A burning city fueled our forward movement

Photo by Jim Handrigan/MSR News

Reflections of a high school senior

This essay is one of several written from different perspectives examining the question How did George Floyd Change the World?

One year ago, I watched the city I live in suddenly disappear. I watched generations of pain, hurt and trauma promptly move to action at the sight of one eight-minute and forty-five-second video. I know for a fact that every single brother and sister who watched that video felt the same suffocating pressure in their necks for weeks after while risking their lives in South Minneapolis not only to avenge George Floyd’s final breaths but also to justify their own.

 I couldn’t bring myself to watch that video, and to this day I can’t say I have seen more than the shortened clips. What I do know is that I have never seen a group of people so charged and so willing to risk everything for what feels like the very bare minimum: a prosecution of a killer cop.

On May 27, the city began burning. No one expected it, no one intended it, but suddenly from my house I could see the flames for hours and hours. Living two blocks off Lake Street, I could hear the sirens, the shattering glass, and the screams.

When I left my home that night, I saw the skeletons of cop cars on fire. Every single business for miles was tagged and looted. The sidewalks were drenched in water from the sprinklers in buildings, and the streets were covered in glass, soot and flames.

For weeks after, I couldn’t sleep over the sounds of helicopters, burning rubber, screaming and chanting, and over the smell and thickness of the smoke that filled my home just three blocks from the Third Precinct.

Invaders from the outside wore all black and covered their faces while revving their engines at the park across the street from my home. I could not leave my home without checking every direction for the motorcycles and cars without license plates, the black bandanas and black clothes, and the white power symbols on masks, jackets or skin.

The news never warned us or told the rest of the world we were under attack, but somehow the whole neighborhood abruptly had guns and weapons close by while trembling at the idea of leaving their homes. I stayed up all night watching Unicorn Riot’s livestream and listening to police chasing protestors who were out past curfew. I saw firefighters chasing fires started primarily by White Supremacists and KKK-affiliated men every night in what was once a city called “Minneapolis.”

When I heard that a close friend was forced to evacuate his home after it was set aflame, I kept one of my dad’s golf clubs under my bed and removed any signs showing alliance to BLM from my porch. My family kept our garbage bins and anything flammable in our garage so they couldn’t set bombs or fireworks inside.

My friends found Molotov cocktails, a small handmade explosive made with flammable liquid and a rag stuffed in a plastic water bottle left in alleys by Supremacists with the intention of returning and exploding anything in sight. They started setting off loud fireworks and selling them to young children or leaving them hidden behind cars in the streets for people to find.

They went off day and night. The sound echoed within my head so aggressively loud that I lost the ability to tell the difference between the gunshots that happened frequently or the fireworks. It drove all of us mad.

They re-traumatized us. They came, set traps, and left their marks everywhere to make us aware of their presence and provoke fear in us. They succeeded.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t smile a little when they broke into the Precinct that night. The whole world saw it, and it became the new symbol that connected us to our city.

I wasn’t allowed to leave the house that night because my mom was scared. She said the streets and noise were especially loud and the smoke from the fire was too thick and intoxicating. Instead, I made a bowl of popcorn and watched them celebrate the invasion with African beats blasted through speakers, dancing, singing and fireworks.

This could be our independence day. It will forever be written as violence and hatred that grew over one man’s death. However from our perspective it was showing the world how much we hurt and how much trauma our ancestors endured on our behalf.

This generational trauma that had been genetically pumping through our blood had left us with the same burden our elders had carried ages ago. They whispered that it was finally our turn to continue their fight, and we chose to scream it loudly in their honor.

If our ancestors were looking down the way many of us thought they were, I think they would be saddened. Not in us, because to them, we had made them proud for finally turning heads. No. They would be disappointed by how many lives were taken from us with no reparations in return.

So here we are. One year later. We lost a brother—George Floyd—and many others followed after we lost the spotlight and after we lost our city. In South Minneapolis, buildings have been rebuilt, art and graffiti have been covered, and streets have opened up. Today I’m still going, and I know hundreds of other Black people who are pushing themselves beyond their limits in order to be the mind, body and soul for those who can’t find themselves standing next to us.

We will take the flames and memories and we will use them as fuel to keep moving forward.

Lena Francis is an activist and senior at Minneapolis South High School.