TO say Minnesotans are on edge right now, most especially those of us who reside in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul and the surrounding towns and cities, does little justice to the complex array of emotions many are feeling as they nervously anticipate the verdict in the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd.
It is an event that has put Minneapolis on the map as never before and sparked reactions around the world that continue to resonate loudly and show no signs of slowing down.
To use an obvious cliché, tensions are running high. Driving through the suburbs of Minneapolis a few days ago, my wife and I were surprised by the number of military vehicles belonging to the Minnesota National Guard, many of them armoured and camouflaged for the desert, parked along the sides of roads, ready to go at a moment’s notice.
Seeing so many vehicles of this type reminded me of my time working in West Germany during the 1970s when war games were taking place near to where I lived. On Sunday morning, members of the National Guard were fired upon in the northern part of the city, although no one, thank God, was seriously injured.
On Monday afternoon, I walked along Lake Street, near to where George Floyd died under Derek Chauvin’s knee, a once elegant part of South Minneapolis that became the epicentre of the destructive violence and looting that took place in the wake of his death. The wave of destruction and arson is estimated to have caused two billion dollars in damage and destroyed many small businesses, the lifeblood of such neighbourhoods.
I was shocked by what I saw. Almost every business was boarded up or in the process of being boarded up. The sounds of hammers and drills were much in evidence, reminding me, a little eccentrically perhaps, of last-minute preparations on a stage set getting ready for some lavish theatrical extravaganza.
Every three or four blocks and in some of the side streets stood a Humvee, accompanied by heavily-armed soldiers of the National Guard, mostly in groups of three.
Approaching one such grouping, I thanked them for being there and for their service to the country in general. They were incredibly receptive to my rather empty gesture of goodwill, and obviously grateful that an unprepossessing Englishman in late middle age with a pronounced limp would take the trouble to express his gratitude to these citizen soldiers.
As we spoke, I noticed they were very young men indeed, seeming hardly any older than the high school boys I had been teaching until quite recently.
I thought of what they might be facing in the coming days and nights, and the future overseas war in which they might be required to fight and die and lose limbs, a war dreamed up by some alumnus of the Ivy League now serving in the Biden-Harris administration, as we are now instructed to call it.
When I turned to leave, having wished these chivalrous and friendly young men ‘Godspeed,’ I realised, to my embarrassment, that I had tears in my eyes. Their courtesy and obvious decency touched me very greatly indeed, and I left with the impression that I had witnessed America at its finest.
The further along Lake Street I proceeded, the more I felt as if I were in some benighted war-torn city in the Middle East.
Elsewhere in Minneapolis, most particularly in the area around the courthouse where Derek Chauvin’s trial took place, I was reminded of scenes of Baghdad’s Green Zone I had seen on television, replete with razor wire and concrete barriers, and yet more armoured vehicles and heavily-armed soldiers.
A city few people outside the United States had heard of before the death of George Floyd is drawing the attention of the world as it braces itself for the very real possibility of more mayhem and destruction in the name of racial justice.
Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglass, courageous crusaders for civil rights who worked peacefully within the system to achieve their goals, can be forgiven if they are now turning in their graves.
I have no idea what awaits Minneapolis in the days and weeks to come. Cynics, of which there are many in Minnesota at the moment, fear that, whatever the verdict – that is, whether Chauvin is found guilty of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, or second-degree manslaughter, or is acquitted of all charges – violence will occur.
I hope very much that they are wrong, but nothing can convince me that they are. Violence has already resumed in the city of Brooklyn Center, barely a dozen miles from where George Floyd died and where Derek Chauvin awaits judgment, over another killing of an unarmed black man by a white police officer.
Just before the presidential election last year, the British writer and journalist Douglas Murray wrote that if Donald Trump was re-elected, anti-social forces within America itself would burn the country to the ground. Such destructive forces lie in wait in Minneapolis and its environs as I write these words. But they represent only a tiny minority of those who live in this sprawling conurbation in the Upper Midwest.
So, my fellow Minneapolitans, whatever the verdict, feel free to protest or celebrate, but do it peacefully and thereby preserve the beauty and prosperity of your wonderful city.