3 Dylans, 2 Zimmermans, 2 Coopers, and 2 Junes in Minnesota:
What Are We Going to Tell our Kids?
The George Floyd video is a Zapruder film of not just the final moments of a man’s life, but a snapshot of race relations in this country, at this particular inflection point. What each of us finds most disturbing about that video is as unique and diverse and distinct as we are. As bad as the entire 9 minute 43 second video is, the worst part for me may be different than the worst part for you.
Clearly, the officer doesn’t perceive the man he’s arresting to be a threat. We know this because the man on the ground isn’t resisting and Officer Chauvin’s body language tells us visually that he’s in complete control. Not just in control, but he can do all this, metaphorically, literally, and casually, with one hand in his pocket.
What’s most remarkable about the footage to me is the new levels of lack of remorse. For much of the video, Chauvin stares dispassionately at the cameras, and, though he knows he’s being recorded, he’s not the least bit ashamed; maybe even a little proud. Triumphant. Defiant.
The images that have emerged from this latest incident sent me back to lynching postcards I had inadvertently seen as a kid. They were oddly (and I suppose ironically) in a magazine called “Life.” Those images were seared into my memory. It was stunning to me that people were so “out” about lynchings that they actually made postcards of the events; and there was even a robust lynching souvenir trade.
Lynchings were social events, people got dressed up for them, smiled for photographs – not the least bit hesitant to be identified – and, like Officer Chauvin, showed no remorse. Like fishermen pose with their giant catch only the catch is human. And it isn’t just a few fishermen. Lynching postcards featured scores, sometimes hundreds of people, men, women, and children enjoying the event.
In Susan Sontag’s book Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag writes about the intended impact of witnessing such ghoulish cruelty. “Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else: they haunt us,” Sontag wrote. My kids have seen the George Floyd video. Not just once, but over and over on their ever-present hand-held devices. And so have yours. What started in the 55401, thanks to modern technology, is witnessed here in the 93108, almost instantaneously. Now forever etched into our kids’ young memories, these images will in some profound way inform who they are and who they will be. Which is why I believe that to not take a stance on it, to not discuss it, to not help them process it, is simply not an option. At least not a good one.
Minnesota is only 8% black (Minneapolis 16.8%) and they still wound up with a race problem of a national caliber. Because it doesn’t take a lot of people of a different color to expose dangerous, dormant, and sometimes probably subconscious racial attitudes in a community. Typically, it only takes one. And we all know too many of their names: Trayvon Martin. Freddie Gray. Emmett Till. Ahmaud Arbery. Eric Garner. And now George Floyd.
As remote as Montecito may be from Minnesota… and Baltimore… and Georgia, how do we explain this story… to our kids? To ourselves? To each other? Because to not take a position on it is tantamount to taking the same position as Chauvin’s colleague and lookout, Officer Tou Thou.
I’ve heard a lot of news outlets say the George Floyd incident was a new sort of occurrence for otherwise pastoral Minnesota, but I did a little digging and it’s not. Two hours from Minneapolis by car, a young boy was living in Duluth. That boy, Abram, wound up in Duluth because his relatives, Anna and Zig Zimmerman, had fled anti-Jewish pogroms in Odessa, Russia.
Abram wound up living two blocks from a very notable Minnesota lynching. (Where three posthumously innocent victims were hung from a lamp pole in a melee witnessed by thousands.) Indeed, proximity to Duluth’s lynchings of Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie had a huge impact on young Abram.
As the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, I can attest that traumas get passed down from one generation to the next. In fact my sister, along with my mother, wrote a book about this very phenomenon called Bending Towards the Sun about my mom’s years hiding from the Nazis in an attic – as well as the trauma our Mom passed down to us, “the gift that keeps on giving.”
In a similar manner, the lynching witnessed by Abram in Duluth was so seared into his memory that, years later, when Abram had a son, Shabtai Zisel ben Avraham, Shabtai, emerging from the University of Minnesota, wrote a song about the incident called “Desolation Row.” At this point he officially went not by Shabtai, the name under which he was Bar-mitzvad, but Robert Allen Zimmerman.
“Desolation Row” begins like this:
They’re selling postcards of the hanging, they’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors, the circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner, they’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker, the other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless, they need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight, from Desolation Row
Shabtai, now Robert Zimmerman, fearing only narrow market success because of his Jewishness, subsequently changed his name again to Bob Dylan, after the Welsh rock star poet, Dylan Thomas. Interestingly, “Desolation Row” (1965) wasn’t Dylan’s first song about a lynching. That came in 1962 with his song “The Death of Emmett Till.”
The incident that sparked “Desolation Row” occurred almost 100 years ago to this very day in Minnesota, in June of 1920. There have been at least two books about it. And one famous song by Dylan (later recorded again by My Chemical Romance) and previously covered by the Grateful Dead on their album called, appropriately enough, Postcards of the Hanging. There’s also a memorial to the 1920 Minnesota lynchings at 1st Street and 2nd Avenue in Duluth.
We all know memorials and statues can be controversial. Because they say a lot about our history and which history will be told. Which history will be literally memorialized. Personally, I think memorials such as the one at Duluth Plaza are important even when they make us uncomfortable, maybe especially when they do, because they can start important conversations. Between friends. Between races. Between parents and their kids. (The kind I feel so strongly must be had now with our children.) Because here’s what happens when those tough conversations don’t happen, like the one between Bob Dylan and his dad, or the tough Holocaust conversations between my mother and myself:
95 years after the historical event that sparked Dylan to write “Desolation Row,” also in June but this time in 2015, another Dylann, this one in South Carolina, named Dylann Roof with 2 “Ns,” watches news coverage of another Zimmerman, but this Zimmerman, named George, is the shooter of Trayvon Martin not at Twin Cities, but at the Retreat at Twin Lakes in Sanford, Florida.
Roof is impacted by the Trayvon Martin incident and also impacted by footage of the police killing of Freddie Gray (in Baltimore). But no one processes the information with Roof. He kind of fits the “loner” profile and is not close with any parent, stepparent, or any other sort of influential relative, or any sort of responsible adult. According to the FBI, Dylan Roof “self-radicalizes” as he processes the same sort of information my kids and your kids just saw emanate from Minneapolis, but with no guidance, no discussion, and no mentorship.
Left to his own devices, and those devices include a Glock .45 caliber Gen4 pistol as well as, Dylann hopes, a semi-automatic AR-15 rifle which he tries to obtain, Mr. Roof’s take-away from watching the George Zimmerman case and the Freddie Gray case is he would “like to start a race war in the U.S.A.” And he does his best to achieve precisely that by shooting up a bible study group in a church in Charleston, South Carolina – killing nine parishioners.
Going back to the Duluth lynchings that occurred almost 100 years ago to this day, seven African American circus workers had been rounded up on spurious charges of rape, later proven false, in an incident incredibly similar to Amy Cooper vs. Christian Cooper a few days ago in New York’s Central Park. But without the incontrovertible alibi of a cell phone recorded video.
2011 miles away from Minneapolis, Santa Barbara does not have a clean slate when it comes to racial justice. One not-so-well-known example happened in 1983 when the Harlem Globetrotters were visiting here. After a show, three players (Sweet Lou Dunbar, Ovie Dotson, and Jimmy Blacklock) went downtown to walk around and get some ice cream. Eventually they flagged down a taxi to head back to their hotel. While on the way to their hotel, their taxi was surrounded by police cars, guns drawn. Before the incident was over the Santa Barbara Police had three members of the world-famous Globetrotters lying face down in the street. Handcuffed. Why? Because next door in Montecito three black men “of average height” had robbed a jewelry store. Luckily, because one reporter had seen the Globetrotters in the ice cream shop and followed them, this was all caught on tape. Which was good not just because there was a record, but because the reporter was able to tell the cops that the Globetrotters were clearly not the “average height” guys who had robbed the Montecito jewelry store.
Sadly, in 1920 in Duluth there were no cameras to record incontrovertible alibis. And because of the race hysteria at the time and because the traveling circus workers lacked recordings or other resources with which to defend themselves, three of them were lynched by a Duluth mob estimated at 1,500. The rest were all eventually exonerated, but one of them only under the condition that he “never return to Minnesota.”
Until quite recently, Minnesota’s complicated racial past had been quite literally whitewashed, much like Tulsa, Oklahoma’s 1921 Race War that killed at least 40 – completely scrubbed from newspaper coverage and news archives and histories both at the time and in perpetuity.
Minnesota’s problem isn’t NOT our problem. Nor is Los Angeles’s. Nor Staten Island’s. Nor Atlanta’s… We all have to deal with these incidents and images that are becoming a common ingredient in our kids’ daily internet feeds, even if they come from 2,011 miles away. Because to witness the video of a death in progress embalms it in our hearts and minds for all time. As the saying goes, once you see it, you can’t “unsee” it. Those images become seeds in our kids that are going to grow into something. How we respond to Minnesota, or don’t, will determine if those seeds will become Bob Dylan/Robert Zimmerman. Or Dylan Thomas. Or will they become George Zimmerman? Or will they become Dylann Roof?
The answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind.
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.