Introducing Any ‘ism’ Where it Doesn’t Belong Only Fuels the Flame

Matt Peiken

Matt Peiken

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.

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9 thoughts on “Introducing Any ‘ism’ Where it Doesn’t Belong Only Fuels the Flame

  1. Pingback: Midtown Greenway Molotov Cocktail Suspects Arrested — Secrets of the City — Minneapolis + St. Paul

  2. Racism and ignorance are separately defined and should not be used interchangeably, as they often are. Storming a neighborhood of diversity as white folks wouldn’t be racist but ignorant and naive, given their privilege comes into play because they can do that without getting hassled or police called. If the situation was reverse, there would be riot patrol to meet the group of people of color. It’s happened time and time again. The issue here is systematic racism (the police and media reaction) that would occur due to privilege and the bike groups ignorance of all of the above.

  3. I think an armed patrol of white people is fucking scary as hell, and the people in that thread are talking about patrolling areas largely NOT full of white people, in order to basically “yell at bad parents.” You don’t think that reeks of racism? And let’s be clear, the posters in that thread were white, and “bike culture” is definitely white dominated. So the idea of a bunch of angry white 20 somethings rolling through Phillips threatening to go yell at parents in that area? Race may not be the number one issue with this (see: glorification of violence, entitlement) but is very present part of this whole dumb thing.

    • I agree with you—an armed patrol of white people would be scary, for anybody. I don’t think the few morons jumping onto that thread were necessarily “bike people,” though. Forgive the armchair psychology here, but I just think they were reacting—however poorly—to what they perceived as something they just won’t stand for in their own backyard. Meaning: Someone tosses a Molotov cocktail onto a place like the Greenway—a route these people probably frequent—and they see that as an unprecedented encroachment. So I don’t think, in their minds, they’re connecting this with Phillips. For many people who ride the Greenway, it all looks the same whether you catch it near the River Road or are riding it by the lakes. It’s all one similar-looking, paved path. Here’s where I think the disconnect resides: The artist and others reacting to the initial post took it as a personal threat of white people vs. People of Color in Phillips, whereas I just think it was a few young reactionaries, who happened to be white, looking to purge “their” Greenway of this kind of violence. I can’t know for certain without interviewing the people who spoke on that thread, but that’s my guess.

      • on personal threat vs just a few “happened to be white” reactionaries:

        There is a lot wrong with this idea. First of all, white privilege allows for reactions like this. White privilege allows for easy gun ownership and carrying without police hassle and profiling. White privilege allows for group gathering without police hassle and profiling (see: “gang” profiling and loitering laws). White privilege and male privilege allows for vigilanteism and hero-play. Furthermore, white (and male esp) privilege allows for expressing *anger*. Women are “bitches” or “PMSing” when angry, black people are “angry black ___”, etc. Publicly expressing anger with threats (deemed either empty and harmless or justified by society) is totally an entitled white person thing.

        Even though those cats didn’t mean it as a personal threat to the Philips neighborhood and community, the cocktail happened on 15th Ave, that is the Philips neighborhood and community. White bikers coming into a community in anger and “to educate bad parents” is messed up both in empty theory and reality. Even though they didn’t mean it that way, it’s still offensive and dumb, and I don’t think dismissing the community’s feelings on it as an overreaction is right. Even though there will probably be zero follow-through, it is still through privilege that the idea was formed, and it is totally justified to be mad about that.

  4. Maybe you should consider writing about something you have a little more personal experience with next time. As someone who’s white and doesn’t live in Phillips, it’s not your place to decide if race is an issue here or not, or to tell someone who does deal with racism in this neighborhood every day if their “first instinct” should consider race or not.

    The fact is that you are not the person “dealing with the flames” of racism, sexism, colonialism, or many other “isms.” Please stick to giving advice about those flames which you do deal with.

    • Thanks for writing. But tell me—where do you see the race in this specific issue? What part(s) of the initial Facebook comment thread are you seeing racial overtones? If you can’t identify them, then I’d suggest the artist and others reacting to that thread introduced race into the issue. It doesn’t take a person of color or resident of Phillips to see that, and it’s naive to think that any racial dynamic in this issue—if one exists—doesn’t extend beyond the border of Phillips and into the rainbow of ethnicities. So please, if you will, look to this initial thread and educate me about what I’m missing.

  5. Say what you wlll about police.. okay.

    Police systematically, historically and continuously fuck with, harass, intimidate, ignore, and mistreat oppressed populations. Telling folk that calling the police will keep them safe is a joke.

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