Tuesday night in the city that killed George Floyd, a group of young black men were working out at the office gym.
Someone was watching.
Down the road, people were marching and mourning Floyd, whose irreplaceable life ended after an arrest face-down on the asphalt of E. 38th Street.
“Please, please,” he had called out to the Minneapolis police officer kneeling on his neck. “I can’t breathe.”
The marchers made their way to the Third Precinct, where police in riot gear were waiting with tear gas, flashbangs and less lethal projectiles.
Back at the gym at the Mozaic East office building in Uptown, a group of young black men watched a white man approach who was snapping pictures and demanding to see some identification that would prove they belonged there.
“I’m Tom Austin. I’m a tenant in the building. Are you?” Austin says on a video of the exchange posted on Instagram by Top Figure, a social media marketing firm headquartered in Mozaic East. “I’m calling 911.”
Austin started dialing his phone, joining the long list of entitled white people threatening to call the cops on black people who are just going about their day — barbecuing in a public park, selling lemonade, golfing too slowly and most recently, being an avid birder who asks a white woman to follow the rules and keep her dog on a leash. The police are coming and then you’ll be sorry.
“Normally we don’t speak out about encounters of racial profiling and age discrimination that we face day to day in our lives as young black entrepreneurs,” the Instagram post began. They did not respond to interview requests.
“We all pay rent here and this man demanded that we show him our key cards or he will call the cops on us,” the post continued. “We are sick and tired of tolerating this type of behavior on a day-to-day basis.”
Austin is best known to Minneapolis as the venture capitalist who fought long and hard to change Bde Maka Ska’s name back to Lake Old Southern Racist. The old name, he argues, is easier to pronounce than the original Dakota and besides, as he wrote in a Star Tribune op-ed, “What exactly have the Dakota Indians done that is a positive contribution to all Minnesotans?”
Top Figure’s video has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times and Austin has gotten so many scathing e-mails, he’s set up an auto-reply that begins: “Yes, I [expletive] up. Should have handled it differently.”
To clarify, he said, he didn’t call 911. He called the building manager, who had sent out a complaint about non-tenants using the gym. He was convinced that the group of men were sharing a single key fob to get in and out of the room, rather than each having their own key like a tenant should.
“I’m almost a good Samaritan,” Austin said. “If something’s not right, I’ll step up to do something or say something.”
Something’s not right in Minnesota, land of some of the worst racial disparities in America. There are yawning gaps between white and black Minnesotans in education, homeownership, employment, salaries, health, infant mortality and incarceration rates.
In Minneapolis, a city where 63% of the population is white, 63% of the people shot and killed by police between 2000 and 2018 were black.
Only 8% of the police who patrol our streets live on our streets. The rest live elsewhere.
Minneapolis is just a job for them.
“What am I not understanding? What do I seem to be clueless about?” Austin wondered. “Are we going to be in a space where, if someone does something suspicious, we have to ignore it and not say anything if they’re black?”
Maybe if we all work very hard, the city that killed George Floyd will become a space where the default assumption is that everyone belongs here and anyone deserves to survive their next encounter with the police.