This past week I attended a Presbyterian church conference in Minneapolis. I had never been to Minneapolis and knew little about the city or state. I knew it was south of the Canadian Prairie Provinces. From Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” I had the idea that Minnesota was populated by folksy Lutherans. Put the two together and I imagined lots of Caucasians with a connection to agriculture.
Given these preconceptions, when I arrived at my downtown hotel, I was surprised to discover many African Americans on staff. A Somali delegation was also at the same hotel. (Minneapolis has the largest Somali expatriate community in the USA which was likely the cause for this visit.) At some point during that evening, a memory tweaked and I checked Google. Yes, this was the town of George Floyd and the epicentre of global protests that followed his murder by a law enforcement officer in 2020.
I didn’t think much more about this. I settled in and enjoyed a good conference which stretched out over the next few days.
After the conference ended, I had a free afternoon with a friend/colleague. We were wondering what we might do with our time. Someone had suggested the Mall of America, which is currently the 11th largest shopping mall in the world. But my friend wanted to visit the George Floyd Square.
I wasn’t particularly enthused by this option. I was told that the memorial intersection had previously been cordoned off by residents of the neighborhood. And while I had only been in the city a few days, the racial disparity was evident. Most of the unhoused people milling about downtown were African-American. I was worried that a couple of Caucasian guys wouldn’t be welcomed in an area almost exclusively populated by a marginalised community.
My friend suggested that we ask a Person of Color what they thought about the idea. So approached one of the hotel staff, an African-American lady. Rather than prompting any concern about our safety, this question piqued her own regrets about not having paid respects recently. We repeated our question, this time more directly. She told us it would be okay. With this encouragement, we made the decision to go.
We decided it would be safer to walk. Being on foot would allow us to observe the area more clearly and turn around if we needed to, rather than simply stepping out of a bus or cab.
While the decision was made, just for interest’s sake, I made the same inquiry to a Caucasian staff member. He had a different take on our plans. He didn’t think it was a good idea. He told us that the police didn’t patrol much anymore. And while he had done roofing in the area (some side hustle), he didn’t think we’d be welcomed there.
Despite this discouragement, we persisted with our decision and started on our way. It was a long walk. City block by city block. It was as flat as the small Prairie town I grew up in.
Our pilgrimage took us past downtown businesses, then apartment buildings, then old Victorian homes. Some of these homes were maintained and guarded with security cameras. Others were dilapidated with weeds covering the front yard.
After an hour we reached the gateway to our destination. In the middle of the road was a marker, a pillar, an upraised fist draped with what I learned to be the ‘Pan-African flag’ (a tricolour consisting of three equal horizontal bands of red, black, and green). What followed this pillar was a list of names painted in block letters on the middle of that same road. These were the names of people who have lost their lives to police violence. The list stretched an entire block.
As we approached the memorial intersection we slowed. There were a few people milling about, but it was unclear whether we should be there. We paused at a storefront that was covered with posters of the protest. We were trying to judge the situation and assess the environment we had walked into.
Then a voice rang out from inside the storefront: “Come on in!”
Pushing through the screen door we were met by a man named KingDemetrius Pendleton. He shook our hands and asked us where we were from. We told him Vancouver, Canada (approximate I know, but I didn’t expect him to know anything about Kamloops). We asked about seeing the memorial. He told us it was a good day for us to visit and introduced us to a woman first sitting on a couch, then standing up to greet us. It was Floyd George’s aunt, Angela Harrelson. She greeted us warmly and again us where we were from. We told her we had come to pay respects and she thanked us with hugs. Angel and KingDemtrius then began talking about George Floyd, the protests, the trial of Derek Chauvin, and their own experiences with racism.
Angela exuded warmth and hospitality. She told us that when they said “Black Lives Matter” they weren’t saying that white lives didn’t matter. They were protesting the fact that the many rights and privileges that white people freely enjoyed weren’t being shared; they had to fight for them.
Angela escorted us across the road to the memorial, which had been cordoned off with concrete road dividers and was awash in flowers. She showed us the place where Floyd died after having a knee on his neck for over nine minutes, despite gasping that he couldn’t breathe. It was solemn to hear the story recounted in that place. We lingered. Then we walked over to see the murals and the list of twenty-four community demands.
It was clear that this site had become something of a tourist destination. We said ‘hi’ to another group that included Caucasians who were also from Canada. While we were talking to Angela a busload of people arrived and it was clear that she would be receiving them. The cynic in me wondered how much of the warm reception was just a good business strategy.
And yet something in me had shifted through our time together. I noticed this while we were walking home. We took a different route back to the hotel, which was in many ways more destitute than the pathway we took to the memorial. We passed a parking lot next to an abandoned shopping mall where day labourers were waiting for employment. We watched people openly consuming drugs. We passed one man sorting through garbage while screaming at the heavens. We were leered at by groups of young men congregating on the sidewalks.
Despite seeing things that made me feel unsafe/uncomfortable, I was somehow now less afraid than I had been earlier in the week, simply passing the unhoused African Americans outside my downtown hotel.
So what had happened? Somehow my fears were lessened by the short time I shared with KingDemetrius and Angela. This conversation didn’t erase our very different life experiences, in fact, it highlighted those very differences. But having a conversation, shaking hands, and sharing hugs somehow established a connection that spanned that divide. Maybe my lessened fears didn’t make me objectively any safer. But maybe diminished fears make the whole world a lot safer for everyone.