In April, the Longfellow Nokomis Messenger reported on a series of meetings held to discuss rebuilding the Third Precinct. I went to one of these meetings at Roosevelt High School. There was concern about crime, about limited options for the location of the new building, and a sense that decisions were being made by outside forces over which we have no control.
Being in these meetings brought back that time three years ago. When video of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a police officer was circulated, I expected protests. I remembered the death of Jamar Clark in 2015, and the 18-day long encampment at the Fourth Precinct. I did not expect that domestic terrorists would come from as far away as Texas to hide behind peaceful protesters and incite the widespread unrest that took place.
The Minneapolis Police Department has been investigated by both the Federal Department of Justice and the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. On March 31, a 144-page settlement agreement was completed between the City of Minneapolis and the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. It is hoped that the guidance from this agreement will improve the culture of the Minneapolis Police Department. However, our larger culture, which created the abuses of power associated with George Floyd’s death, was hundreds of years in the making.
I developed a better understanding of how that culture developed thanks to historian Heather Cox Richardson’s daily Letters from An American. I have come to depend on Richardson’s calm, comprehensive analysis of current events, linked to their historical origins. I began to learn more about how the concept of race originally developed. Long before establishing independence from Britain, the colonies created laws that associated legal, economic and social rights with skin color and nation of origin. These historical foundations of race and racism are woven throughout the systems that keep our society functioning. They have worked their way into our traditions and our culture, creating a hierarchy that gives people of European descent an unfair advantage and others a corresponding disadvantage.
The greatest advantage by far has gone to the wealthiest Americans. I always believed that the U.S. is a country where people who come from poverty can achieve economic success, and to a certain extent this is true. However, it is also true that wealthy people have disproportionate political power, which some have used to prevent less influential Americans from gaining even minimal economic stability. Unfair advantage in the competition for wealth has historically contributed to economic and social instability.
In her daily letter of March 7, 2020, Richardson wrote: “When our lack of government oversight of the economy leads to the rise of extremely wealthy people who take over our political system and use it to promote their own interests, a crisis lays bare the misuse of the government for the rich.” She described three times in U.S. history when wealth became concentrated in the hands of a few and led to such a crisis.
• The first occurred in the 1850s, when wealthy landowners in the South who depended on the labor of enslaved African Americans forced the unpopular Kansas-Nebraska Act through the legislature. Although this act did not explicitly call for the expansion of slavery into new states and territories added to the U.S., that would have been its effect. This led to the secession of Confederate states, and the Civil War.
• In the 1890s, wealthy industrialists had gained significant political influence, resulting in hazardous working and living conditions for laborers. President Theodore Roosevelt enacted much stricter regulation of business in the early 20th century.
• In the 1920s, government regulation of business had once again weakened. Initially, business boomed and investment in the stock market grew. When the stock market crashed in 1929, a number of forces came together to cause the Great Depression. In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt put together the New Deal, legislation designed to assist farmers and workers, and strengthen the economy.
We are once again in a period of social and economic instability. Foreign affairs expert and author Fiona Hill calls it a “cold civil war.” This year, there have been three high profile bank failures. As I write this, the debt ceiling has yet to be raised to prevent the U.S. from defaulting on our loans. High levels of inflation, initially attributed to supply chain problems, now appear to be caused by corporations that are increasing markups, simply because they can, and enjoying record high profits. Mass shootings are a weekly, if not daily, occurrence. We are experiencing drought, fires, floods, and massive storms, intensified by worsening global climate change.
All of these conditions are held in place by public policy, sometimes arrived at through corrupt means, sometimes backed up with force. Policy – even policy that is rooted in centuries of tradition –can and does change. I grew up believing that my vote was the best tool to create change, and I’ve seen the power of protest to disrupt unfair systems.
For most of my life, I’ve avoided expressing potentially controversial opinions out of fear of offending others or hurting their feelings. I’m also afraid that someone who is better informed and more articulate will disagree with me, and I’ll feel stupid. I still have all those fears, so why speak up now?
As I look back at the turning points in my life, they have involved recognizing my fears and acting in spite of them. My motivation has not been courageous, altruistic or noble. Rather, it’s realizing that the only thing worse than making a change is not making that change. So, instead of keeping these thoughts to myself, I risk sharing them, putting my faith in the words of John Lewis: “Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
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