and Molotov cocktails at buildings, police precincts, and police cruisers; and by taking goods and food from major retailers such as Target and AutoZone, and then burning these and other institutions to the ground. Police have unleashed tear gas and rubber bullets on protesters in response, and the National Guard has been deployed. Although some protest in the city remains peaceful, and has spread to Memphis, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Birmingham, and other major cities, Minneapolis continues to burn.
It can be a struggle to imagine some of the most overpoliced, marginalized, and isolated Americans as political actors, and this bias has influenced the writing of history. Even those of us interested in forms of resistance to structural racism have been reluctant to take seriously the political nature of midcentury black uprisings. Yet they were neither spontaneous nor “meaningless” eruptions. Just as much as nonviolent direct action, rebellion presented a way for the oppressed and disenfranchised to express collective solidarity in the face of punitive state forces, exploitative institutions, and calcified “democratic” institutions.
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