AS THE bars in downtown Minneapolis were closing in the early hours of Saturday, May 22 – around 2am, to be precise – and as crowds spilled out of nightclubs on to the streets to begin their journeys home, a brief gun battle between two rival gang members took place in the area of the 300 block of North First Avenue, in an area of downtown that could, with some justification, be described as a red-light district, at least by the fairly decorous standards of the Upper Midwest.
When the police arrived moments later, they found an ‘exceptionally chaotic scene’, with several bloodied victims lying on the sidewalk, some of them moaning in pain and crying out for help.
The sordid details that led to this ‘eruption of gunfire’ need not concern us here. As officers checked the gunshot victims, five men and five women, they discovered that two of the men were dead. Of the remaining eight victims, one was in critical condition, while the other seven had non-life-threatening injuries. Of the two fatalities, one was identified as 24-year-old Christopher Robert Jones Jr, shot at close range whilst returning fire from 23-year-old Jawan Contrail Carroll, a member of a rival gang who has been charged with second-degree murder. It was a dispute between Jones and Carroll that triggered this carnage on the streets of Minneapolis.
The other dead victim identified on that dreadful early morning was 21-year-old Charlie Johnson, a recent graduate of the University of St Thomas School of Engineering. He was due to receive his diploma later that day in one of those elaborate graduation ceremonies that are so much a feature of American life at this time of year. He was out celebrating with friends, waiting on the street for his ride home, when he was hit by the stray bullet that ended his life, a life full of promise that had hardly begun. His sister, who accepted his diploma on his behalf, described him as her ‘best friend’, her ‘angel and hero’.
By all accounts, Charlie Johnson was a kind and decent young man, a blessing and inspiration to all who knew him. I’m told he had ambitions to use his hard-won engineering degree in the service of mankind, working for a company that is involved in the restoration of the Brazilian rain forest. His name and the banal senselessness of his death were much on my mind as I drove to the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in South Minneapolis where George Floyd had died in police custody on Memorial Day in 2020. It was the anniversary of his death, and members of the world’s press had come to this hitherto obscure crossroads in a city few outside, and even within, the United States could have located on a map until quite recently. The intersection has now become a slightly menacing and rather tawdry shrine to a man who should not have died in the manner he did but whose sad life involved armed robbery and aggravated assault, an unlikely candidate for the beatification he has received since his death.
Listening to the BBC World Service on my car radio, I learned that earlier that day 30 shots had been fired in the vicinity of 38th and Chicago, now increasingly known as ‘George Floyd Square,’ a self-declared autonomous zone of a few blocks, a place outside the law where no policeman dares tread. Typical of the elite media when reporting acts of violence and destruction that don’t fit their increasingly contrived narratives, the rather plummy-sounding female reporter dubbed the 30 shots that caused seasoned members of the Fourth Estate to assume the foetal position on the pavement ‘an isolated incident’ despite having just stated, in a virtuoso example of cognitive dissonance, that the sound of gunfire was not uncommon in the neighbourhood.
Another name on my mind that day was that of Aniya Allen, a six-year-old girl who had died in Hennepin County Medical Center the previous week, two days after being hit in the head by another stray bullet whilst enjoying a McDonald’s Happy Meal in the back of her family’s car. Like Charlie Johnson, the Allen family were in the wrong place at the wrong time, having inadvertently driven into a ‘hail of bullets’ as the gangs who terrorise that part of north Minneapolis chose, as they so often do, to overlook the possibility of injuring or killing bystanders as they go about their often-deadly business of settling scores or trying to kill one another over turf or some definition of status.
Charlie Johnson, who happened to be white, and Aniya Allen, who happened to be black, will not become household names in the way that black men killed by white police officers have become. Both, apart from those who loved them and will continue to mourn them until they, too, die, will soon be forgotten.
As I negotiated my way through the crowds milling around the sanctified ground of ‘George Floyd Square’, and listened to speakers denounce the police in the ugliest and most dehumanising terms, whilst calling for their defunding and using the vilest of profanities in the hearing of small children, I wondered how many of them had heard the names of Charlie Johnson and Aniya Allen, or the names of others whose lives have recently been taken, not by so-called racist cops, but overwhelmingly by young black men from fatherless homes. I thought of the look of ineffable grief on Charlie’s mother’s face in a television interview as she spoke about missing ‘her baby’, calling him ‘a young powerful man who always spoke with his heart with love, passion, kindness and compassion’, an image I’ve been trying to dispel from my mind ever since, but so far without success.