The police turned it into a war zone

People are just angry. They’re just done.

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For the first time in as long as I can remember I don’t know what to say and if you read Hell World regularly you know that’s weird because these newsletters are fucking long. Or maybe rather I just don’t know where to begin. It’s not as if there wasn’t always an almost impossible to manage surfeit of bad news to wrestle with before this week but for some reason it feels overwhelming and impenetrable today. How do you poke any air out of a balloon that encompasses the entire world?

That’s all particularly true in a week in which we’ve seen the fallout of the woman who tried to weaponize her whiteness against a black man in New York City and the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department and the subsequent protests that have been going on in the city for the past couple of days.

Regarding the intersection of the two incidents this week I was reminded of a couple of older issues of Hell World and chapters from my book.

We need to make sure that you belong here goes in part like this:

We’ve seen a shift in recent years as the ubiquity of cellphone cameras has started to change the way we talk about police violence in America from Eric Garner to a Miami police officer who was charged with assault in 2018 for kicking a man in handcuffs in the face. But these sorts of encounters differ in a way. It’s no surprise that something as shocking as police murdering or brutalizing citizens would attract widespread attention. What is happening now is a less sensational sort of harassment. The banal everyday indignities people of color are often forced to deal with—things white people like myself rarely have to think about—are being shared widely. Consider the group of black women who had the police called on them on a Pennsylvania golf course for not golfing fast enough or the Native American brothers who were removed from a campus tour at Colorado State University because their presence made a parent nervous or Darren Martin who had six police officers arrive to detain and question him while he was moving into his apartment in New York City or the woman in Oakland who called the police on a group of black people for “grilling illegally.”

When it comes to police violence it’s become common to ask ourselves and others: Can you imagine how often these things happened and how little we heard about them before cameras? We could just as easily ask the same question about the types of encounters Siyonbola and Prendergast and others have posted about. These encounters happen across America every day. The mere act of existing in the world—taking a nap, barbecuing, moving into an apartment, shopping—is seen as de facto inappropriate when it’s being done while black.

Of course this is not news. This has not just started happening. What is different is that people have become wise to the fact that sometimes going viral is their only recourse so we are seeing more videos of it posted. And on the plus side many more people do seem to be paying attention to it. Had white Americans listened to people of color talking about their own lived reality for decades they might have understood that this happens all the time. But America at large doesn’t tend to do that. Even with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement there will remain a steadfast and indignant percentage of people—even when given clear evidence of actual crimes, even cold-blooded murder being carried out by police—insisting on seeing all the evidence, or those who wonder what the obviously guilty black man must have done to provoke the righteous police into killing him. They always have it coming.

For those people I doubt there is any hope whatsoever. But for people inclined to stand in solidarity but not necessarily always fully invested—because, of course, it won’t happen to “us”—there’s one critical takeaway: do not call the police every time you are made marginally uncomfortable by a situation. As the Native American writer Kelly Hayes explained on Twitter in the wake of these stories: “Police don’t enforce laws. They enforce social norms. Gentrifiers who chronically call police aren’t concerned with safety. They want to dictate social norms and conditions. They want control. And they know what it could mean to call. They are simply prioritizing their own power.”

The fascism in us all goes in part like this:

“Panopticism is the general principle of a new ‘political anatomy’ whose object and end are not the relations of sovereignty but the relations of discipline,” Foucalt wrote.

The result is a society in which people are always aware that they are being watched at all times and not just by an unseen guard as in Bentham’s design but by everyone everywhere. We’re no longer worried about only the police or the king or any other authority catching us violating the law but also of our neighbors. The threat of discipline has become universal.

In a book last year called Citizen Spies: The Long Rise of America’s Surveillance Society, Joshua Reeves traced the evolution of this universalization of fascism from WANTED reward posters in the American frontier to the rise of Neighborhood Watches, America’s Most Wanted, the prevalence of “See Something Say Something” in a post-9/11 country, and the enlistment of citizen snitches by police departments’ use of social media.

In our nation of snitches informing on our fellow citizens isn’t just an unfortunate responsibility of our daily lives it’s been elevated to a patriotic and moral duty. Why else would so many of us call the police when we see a black person occupying a space we assume they don’t belong in? Why would so many of us be willing to subject people with Hispanic surnames to torture and imprisonment by informing on their whereabouts to ICE? We may not all be like George Zimmerman capable of murdering a young black man in order to fulfill our allegiance to fascism but those of us who are willing to snitch are comfortable all the same seeing someone else perform violent discipline on our behalf.

I was also reminded last night of something that happened during Hurricane Florence which I mentioned in the piece above in which a reporter from a local TV station was shaming people as they came out of a store as a devastating storm approached.

“Hey guys, you know you’re looting, right? You know you’re stealing,” she lectured them. “You know you’re looting and that’s illegal?” she said to a man carrying out a case of water.

Last night in Minneapolis there was of course more of the same snitching. TV news reporters always first and foremost think of themselves as a deputized branch of the local police force.

I was frustrated being unable to see and learn exactly what was going on in Minneapolis sitting here on my ass in my home in Massachusetts the past two nights. I thought for sure the cable news even out of a cynical grab for destruction footage might be airing it live but there was little coverage I saw at least until late last night. Instead I turned to Unicorn Riot a group that does a great job covering situations like this around the country on the ground as they happen.

This morning I talked to three people who were on the scene to explain what they saw and what it feels like in the city of Minneapolis right now.

The first is a young activist named David Gilbert Pederson.

What was your experience over the past couple days?

I went down to the protest at 38th and Chicago on Tuesday where brother George Floyd was killed. What we saw at the beginning of that gathering was probably the most beautiful and effective implementation of mutual aid since the beginning of Covid. We saw local distilleries bringing out bottles of hand sanitizer to hand out to crowds. People were handing out free gloves, free masks, bottles of water, giving people sanitizer to take home to their families. It was a beautiful sign of mutual aid and solidarity in the city.

I didn’t really know what the plan was when we left 38th and Chicago, where the route was going, but we started walking down 38th, a pretty major thoroughfare, and folks were lining the street, coming out of their houses. There wasn’t a cop in sight anywhere on the march. When we got to the precinct there were no police there at first. Then some windows were broken and the police erupted out of the building shooting tear gas and those marking canisters, rubber bullets, flash bangs. I was standing in a crowd of mostly teenagers that were getting hit hard by the tear gas and rubber bullets. People had started to run when the tear gas happened, and I was trying to tell people to slow down so they don’t get trampled. I was talking to a pretty big group of young folks, and I said anyone who has paint on them from those marking canisters has to wash it off right now. I leaned down to pour some water on this young woman’s eyes and immediately got hit in the thigh with a rubber bullet. I looked down and felt explosive pain in my thigh. I didn’t see any paint, so I had this panic moment of did I just get shot?

So it took you a minute to realize what happened?

Yeah. I fell to the ground and was grabbing my leg. People came over to ask me if I was ok. I was able to get up and I ran. So we pulled back to a hill… but then tear gas hit us again. People scattered across highway 55. There were people that almost got hit by cars. People were getting trampled. One of the people I was with ran into a road sign because vision was super impaired from all the gas being used. People were running through the neighborhoods and for about a mile away there was still tear gas in the air.

Were people scared or angry?

A lot of folks were scared. A lot of people were really upset and angry. There was one older woman in her sixties or seventies crying, screaming for her son she couldn’t find. There were these three Somali girls looking for their older brother. There was a group of some older folks more experienced with protests helping people get medical attention. Again, what we saw in that moment was a beautiful solidarity. We saw people running away from tear gas in this panic, and people would scream we need milk over here or water or Maalox or whatever people had. People talk about a fucking riot, but what we saw was our community coming together and standing in solidarity, even in this terrifying moment. Us being able to build a community outside of the confines of what capitalism and imperialism and militarism have taught us and ingrained in us to believe is true. The city didn’t do mutual aid in the way that happened at 38th and Chicago. The police weren’t administering first aid in the way people were administering it to each other up on that freeway.

I’m sure it’s inspiring to see. What is the general feeling right now from people you are talking to? What do you all want to see come out of this?

We have to see these officers arrested and charged. They got fired and that’s great, but we need to see them criminally charged. And we need to see some leadership from our elected officials and our police chief. You write about police violence so you understand, but the Abuka Sanders case that happened in the early 2000s, Courtney Williams, a fifteen year old kid shot by the Minneapolis police, Terrence Franklin, Jamar Clark, Philando Castile… the state and the metro is just kind of rife with anger and tension. People haven’t seen justice served. There has been a high profile murder of an unarmed person in the city at least every year since 2010... We have one of the highest disparities of shootings of unarmed people when it comes to the black and white disparity. People are just angry. They’re just done. What they got told was, oh, we need to enact stronger laws, or we need to change the mayor, or the council. But what we’ve seen is no substantive change. I grew up maybe about two miles from the Third Precinct. People are just so angry and feel so hopeless about the situation with the police. They feel so much like the police could kill them or their family or friend at any moment. Whatever legitimate violence there was last night, outside of agent provocateurs, was just a reflection of people’s deep, deep anger and yearning for justice.

What happens with these situations every time is already happening, the shitty people are going to focus on buildings being burned, and the poor Target and all that. That’s got to be really infuriating, to see the narrative switch to that, by people who don't actually give a shit about human life. Did you see anything, or suspect outside people of starting shit?

Right. There’s a video that shows someone really sketchy starting a fire at Auto Zone people are sharing on Twitter. I know there’s stuff like that. But I also know there are a lot of people that are just traumatized and hurt and scared. When the institutions fail us, even though we know that they don’t protect us… The video [of Floyd’s murder] was just so callous and egregious. And the time it’s taking the officers to get charged has led to this boiling point. I don’t want to speak on people’s intentions, but what we saw was an explosion of anger about a system that’s killed hundreds of people in our state and thousands in our country. I just feel like this is the byproduct of so many years of impunity.

There were two major things this week in the news, the lady in New York threatening to call the police, and George Floyd’s killing. Have you thought about how this killing illustrates exactly what the problem was with what she was trying to do there.

Absolutely. We had this happen two nights ago, a rich white man in his office building, when two young black entrepreneurs were using the gym at the building, he called the cops on them, and he ended up losing his lease in the building. Really what we’re seeing is that people are now weaponizing the police against black and brown people. But in targeted ways. It’s not just a systemic thing, it’s almost like Swatting. Maybe they don’t realize the gravity of the situation, but that’s inexcusable. If you turn on the news you’re going to see a story of black people killed. Even the last few months: Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery… If you’re willing to weaponize the police against other people like this... It’s really just a weaponization of whiteness against black people. What we’re seeing is that people are starting to record this stuff. These are consistent problems that have festered, but motherfuckers now have ways to document it. And with the variety of videos and the heightened state of awareness these stories spread.

I feel like there was a switch a couple years ago. People have been filming police violence, and everyone gets upset about that, but the past couple years people have started filming more “minor” aggressions in a way. We don’t have to see someone be killed to be upset, now we see the steps that happened before…

Yes, what happens before somebody dies.

Are there any local groups there people should look into to donate money?

The Minnesota Freedom Fund. Black Vision Collective. Reclaim the Block. MPD150. Those are all great organizations.

Derek was on hand last night and says he got hit by a tear gas canister.

So what happened last night?

In the beginning we were surrounding the precinct, which is across the street from the Target. They just started firing round after round of tear gas. They were pretty much pushing us toward the back [toward the stores]. It was just a matter of time before shit got smashed up. They were fucking firing man it was terrifying.

You got hit?

Yeah. We were at the frontline on another block, and they had their horses behind them, and all of a sudden everybody started running. I see this guy fall on his bike and as I'm helping him up I feel my shoulder get hit. I couldn’t breathe because it was a chemical agent they shot me with. I got helped by street medics. They were really organized. It was great that they were there. The police turned it into a war zone.

Are you still in pain?

Absolutely. My arm is still pretty fucked up. I’m kind of shell shocked honestly.

Were the police giving orders to disperse or anything?

They didn’t say shit. They were silent. They pretty much just had smirks on their faces. When we were chanting and getting really revved up, all of a sudden it would be like: bang bang! We’d run back, then move back to our position. They didn’t say anything.

Have you ever seen anything like this?

Never. I think this is history.

What’s the city like this morning?

I can hear helicopters, sirens everywhere. The street that was hit, Lake Street, it looks like a warzone. Glass, gas canisters. Everything is on fire. They're still putting it out.

Do you expect anything else to happen today?

If there is something tonight it’s going to look a lot different. Probably a hell of a lot more militant and potentially more deadly. I think people will also come prepared to meet that. It’s scary to think.

Do you feel unsafe in general around the city as a black man?

Absolutely. The cops in Minneapolis are just terrorists. They killed Philando in cold blood. Jamar Clark. Now George Floyd. People don’t think of Minnesota and Minneapolis as a place like that, but it’s worse than a lot of other places. We have terrible amounts of disparity. It’s really fucked up. They have free reign. The city is afraid of the police chief Bob Kroll.

Do you think people don't understand what Minneapolis is around the country?

I think it’s hard to understand. The media portrayal doesn't cover it, but we have a giant unhoused indigenous population living in tents. This is Dakota land after all. And so they've just been terribly oppressed. And black folks here have it terrible as well. In Minneapolis I think black folks are like 13 times more likely to be killed by police.

Do you think Amy Klobuchar is full of shit?

Absolutely. She’s been full of shit. She’s just a centrist talking head. Her whole thing was tough on crime, that was her whole deal. I don’t think that she can do anything about this. I know she believes in the police as a force for good in America. A few bad apples type of shit. Which obviously isn't the case. It’s the institution. I'd also like to comment that she declined to prosecute Derek Chauvin when he had killed previously. She let this killer cop continue to terrorize our neighborhoods.

Putting on your most optimistic hat, which is obviously hard to do, what hope do you have for something that might come out of this?

I hope for one Minneapolis understands that they can’t do this to us anymore. I hope that we get organized, and that we can defund the Minneapolis Police Department. I hope that everyone remembers the names of George Floyd, Jamar Clark, and Philando Castile forever. People need to know what’s going.

What’s your reaction to how the cop kissers are right now turning this into a story about looting and shit?

My response to that is that they knew and they set it up to happen. As they were pushing us back, they were pushing us back into these positions where the only cover was those buildings. The opportunity presented itself and shit got chaotic. I think they fully intended it to happen. When you're being shelled repeatedly with rubber bullets and tear gas you don't’ have many options.

Dan Samorodnitsky was at the protest last night and called me from riding his bike around the city this morning to witness the fallout.

What are you seeing today?

It looks like one of the buildings is still on fire. It looks like the building to the left of the condo that was burned down. Oh shit the condo is still on fire too.

What did you see and experience last night?

I got there around 7:45 after it had been going on for a while. Things were kind of tense by the time I got there, and they didn’t stop getting more tense as the night went on. Every once and a while someone would throw a water bottle or a small rock, and the cops would turn all at once and fire off rubber bullets, riot gas… The contrast between how beefed up and militarized the cops were, standing on the roofs, versus every single one of the protestors… The police escalated everything. Every time something happened it was because they fired tear gas and people got angrier.

Did you see anyone get hurt?

I wasn’t there after the guy got shot outside the pawnshop. I didn’t see anything too serious besides people having to get their faces washed after being tear gassed. Some people were having a bad time with the tear gas obviously.

What is the general vibe in the city this week.

I don’t want to speak for the city… I should clarify that I’m white. But people seem, of my neighbors and friends, every one of us is furious about the murder. It’s on camera, why has it taken three days now for them to come up with a charge when they could have easily come up with a charge in the same night? Honestly a few people have been talking about how it’s such a shame they trashed the Target, but most people are like who gives a shit? These are all insured businesses, they’re going to be fine. I’m looking at the Target right now. It’s wall to wall, like 300 feet of graffiti: ACAB, BLM, Fuck the police. I’m biking around the parking lot and every surface is covered with Fuck 12.

How were people handling Covid at the protest?

That was the reason I didn’t go out last night. At first I was afraid of spreading. People were actually really good about it. No one was crowding each other. Obviously there’s only so much you can do, but most people were wearing masks. Everyone was super mindful. More so than I think the cops were. Not that I expect that much from them. Frankly once I got there I didn’t feel that afraid of it.

What do you expect to happen today?

There might be more protests. Not at the same place. There’s firefighters and cops everywhere. If there’s going to be more protests it might be at the cop’s house and the DA’s house. Again, I don’t want to speak for people, but today seems a little less tense. But it’s also 9 am so we’ll see.

What do you want to see happen?

I want to see all four cops charged. I want to see some kind of promise from the MPD to address this. This obviously isn’t the first time this has happened, and it won’t be the last. I want some kind of recognition that they have a racism and brutality problem. Any kind of recognition. But even the most minimal admission they have a problem would surprise me.