A protester carries a U.S. flag upside down, a sign of distress, next to a burning building Thursday, May 28, 2020, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
“I would like to salute
The ashes of American flags
And all the fallen leaves
Filling up shopping bags.”
–Wilco lyrics by Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett
My son’s chain keeps falling off his bike so, like the dutiful father I am, I drop it off at the Hub repair shop. I feel anxious because I’m a mere thirty yards from the epicenter of the George Floyd riots. The wide street is eerily empty. Under normal circumstances, parking in this area would be hard to come by. But on this bright and blustery day in October, mine is the only vehicle to be seen.
The nearby Third Precinct appears completely intact from the outside. Immense slabs of concrete block the entrance as if it were a tomb with a high fence all around and barricades set up. It’s an ugly, indestructible building. I imagine Derek Chauvin living inside. Water drips from the ceiling all around him as rats scurry over melted computer cables. He’s living off of vending machine candy, scribbling his demented confessions on a police blotter as he awaits trial. His mind is blown. George Floyd and Colin Kaepernick won’t stop talking to him.
I was going to join the protesters on the night the Third Precinct fell. It was dark outside when I got home from work. Worried for my safety, my wife wouldn’t let me. She also questioned my motives.
“If you’re really going down there to protest, go. But if you’re just going down there to watch it, you should stay home.”
I was genuinely outraged by the injustice of Floyd’s death. But I also wanted to witness history so I could write about it. I told her I’d be careful, stay on the edge of things. She checked her phone. AutoZone was on fire. I spent the night on the couch instead, watching the city burn on Twitter.
Across the street, I see a blue portrait of George Floyd painted on a wall. I visited his memorial at 38th and Chicago, finally, back in August. I had been reluctant to go there, the trauma of his murder confused in my mind with the traumas of the pandemic and the ensuing riots. The site of his murder in front of Cup Foods has become a shrine with candles, rotting flowers, stuffed animals and artwork dedicated to his memory. George Floyd has become a saint, something he may never have been in life.
The prosecution alleges that arresting officers pinned Floyd to the asphalt for nine minutes and thirty seconds. When an off-duty firefighter offered to provide Floyd medical assistance, Chauvin threatened her with a can of Mace. Chauvin’s knee remained on Floyd’s neck for two-and-a-half minutes after Officer Kueng was unable to locate a pulse.
Maybe history doesn’t really change at all and we’re just actors reincarnated in different costumes. In this particular production, Floyd has become Black Jesus, the police Roman soldiers. Floyd knew he would be killed from the moment Lane pulled his gun. Like Christ, he had upset the tables of the money changers by passing the counterfeit twenty. Symbolically, his death resonates as a crucifixion regardless of what drugs he had in his system.
A red sign with an arrow is the only tangible proof that Minnehaha Lake Wine and Spirits ever existed. In spite of the looting, there must have been a lot of accelerant left in the liquor store because man, did it burn! In perhaps the most iconic image taken of the riots, a lone protester runs in front of the flaming building with a large, upside-down American flag.
Around the corner, a message has been graffitied on the plywood–a plea not to burn because there are people living upstairs. I wander across the street. The lots are filled with rubble as if the riots were yesterday rather than three months ago. Gazing at the mess of toppled bricks, concrete hunks, and twisted metal, I have no idea what used to be here even though I have visited this area regularly since purchasing my home over a decade ago. I feel disoriented, unsure even of what street I’m standing on.
“There is no there there,” to quote Tommy Orange quoting Gertrude Stein.
I feel psychically vulnerable because there is too much open sky and vacant cityscape where there should be towering walls. This is a phenomenon I have experienced before in South Dakota touring the aftermath of tornadoes. I quell my fear with anger at the layers of politicians who have failed us over and over again. The intent of my journey is to see what the post office looks like so I continue.
On the other side of the wall some joker has written FUCK WHITE PEOPLE in purple spray paint. This doesn’t exactly enrage me because even though I grew up eating government-cheese sandwiches, I realize I’m quite a privileged person. Then again, maybe someone should clean it up since it doesn’t exactly encourage future business investment in our community. This is an example of what I tell my son is “bad graffiti.”
He’s been intensely frustrated, as of late, by the limitations my wife and I have placed on his hobby. He wants to express himself under a bridge or on the wall of an abandoned building. I have explained to him that these places are dangerous, he is ten, and the activity is illegal. He performed a Google search of legal graffiti walls, finding one in Bloomington, and began making excited plans. Upon further research, however, he realized that the legal wall he had found actually exists in Bloomington, Indiana rather than the nearby suburb that claims home to the Mall of America. I looked over his shoulder one morning as he watched YouTube in his pajamas. Someone with a paint marker was bombing mailboxes with their tag. The blue boxes were cylindrical, another country I presumed. I told him angrily that he was getting obsessed and cut off his YouTube access for a few days.
With this parenting drama in mind, I chuckle when I see the heavily graffitied loading dock of the Minnehaha Post Office. The remaining walls would make a perfect canvas for his efforts, but it doesn’t seem worth jeopardizing my employment to satisfy his artistic cravings. The property is fenced, but the gate wide open. I decide to have a look around. To my knowledge, no arrests have yet been made for the arson or the destruction of vehicles. The two post offices destroyed in the riots will soon be operating out of the city-owned former-Kmart building on Nicollet Avenue. Peering into what must of have been the garage, I’m surprised to see the immolated wreck of a delivery van. This too you would think would be cleaned up by now. The spectral shell of the vehicle is graffitied like everything else. The tires have evaporated away in the fire with the naked rims resting on the concrete floor. I feel as if I’ve stumbled on a ghost. The upholstery has been burned off the seat with only a metal frame remaining. I imagine myself or someone else wearing my uniform sitting in it. The cargo area is empty aside from ash, and that is the ghost I sense–this negative space where packages and letters should be. The windshield is melted, pooled or dripping like a Salvador Dali painting. That’s what this van is, modern art. It belongs in the Walker along with Floyd’s fake twenty in a gilded frame.
I observe. I record. I write. Because history is a destruction as much as a remembering.
“There is no there there.”
I smell soot and piss as I look through a missing window at two mail cages. Behind them, a set of double-doors are framed in sunlight because there is no roof. The rest of the station where the letter carriers worked each day, where the customers came to buy stamps or drop off packages is gone. This fact makes me sad and angry. And these are the same emotions I feel about the death of George Floyd. It is not either/or. You can be upset about both.
This dock I’m standing on, the van and an intact storeroom are all a hazard to the community. This should be a vacant lot, these walls leveled. In my head, I’m drafting a letter to my councilman. Minneapolis is still in a perilous position. The National Guard is deployed so often here no one even notices.
An overhang shelters the dock and down further I see a soiled mattress, evidence of homeless habitation. On the bedding is an opened book, as if someone had just been reading themselves to sleep. I look around nervously, feeling like a trespasser in someone’s bedroom. I pick up the book to discover that it is a memoir—A Hitler Youth in Poland by Jost Hermand. Now this isn’t a hate tract. The publisher looks legit. There’s a lot of reasons why someone might be reading a book like that other than being a white supremacist. But I feel apprehensive as I gaze around at the businesses that are left. I set the book down, mentally adding the title to my unrealistically long reading list. I would like to keep it, but I am not a thief. Also, the pages smell incredibly bad.
I head back to my car wishing I still carried hand sanitizer everywhere. Increasingly, my life in Minneapolis seems like a failed dream. I’m hanging in there. My kids are locked out of their schools while other tantalizingly close districts have been allowed to go back. With a controversial trial and a disputed election on the horizon, I feel extremely uneasy. I long to be in control of so much that I am not. I find myself alone in the dining room on my days off, the sound of three zoom meeting going on around me from different rooms. It feels like a home invasion. I will continue to be a father, a writer and a letter carrier until I am dead. After that they can drape my coffin with the ashes of American flags.
This is a beautiful, sad and infuriating story. I have never been to Minneapolis, and I used to think of it as one of the few places in America that was relatively free of racism and relatively full of very liberal, hardworking, cleanliving Americans of Scandinavian descent (including some of my wife’s relatives). Then came Donald Trump and his MAGAmen and George Floyd and Derek Chauvin, and a severe disillusionment. Your story gives concrete form to that disillusionment: I can see the burnt-out interiors of the liquor store and the post office, smell the pages of the peculiar book, and feel the windshield of the Post Office van melting down across the dash. I can feel the lack of concern that the insurance companies, the councilmen, and the state politicians have for you and your neighbors. Thir lack of sufficient understanding or empathy for you and your neighbors to actually level the place and, better still, start rebuilding.
I grew up in ruins like this: bomb craters everywhere and the frames of burnt out medieval churches, the piles of bricks where stores or factories had been, and the gaps in rows of houses where a V-2 had hit. Even entire town centers gone. They stayed like that for years and, along with food and clothes rationing, cast a pall of depression over our lives. We had “won” a war, but had mortgaged everything we owned to America to do so. There was no money to rebuild, half a million men who could have worked at rebuilding were gone. The country was full of American soldiers and airmen who were much richer than us and bragged about winning the war but had only really been involved for half of its duration, and who looked down on us because of our apparent poverty, our old and damaged infrastructure, and our different culture.
May you wake up one fine morning to find that someone, someone who knows your community and your real needs, understands and is doing something to clean up the mess and to reform the system that created the destruction of lives, assets, and hopes. Perhaps they can even get the National Guard to lead the reconstruction rather than to just act as one more layer of oppression.