To this day, I look back with great fondness of the seven years and 14 winters spent in Minneapolis during my tenure as CEO of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation. Perennially ranked as one of the best metropolitan areas in which to live, the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul have a rich cultural life, top-flight sports teams, parks, beautiful lakes, and great colleges and universities. It is the home of iconic companies such as General Mills, Pillsbury, 3M, and others, and has a diverse and well-educated labor force. In contrast to us sharp-elbowed, in-your-face Northeasterners, the friendly (though often passive-aggressive) character of its residents is described as “Minnesota nice.”
It wasn’t always that way. Noted journalist Carey McWilliams wrote in “The Nation” that the Minneapolis of the 1940s was the “capitol of anti-Semitism in the United States,” as the many Lutherans in the state shared the same animus against Jews as their founder, Martin Luther. It took the leadership of Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey (later a U.S. senator and the vice president) to combat this hatred and to strengthen the local Jewish community. Reinforcing this acceptance, starting in 1974 Minnesota, with a Jewish population of less than 1 percent, elected four Jewish U.S. senators.
By all philanthropic measures, the Jewish community, as well as the larger Twin Cities faith and civic communities, are among the leaders nationally in per capita philanthropic giving and volunteerism. That and the easygoing nature of the locals left me particularly stunned at the murder of George Floyd by a member of law enforcement and his apathetic colleagues. This heinous act justified the initial peaceful protests that followed, but coming on the heels of similar incidents in Georgia, Kentucky, Florida, and elsewhere — and eerily reminiscent of the Eric Garner case — public officials should have been better prepared to combat the violence that followed.
As of this writing, the reactions of the Minneapolis mayor, Minnesota governor, and Minneapolis police department have been stunningly inept. Yes, Mayor Jacob Frey acted quickly to have Officer Derek Chauvin, who leaned his knee on Floyd’s neck to keep him pinned to the ground, fired, arrested, and charged with murder and manslaughter. Yet Frey and the governor waited too long to call in the National Guard, and as a result rioters were able to overwhelm the peaceful protestors and torch and loot hundreds of stores.
Most egregiously, the police fled rather than protect the third precinct, which burned to the ground. As the Minneapolis Star Tribune opined in a recent editorial: “Frey’s flawed calculation, that ‘the symbolism of the building cannot outweigh the importance of life,’… [signaled] that lawlessness would reign once police fled, leaving businesses and residents on their own.”
And so 911 calls went unanswered as fires burned and shops were looted, and authorities were slow to respond to the violence and millions in damage. And instead of taking responsibility, the mayor and governor spun the narrative that outsiders and white supremacists were behind the riots to deflect attention from their woeful performance.
Our friends in Minneapolis told us they were subject to curfews and that many businesses, including large chains such as Target and CVS, were closed. They were embarrassed by how their proud city had fallen in the nation’s esteem by the violence and the authorities’ inability to control it.
What are some of the lessons to be gleaned? We must address the endemic racism in our midst such as how some members of the police treat minorities during day-to-day encounters and through every stage of the judicial process.
We must confront the economic and public health inequalities in our country, although publicly acknowledging these inequalities is only a first step, though necessary, in tackling a systemic problem that will take generations to repair.
And even as we undertake this post-mortem, we must reaffirm our support for the men and women in blue, many of whom are minorities, who risk their lives for us every day. They are our “911” writ large.
Peaceful, non-violent protests are part of our democracy’s DNA and must be protected, but reckless violence and looting directed against the police and innocent bystanders and businesses must be condemned. No matter the circumstances, we are all responsible for our actions, and apologists for the violence — for example, a political scientist wrote in Vox that the burning of a police station is a revolutionary act while looting should be condemned — are part of the problem.
As Steven Belton, president of the Urban League of the Twin Cities, said: “Violence is not an honorable or healthy recourse for our personal or collective anger and mourning. The memory of George Floyd deserves better.”
So does the land of 10,000 lakes.
Max L. Kleinman is president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation; from 1995 to 2014 he served as CEO/executive vice president of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.