Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #155. First published in the St. Cloud Times online June 5, 2020; in print June 7

“NAACP honors St. Cloud officials.” A Jan. 15, 2018 Times headline. The officials? Mayor and police department. Could this really have been?

Denise Fale, local NAACP president, said the nominations were for “ongoing efforts to improve the community.” In the course of the program at the Freedom Fund Dinner, the police departments of St. Joseph, Sartell, Sauk Rapids and Waite Park were included. The key word: “ongoing.”

The murder of George Floyd on Memorial Day has brought the country to the brink, to the edge, to the boiling point – the metaphors proliferate. The one I find most compelling is this: We are experiencing the COVID-1619 pandemic.

We knew that COVID-19 revealed many pre-existing conditions in our society, including racism. Murders – of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and … think of all the times there wasn’t a cellphone camera – are the latest manifestation of a story that began when about 50 human beings were brought to Jamestown, Virginia, as slaves, in 1619 – 400 years ago. It has been called, accurately – along with the genocide of Native peoples – America’s original sin.

Central Minnesota is part of that story, as demonstrated by St. Cloud State University professor Christopher Lehman in “Slavery’s Reach: Southern Slaveholders and the North Star State,” winner of the 2020 Minnesota Book Award for nonfiction.

Because many white people in this area think black people have only recently arrived here, it’s easy to conclude they – both the descendants of slaves and African immigrants – “don’t belong.” Lehman makes clear that African Americans have always been here. The way they have been treated doesn’t do us proud, especially the history of housing discrimination. From the 1920s all the way to 1981, restrictive real estate covenants appeared in deeds, despite the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

As a nation we have a long way to go. The chant, “Respect my existence or expect my resistance,” is a reminder that there are lives at stake. George Floyd is dead.

Initially I hesitated to write anything positive about the current scene. Looking for the silver lining would seem a pastime for Pollyanna or, worse, a privilege of privilege. A case can be made that white guys just need to shut up.

But to avoid the subject would be an evasion.

And there is something to celebrate – or if that overdoes it, something at least to set forth as a gyroscope for a nation in the midst of a storm.

Just five weeks after the NAACP gave its 2018 awards, 18 organizations signed the updated (from its original 2005 form) St. Cloud Community Policing Agreement. The signatories range widely; among them are St. Cloud Police Department, African American Male Forum, Asamblea de Derechos Civiles, First Presbyterian Church, GRIP/ISAIAH, Hands Across the World, Higher Ground Church of God in Christ, Regional Human Rights Commission, St. Cloud Area Somali Salvation Organization, UniteCloud.

A Feb. 23, 2018 Times article notes that the title itself is an addition, to reflect, according to Assistant Chief of Police Jeff Oxton, “its role for the entire St. Cloud community.” Within the text of the document, the phrase “communities of color” is replaced with “the community.”

In that same article, “Jerilyn Petersen, a representative from St. Cloud ACLU People Power, said the group wanted to know more about the policies of the department. ‘We wanted to make sure people were treated equally,’ she said, and she was ’blown away’ by the response to the agreement.”

The message of hope that the work of courageous leaders has for the rest of our state and the entire country was put succinctly by Oxton, who “said the group spent a lot of time revising this agreement. ‘It’s a living document,’ said Oxton, and they wanted to ‘re-infuse’ it. Another important aspect of the revision, he said, was the relationships that had been made.”

“A lot of time,” “a living document” and – most important – “the relationships that had been made.”

The strength and depth of those relationships shine through the joint statement by Mayor Dave Kleis and Chief of Police Wm. Blair Anderson issued on May 28, after “the tragic death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis Police custody.” They go on to say, about the community and the police as linked through the agreement, “We work together and working together … works!”

There is a direct line from the Community Policing Agreement to the peaceful, socially distanced gathering of hundreds, under the leadership of UniteCloud, at Lake George on May 29. Participants brought flowers which were then taken to the memorial for George Floyd at the spot where he died.

A photo of the Lake George event shows everyone kneeling. Police officers around the country can be seen kneeling with protesters. Kneeling with others isn’t the answer. But it’s a start.