Minneapolis has mostly projected a solid, if not stolid, image.
“City of Lakes” isn’t as monumental as “The Big Apple,” and even the city’s few prominent monuments present an idealized image of nature (Father of Waters in City Hall), a force of nature (Hubert Humphrey in front of City Hall), or even a sitcom character (Mary Tyler Moore on Nicollet Mall).
But now among the images imprinted internationally as symbols of the city are the video of George Floyd’s murder and the mural honoring him, which has been replicated as far away as Idlib, Syria, a place that profoundly understands injustice.
Floyd’s killing, and the explosive protests, peaceful demonstrations, and reformation promises it sparked have recast the placid, or absent, image many had of Minneapolis. “Only weeks ago the biggest lament I heard is Minneapolis-St. Paul was not on the radar. And now we are,” said Peter Frosch, CEO of Greater MSP, the Minneapolis-St. Paul regional economic development partnership. “The world is watching what we do. And it will listen when we speak.”
Frosch has been listening, too, and in conversations with counterparts across the country he’s heard a version of “this is not what I understood about Minneapolis-St. Paul.”
But Frosch, and certainly other civic leaders, did understand the unaddressed challenges churning just below the surface. “We unfortunately have not become something entirely different in the last two weeks,” Frosch said. “Much of the country and the world has been made aware of parts of our story that we are not proud of but were true before the past couple of weeks.
“Before the last two weeks, our region was not on a sustainable path,” Frosch said. “We were becoming more diverse every year without succeeding in bringing all members of our community into full participation in our economy and our educational system, and what was happening was a quiet erosion of our exceptionalism. And now that is in the open. And now there is more awareness. So aspects of what we are facing now makes it feel more acute. But the underlying challenge is the same, and I am hopeful in this moment that we can transform this new awareness and urgency into sustained action and not incremental change.”
Indeed, as much as Minneapolis may be seen through the current chaotic kaleidoscope, the events fit a national pattern that may make them not seem so singular. “There are events that not only define the city, but define the nation, and where the nation is,” said Amy Liu, vice president and director of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.
Citing Sandy Hook, Ferguson and New Orleans, Liu said that the events so closely associated with those cities matter not only to “the lives of the people in that community, but put the entire country on its knees in thinking about what to do next.
“So, I do think that this is the Minneapolis moment.”
And over time, this moment may become a movement that takes the city’s image beyond the searing video. “In some ways I don’t think Minneapolis is going to be solely defined by this one act of brutality because the long list of cities that it has shared the moment with,” Liu said. “Yet I do think it matters what you do with the moment and, if anything, I think what Minneapolis will be remembered for is its response.”
And Minneapolis is ready to respond, said Melvin Tennant, the president and CEO of Meet Minneapolis, the convention and visitors association tasked with attracting events to the city. “This has been a tipping point for our community and for our country,” Tennant said. “It’s been galvanizing.”
And, added Tennant, it fits into “our whole DNA of being a community of innovation in social causes and social change.” Already, Tennant said, “we’ve seen a lot of public and private entities come together quickly; people just want to get to work.” And that work has been noticed nationally, and even internationally, just as Frosch suggested.
Initial initiatives by city leaders “burnished Minneapolis as a truly progressive, action-oriented place; it’s a place that moves, a place that does, a place that experiments,” said Liu, who cited the establishment of the Metropolitan Council, charter schools and new zoning rules as evidence. “What will more define the community is what it does with this moment.”
There’s national support — and some caution — about the changes, Tennant said. In the wake of the tragedy, Tennant sent a letter to key clients and constituents. “Overwhelmingly, the comment we got back is, ‘we stand in solidarity with you,’ ” Tennant said. But, he added, “people wanted to make sure that we were part of the change.” Many also wanted to express concern over news about the future of the city’s police department, he said. “People were really concerned about the headlines,” Tennant said, a fact that cannot be ignored by the city’s leaders.
For Frosch, “this is a call to action for our entire region to marshal our proven problem-solving ability to address one of the biggest barriers to our present and future success.
“In this we cannot fail,” Frosch said. But, he cautioned, “Time is not on our side. Attention can wane.”
Liu, a nationally noted expert on cities, said that each “cares about its brand; in a traditional economic-development sense, we actually pay people to market our cities.”
People like Tennant and Frosch, who agree with Liu’s assessment that “the brand of working toward shared prosperity is a very positive brand.” Or, as Frosch believes, “A brand is an extension of who we are. And we’re right to be concerned with our brand and our perception. But we should be focused on who we are, and who we want to be, and the action that requires.”
The future of the nation, and the Twin Cities, Frosch said, is diversity. “Our question has always been, ‘Will we turn that into a source of strength, or will we fail to adapt, fully incorporate and utilize everyone’s capabilities, and be less than we’ve been?’ And that question has been on the table two weeks ago, two months ago and is more urgent today.”
It was also urgent generations ago, when one of those immortalized with a Minneapolis statue urged his political party, and nation, toward racial reconciliation.
“My friends, to those who say that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years late,” Hubert Humphrey said in a seminal speech at the 1948 Democratic National Convention, in which he urged his party to “walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”
It’s finally, firmly time for that forthright walk, and there’s no better way for Minneapolis to honor George Floyd than to have his adopted city lead the procession.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.