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The Privilege to Breathe

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The death of George Floyd re-opens the fault lines of Minneapolis and America.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Minneapolis awoke Thursday morning to the ash and broken glass from the night of unrest and has now found itself with a new identity looking back in the cracked mirror. For many, the past few nights are something that happens elsewhere. Cities with real problems.

This couldn’t happen here.

Not in the state with one of the highest levels of racial inequality, where in 2017 white poverty rates of 7% were four times lower than black poverty rates of 32% and where 76% of whites owned their home compared to 24% of blacks. The state with the second widest racial gap in reading scores among fourth-graders.

Not in the state where blacks make up approximately 18% of the population, but are stopped by police twice as often as whites, and from 2016-2017 made up 62 percent of police person searches, 63% of vehicle searches, and 57% of arrest bookings. The state where between 2000 and 2018, 63% of the people shot and killed by the police were black.

Not in the state where the officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, Derek Chauvin, has been the subject of 13 complaints since 2003 that have been closed without discipline, who has been involved in two officer shootings that were found to be justified.

Unless of course, this remains America.

This is the same police force that left their security posts in 2016 when the Minnesota Lynx wore shirts supporting Black Lives Matter after Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed. Lt. Bob Kroll, President of the Minneapolis Police Federation commended the officers.

How are we supposed to respond in such a state, the paradox of “Minnesota Nice” covering simmering resentment and anger?

I am embarrassed to admit that I was completely unaware of the unrest last night until I awoke to a phone full of texts from friends outside the state. Little did they know that I lived but a mile from the site of the burned buildings and a few blocks from stores that were broken into.

After all, I am a prime example of the well-meaning white people making these communities harder and harder to live in. I’m a relatively wealthy white twenty-something who has moved into a diverse community in higher-priced housing to take advantage of the higher density and proximity to a variety of restaurants and city life. I may participate in conversations around race and social justice, but these are primarily at an academic level or other white-led institutions that control the money spigots that provide resources for the communities that were sites of unrest.

Today has brought on a bit of déjà vu, as five years ago I just moved to Baltimore after Freddie Gray died at the hands of Baltimore Police. Over the next four years, Baltimore largely failed in its efforts to address the murder of Freddie Gray and the institutional racism that has plagued the city. The six officers involved in Freddie Gray’s death were charged, but after the first three officers were acquitted, the charges against the other three were dropped. The Department of Justice Consent Decree for the Baltimore Police Department, following an investigation into racial profiling, has stalled under political machinations at the local, state, and national level.

Little has changed for a city where racial segregation and discrimination have seeped into its bone marrow, a persistent cancer unresponsive to surgery or chemotherapy.

Perhaps Minneapolis will fare better than Baltimore. The day feels fresh with anger for the institution that bore the pandemic lockdown protests in silence but met those protesting the death of George Floyd with tear gas and rubber bullets.

The institution where a police officer restrained an unarmed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck as he pleaded that he could not breathe. Then, when EMS arrived minutes later Floyd was unresponsive and did not have a pulse. He was then loaded into an ambulance where paramedics attempted to treat Floyd for an hour and after which the cause of death was labeled inconclusive.

But this has all happened in the real world. Not our safe bubble built to argue who the Timberwolves should target with their draft pick or whether the team can build a respectable defense around Karl-Anthony Towns. The NBA often provides our escape from the troubles of the world.

But that requires a very narrow understanding of exactly who the “our” is. It certainly is not the players, as LeBron James had his home defaced by racist graffiti, Sterling Brown who was stopped and tasered by Milwaukee Police, Thabo Sefolosha who had his leg broken by New York City Police, or Stephen Jackson who was friends with George Floyd. Nor is it the fan base that is majority non-white.

It is the “our” of people like myself that have the privilege that George Floyd did not, those that do not have to worry about being deprived of breath.

So we have to be part of a larger “our,” one that decries another needless death. One that shines a light on the historical discrimination and practices that provide the kindle for violent unrest. One that is part of a larger community representative of the players and fans of the NBA that cares deeply about people like George Floyd and refuses to believe that change is not possible. That we can be better.

An “our” that demands justice for George Floyd.