The last time that Minneapolis burned like this was July 1967. For three nights, dozens of buildings and businesses along Plymouth Avenue, a commercial strip on the city’s predominantly African-American North Side, were vandalized, looted and torched. Accounts differ as to what sparked the violence then. But there was no doubt about the source of the tinder. Black residents of Minneapolis had faced decades of discriminatory policing, racist housing policies and difficult employment conditions. Only the arrival of 600 National Guard troops stopped the violence.
Fifty-three years later, the death of George Floyd and the riotous aftermath is a brutal reminder to Minneapolis that it was only quelled, never extinguished. The range of grievances and frustrations — the ever-accumulating tinder — has only grown. Saturday morning, as I drove a two-mile stretch of Lake Street, the heart of the unrest, the majority of storefronts were shattered, burnt out or boarded up. Many had signs declaring “MINORITY OWNED BUSINESS” in hope of deterring looters. Friday afternoon’s arrest of Derek Chauvin, the now-fired police officer filmed pinning Floyd by the neck with his knee for nearly nine minutes, only seemed to accelerate the tensions. For a city that’s long-reveled in flattering profiles of its progressivism, this must trigger a reckoning with its self-image, leadership and willingness to treat its residents equally.
Sadly, that reckoning was supposed to happen half of a century ago. In 1964, Art Naftalin, the progressive new mayor of Minneapolis, entered office with promises to address the city’s racial disparities. That was an awfully big promise. Like many American cities that grew during the 20th century, tens of thousands of new homes in Minneapolis were sold with racial covenants that kept anyone who wasn’t white from owning them. The practice was re-enforced by redlining, a practice whereby the federal government gave the best credit ratings to the least diverse neighborhoods. Practically speaking, this denied racial and religious minorities access to better housing and neighborhoods.
In Minneapolis, that shoehorned minorities into a handful of places, including Near North, through which Plymouth Avenue runs (and where my Russian-Jewish immigrant family settled in the early 20th century). In 1966, Plymouth Avenue burned for the first time. Amid the destruction, Mayor Naftalin asked African-American residents to meet him at a nearby square, listened as activists detailed the discrimination they faced, and promised jobs.
Naftalin no doubt meant well, but his efforts didn’t make much of a difference. One year later, in 1967, even more of Plymouth Avenue burned. When Naftalin retired in 1969, Minneapolis voters replaced him with a law and order police lieutenant who openly disputed the idea that crime could have social origins. He served for most of the 1970s, until he was succeeded by a liberal mayor. Since then, the city’s politics have trended increasingly progressive. Its last Republican city council member retired in 1997.
Nonetheless, African-Americans in Minnesota continue to fall behind white residents on every meaningful metric, including rates of poverty, unemployment, homeownership and educational performance.
Some of Minneapolis’s underlying structural issues have been addressed over the years, often by other levels of government. Racial covenants were ruled unenforceable by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1948, and redlining as a practice began to disappear in the 1970s. But progressive Minneapolis only took on the most pernicious legacies of these policies in 2018, when it became the first American city to eliminate single-family zoning, a policy that had re-enforced segregation by rendering entire neighborhoods unaffordable. It was a momentous step, but meaningful desegregation as a result of the policy will take years, if not decades.
Early Friday morning, I drove east on Plymouth Avenue, site of the 1967 riots. Even in 2020, amid the new housing blocks and shops, there remain many empty lots where commercial buildings and residences once stood. Out front of the headquarters of Urban League Twin Cities, an education and advocacy organization, two cars that had been in a catastrophic crash, sat vacant on the sidewalk, their taillights still blinking, their drivers absent. The bumper of one was perched on the steps of the building and a couple of bystanders paused to stare. But the only police car in sight didn’t even tap its brakes as it drove by, en route to the notorious 4th precinct headquarters a block-and-a-half away. Among other notable incidents there, officers decorated the precinct’s 2018 Christmas tree with trash that included a cup from the fried-chicken restaurant Popeyes, a can of malt liquor and some yellow crime scene tape.
Data on arrests by race don’t date back to the 1960s. But it comes as no surprise to anyone on the North Side of Minneapolis to learn that African-Americans have been heavily targeted by the police in recent years. Between January and September 2018, 54% of 5,113 drivers pulled over in Minneapolis for vehicle equipment violations like broken taillights were black. Of 525 car searches during the same period, 75% were black. Worse, between late 2009 and May 2019, African-Americans accounted for 60% of the people shot by Minneapolis police, despite being less than 20% of the population.
Why has allegedly progressive Minneapolis failed to address these and other racial equity issues? Floyd’s death isn’t the first of an American-American to set off protests against police in the city. Yet the city’s police department has failed to adopt reforms recommended by federal officials, such as a ban on lethal choke holds. Equally bad, there are still obvious problems with the department's ability to identify problem behaviors in officers like the ones involved in Floyd's death, who collectively had dozens of complaints against them. Much of the blame can be placed on a police union that openly defies city leadership, and police union leaders who have cultivated recalcitrant public personas that are contrary to their public charge.
But it isn’t as if the political leadership of Minneapolis is powerless. It’s a single-party city, which has — on other issues — the kind of consensus that other progressive cities wish for. But, ultimately, the only sustained political pressure for police reform and racial equity that Minneapolis has faced comes from its black residents. Clearly, that hasn’t been enough to convince the city’s leadership to use it. Neither, for that matter, has it been enough for Minnesota’s legislators: Since 2015, at least a dozen police reform bills have been introduced, none of which have passed.
For decades, Minneapolis has embraced its image as a progressive bastion. This week ripped that away, and left something behind much grimmer. It’s not too late for the city to begin living up to its lofty ideals. The week's events suggest the city’s leadership has a good reason to start.
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