When I think about George Floyd, a memory from the summer of 2016 keeps returning to me.
Not long after Philando Castile was killed, I was eating at a local restaurant, sitting by two men who wondered out loud how the people protesting Castile’s death at the governor’s residence could spend day and night at the protest site. “Don’t they have jobs?” one of them asked.
Though I don’t usually talk to strangers in restaurants, I said, “I know that’s a rhetorical question. Can I answer anyway?” I told them I have friends protesting there. Some are self-employed, some work in social justice, some work for churches. They set aside their work to work there instead. Some are students; some are using paid time off. Some people protest when they are not at work, and yeah, some people don’t have jobs. I explained with kindness that being there, felt urgent for everyone there and for many people not there.
When my daughter was learning to drive, we spent 60 wonderful hours together while she practiced. We had many memorable conversations during that experience, including a revisit to “The Talk,” a common conversation in black households, a time when parents remind their children how they will be perceived in the world sometimes, a time when we tell them how to stay safe if they’re stopped by police. When we had that iteration of “The Talk,” I recalled videos I’ve seen of young black women assaulted by the police.
The first time my daughter was pulled over, she was speeding in Fridley, going to visit a friend. She wasn’t alone, but she was terrified. She didn’t know what kind of officer was approaching her. He was professional. She was given a warning. When she called me, she was quite upset, so we talked a bit more about safe interaction with the police.
Last week, my daughter and I were talking about George Floyd when she told me that sometimes she worries about the police stopping me. She had “The Talk” with me. I didn’t say “don’t worry about your dad,” because that would imply my safety is in my control. Besides, her concern makes sense.
Peace is among many things I desire for my child, and it would take a long time to express how hard it is to carry the worry she carries for me.
Parents concerned about their children in houses where children are concerned about their parents. Houses where difficult conversations are vital and houses where they are almost unnecessary. People who see protesters and look for ways to help; people who watch them and wonder if they have jobs. All of us drive the same streets. All of us want to feel protected and served. All of us occupy the same space, but we experience it differently. We should talk. If you don’t see it already, I want you to see where we live.
Sweetness for George
Since the day George Floyd became an ancestor, I wake up early, my mind softly manic, my heart and solar plexus buzzing. Helicopters circle our house like heavy-metal locusts and sirens yelp loquaciously. The first evening after his death, the grief was palpable in the warm air as I was braiding my daughter’s hair. Ominous. Earlier, I had visited the memorial and felt so much sacredness, community love and peace, amid the aftermath of the inconceivable and public execution. Overnight, our city became a phoenix, glowing and rebirthing something unstoppable and irresistible for the world. On Dakota land, in the midst of a global pandemic, the wounds of white supremacy, oppression, police violence, erasure and parasitic capitalism caught flame. And amid the fire, grief, confusion and property loss, there was a transformation crystallizing.
I grew up in south Minneapolis not far from Cup Foods in the ’80s and ’90s. My first real encounter with police was when they came and taught DARE (a drug prevention education curriculum) to us children in the ’hood. They brought coloring books, videos and led curriculums about the dangers of drugs. They didn’t talk about systemic racism, historical trauma, addiction as a disease or the prison industrial complex. These police were mostly white men and seemed nice enough with their handcuffs, black guns, heavy leather belts and steel-toe boots. My school also had police stationed in the lobby as we walked in. The police would ride through our neighborhood, which was being devastated by societal disenfranchisement, high unemployment, drug addiction and the AIDS epidemic. They would stop and frisk, arrest, intimidate and beat up our neighbors, mainly young, black and Native. Or just ride around reminding us they could. The cops were omnipresent and held absolute power; our lives were literally in their hands. As George’s life was.
The question I ask myself these days is what kind of world needs police? A world that forecloses people from wealth, land, their own culture, simple pleasures, access to healing and feeling free. Police would become obsolete, if we had black healers and therapists, BIPOC-centered education, time, housing, money, fresh water, food and clean air. Places to grow fruits, herbs, vegetables and medicine. George Floyd didn’t need police that day — he needed a response of empathy and compassion, grounded in historical context. Curiously, what has happened in his life as an ancestor is a multidimensional answer.
People mourned and fed each other. We footworked on squad cars, we materialized rage, and put everyone’s skin in the game. We cleaned up and got each other groceries, we checked in on each other. We protected each other from white supremacists and are having deeper conversations. We organized medical professionals to give COVID-19 tests, en masse. We did things the government wasn’t doing and we did it with love and intention. We are building things back. It’s been a waterfall of feeling, inspiration, spark and breeze of ancestral breath from George Floyd and countless others lost. I don’t understand how the spell worked, but it popped and won’t be extinguished. Too much sweetness promised in the new way.
All the Stars Aflame
I always go back to Baldwin.
“Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shining and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundation.”
This quote is from “The Fire Next Time,” James Baldwin’s seminal collection of essays on race, power and politics. It was published in 1962, but might as well have been written yesterday. Baldwin’s prescient observations about the psychology of American racism have always felt like a revelation to me — a voice from the grave whispering earth-shattering truths in my ear that should have been obvious. Even after 60 years, Baldwin’s words still manage somehow to occupy the present tense. To have effectively described the roots of white denial and disbelief that not only black people — but much of the nation, including black, brown, indigenous and even some white folks — are just DONE with the American police state and its relentless destruction of black bodies. … That is something else. That is divination.
The white hand-wringing. What can we do? The images circulating everywhere, more popping up every day, fresh evidence of police abuse against protesters. The growing number of injured or even killed. The carnage of burning buildings and broken windows. And the reliable echoes of that ever-loved rhetorical question: But why would they bring such destruction to their own communities? The reclamation of the “bad apple” argument. The violent white nationalists (who always manage to be both well organized and a complete shock to their fellow white folks’ sense of reality) infiltrating protests and communities in Minneapolis and beyond, holding rallies in our parks and attempting to burn down libraries and minority-owned businesses. Our political leadership’s profound inability to understand the violence that is unfolding, that has always been with us but which hasn’t had a wellspring big enough from which to burst up till now. Their shock at watching civil society collapse so quickly. The disbelief that this is happening on top of another crisis: COVID-19. The insistence that this virus is more deadly than racism, so protest is a public health hazard. The many past failed attempts at reforming the seemingly intractable police state. The chanting, growing louder and louder, I Can’t Breathe! I Can’t Breathe!
All of these are Baldwin’s stars aflame. Jamar Clark. Philando Castile. George Floyd. All those ghosts. All those black bodies that were heretofore immovable pillars are now on the move. They walk among us, and we among them, the living merging with the dead. They will have their day. They will be heard. And their voices are what is shaking heaven and earth to their foundation.