A shiver ran up my spine when I heard about the Molotov cocktail hurled, on April 3, from the 15th Avenue bridge onto the Midtown Greenway. It narrowly missed a cyclist making deliveries for Peace Coffee. I didn’t miss the juxtaposition of the bomb and “Peace.” Flame scorched the pavement and spread to Facebook, where blind threats of vigilantism spurred blowback from people who smelled racism in the threats.
One of the threads, by a Minneapolis artist who holds my deep respect and reverence, drew the color card where, to my white eyes, none appeared. His status update began: “So I guess there’s a bunch of white people on bicycles who are scared over that molotov cocktail being tossed at a biker in Phillips.” This artist has a wide following, deservedly so, so it wasn’t unusual to see his post inspire more than 100 likes and a few dozen comments—some bandwagoning, others gently questioning the racial context.
Screen captures are great for calling out the names and faces of morons feeding from the mob trough. They’re not so good at helping us interpret what we’re seeing, hearing or reading. Racism and religion share this similarity: People are as certain they see or feel something as others are certain they don’t.
I began researching this column interested in whether cyclists and sympathizers who’ve learned of last week’s episode are motivated to do more in reaction than jerking their knees. Then I drew inward, to my own experiences as “the other” and the competing interpretations of what I’ve lived through for much of my 16 years in Minnesota.
The Pioneer Press newsroom used to hold critique sessions every morning for that day’s paper. I was often the only reporter there, and it would be several months before learning these “critiques” were, in actuality, avenues for editors to champion the work of their own reporters. At one of these sessions, just a couple months after moving to St. Paul, I dissected my own story and talked about what I should have done differently, how I could have made the story better. Everyone at the session just sat there, in silence, offering not a stitch of feedback, and the critique moved on to editors who had something positive to say about other reporters and stories. That was on a Friday. The following Monday, my editor, who wasn’t at the critique, pulled me aside and said two people independently told her I’d criticized her editing at Friday’s critique. I had no idea what she was talking about, and when I told her that, no, I’d critiqued my own work, she doubted me, puzzled at the idea I would publicly take myself apart.
My intensity, energy and humor have never fit well here—I can’t tell you how many times editors moved me around the newsroom because of the volume of my voice. I always chalked it up to style rather than, say, jaundice. I once shared my experiences with an older acquaintance here—a lawyer, longtime local performer and fellow Brooklyn native—who was quick to label it as anti-semitism, comparing mine to his own experiences. I wasn’t ready to make the leap to anti-semitism. It’s not about overt dislike of Jews, he said. Rather, it’s a discomfort with characteristics—a vocal inflection, animated expression, talking with hands—often associated with the culture of Judaism. I mulled it over. Perhaps, I thought, if you expand the definition of anti-semitism … But here were two New York Jews, at least by blood, with different views of whether to be offended. I don’t think I’m naive. I just think the barriers I’ve faced here are more personal, cultural and complex.
Racism exists. Sexism exists. Homophobia exists. Bigotry exists. Classism exists. Nationalism exists. If there’s a way to define and divide people, a certain percentage of people on one side of that divide will look to persecute those on the other. And when those in power marginalize those who aren’t, our lawmakers, courts and law enforcement—usually at the behest of public outcry—need to mitigate the worst instincts associated with human pack mentality. But when people with a history of persecution sound the alarm with any perceived slight or injustice, the people they most need to impress are more apt, instead, to believe they’re crying wolf.
In the wake of the April 3 incident, a few people on Facebook engaged in a back-and-forth exchange of outrage. Early on, one of them writes, “WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK? I’m buying a sniper rifle, like NOW.” The same person speaks of “getting an AR,”—a type of assault rifle—and another talks of “going on patrols.” A young woman obviously stuck on the first season of “Breaking Bad” writes “I like the idea of them locked to signposts by their necks … U-locks?” “Lets organize and do this,” a young man writes. All this comes from four people, while a few others chime in with cool heads and notes of caution. One writes: “Don’t be rash. Be smart. !!!!!!!” Aside from the vague references to “kids/people” and “these little shits” they believe responsible, there’s not a whiff of accusation related to race or ethnicity.
Someone assembled a photo collage of screen-captured comments, sounded an alarm on Facebook and, before long, the local chapter of the American Indian Movement, a group called Indigenous Nations and dozens of other people shared it in their circles. A status update on the AIM of Twin Cities & AIM Patrol of Minneapolis page reads, in part “… We have gone up against the Minneapolis Police Department, Gangs, Drugs Dealers, pimps, women beaters, and other people who are trying to destroy our community. We will always be there for our people through the American Indian Movement and AIM Patrol. They are not the first or last group who have guns. We are NOT going anywhere. We are the Ogichidaag!!!”
Who said or wrote anything in that thread about singling out Native people? The artist I mentioned at the top closed his status update by saying he doesn’t want to raise his daughter in a world “where entitled white people enact violence against poor people and people of color.” Hear hear—but nothing in the offending thread mentioned anything about the poor or people of color. And how did he discern the people in this mini-mob on Facebook were “entitled?”
Say what you will about police, but they would be the first to make sure the threat of an armed quartet of vigilantes was empty or squashed. The people who captured this comment thread should have taken it to them. But introducing any fill-in-the-blank-ism takes us back a step in any cross-cultural trust or understanding.
I spoke on Monday with Soren Jensen, executive director of the Midtown Greenway Coalition, who told me many of the same things he’s been telling anyone who asks about how to make the Greenway safer. Chief among them: If you see anything suspicious—such as youth or people who appear drunk gathered beneath bridges—don’t just “power past them,” as Jensen termed it. Call 9-1-1. Also, he advised, report any attack you witness or that targets you. Not enough of both happens, he says.
Still, Jensen put the attack into context. About 1.5 million people—of all ethnic, racial and economic stripes—traverse the Greenway every year. Assaults and other crime, he says, are few and far between.
I didn’t grow up in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis, I’ve never lived there, and I’m not a product of the kinds of persecution some of its residents have lived with for generations. But if our first instinct is to frame every issue around race or faith or any “ism” you believe shapes or defines you, then long after the Molotov cocktail burns out, we’ll still be dealing with the flames.