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The discomforting lessons of Nicollet Mall

What unfolded on Aug. 26 was a mini-rebellion of the alienated dispossessed. There was nothing inherently progressive about it.

The latest Bureau of Labor Statistics jobs figures are both sobering and explanatory. Officially, 13 percent of Blacks were unemployed as compared to 7 percent of whites. Twenty-five percent of Black teenagers as compared to 14 percent whites.  

A few weeks ago a problem waiting to happen actually did. Until Aug. 26, 2020, Minneapolis had escaped what many major U.S. cities had not until then — the trashing or a partial trashing of its high rent district. Rebellions, riots, looting and vandalism going back to the 1960s had never taken place downtown. But any observant and knowledgeable downtown resident could see it coming. Exactly the day before I thought, maybe, it could be avoided. A larger Mad Dads contingent, a Black civilian law-and-order operation, in front of the U.S. Bank building on Nicollet Mall gave cause for a bit of optimism; less provocative than the police. 

Gatherings of the unemployed

For more than a month growing numbers of young Black people were hanging out on the Mall, first in front of Dayton’s. About two weeks later they migrated a block away to the US Bank sidewalk, which is more accommodating to larger groups. So striking about them is that they were there because they had nothing to do — nothing. It was all so evident. If Minnesota has one of the highest racial disparities in the U.S., I suspect Black teenage unemployment is even higher than the national rate. 

I arrived at Ninth Street and Nicollet Mall about 20 minutes after the tragic suicide in front of the U.S. Bank building between Ninth and Eighth. Yellow police tape confined crowds a block away on both sides of the suicide scene. Some in the crowd I was in, in front of the Target store, began to get rowdy as rumors spread amongst their so-called “smart phones” alleging another police killing of a Black man — the suicide victim. When the police regrouped to protect the store’s entrance, that only increased tensions. Water bottles began to fly, then firecrackers. I sought refuge, not knowing if I could tell the difference between firecrackers and gunfire. As the crowd moved northward on Nicollet Mall, I decided to leave. Less than an hour later at home four blocks away, I began to get messages about what was taking place and saw the TV images I had feared. 

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As an eyewitness to what began to unfold and a four-decade-old participant in anti-police brutality protests, I assuredly say that the looting and vandalism — and that’s solely what it was — had nothing to do in any way with protests against police brutality. It was a mini-rebellion of the alienated dispossessed. There was nothing inherently progressive about it. To claim so — as the person who spray painted “keep looting” on the bus stop panel in front of Saks Off Fifth — is to lower the bar for what disciplined mass anti-police brutality protests mean.  

A few blocks became their playground

Local ruling elites thought that they could confine the unemployment problem to majority Black neighborhoods like the north side and elsewhere. Bad behavior could be ignored as long as it wasn’t in “my backyard.” Increasingly, Black youth, like others, sought to come up for air in the pandemic — from having been confined to spaces where they could be forgotten about. A few blocks in the now desolated downtown became their playground — to challenge the state sanctioned “social distancing.” If a crowd could do the same in downtown Sturgis, S.D., why not closer to home? 

August H. Nimtz Jr.
Photo by Jacob Van Blarcom
August H. Nimtz Jr.
Those of us who had the privilege — dare I say — of coming of age politically in the era of Malcolm X hold the struggle to a higher standard. What happened registers how much progressive forces pay for not having in place the kind of leadership to channel the righteous anger of alienated youth to get them, as Malcolm once put it, “to see their self-worth” in order to do something really transformative. 

To view what happened simply through a racial lens is easy because it doesn’t address the more difficult problem. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is quoted these days about looting, “the cry of the unheard.” Forgotten and ignored is something else he said, repeatedly in the last year of his life. Reflecting back on the legislative gains of the movement he led, and what those hard-won achievements had not brought about, birthed an epiphany: for there to be racial equality in the U.S., he concluded, “a radical redistribution of economic and political power” was needed. Again, not a one-off comment. 

Leaders ignore the discussion

We’ll never know if the civil rights leader fully understood what that meant. But is there any doubt about the continuing validity of his insight? Does anyone believe the jobs crisis that disproportionately penalizes workers in black skin will be solved with anything less than such a radical transformation of society? It’s the discussion ruling elites and their governing enablers avoid. Not to even mention another very visible and related phenomenon on Nicollet Mall — the disproportionate number of the homeless who are Black. And the eviction crisis is just beginning. 

A kind of whack-a-mole game is now playing itself out on the block where the suicide took place, between the Mad Dads in collaboration with the police, and the unemployed youth. The latter are trying, inch by inch, to reoccupy the space they appropriated for themselves while the two other parties are trying, Minnesota-nice-like, to disperse them. How successful either party will be is up for grabs. But to assume that something like what happened on Aug. 26 won’t happen again, if not there, then elsewhere, is to be in deep denial.

August H. Nimtz Jr. is a professor of political science and African American and African Studies and Distinguished Teaching Professor, University of Minnesota.

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