Timothy Rainey is assistant professor of religion at St. Olaf College. His research focuses on religion, race, and economy in the Black Atlantic world, with special attention given to the ways corporations interacted with Black faith communities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Rainey holds a Ph.D. in religion from Emory University.
I arrived in Minneapolis eight days following the murder of George Floyd. It rained the evening of June 2, and most businesses in the city were preparing to shut down in the wake of escalating protests. Our home was still empty, and after more than twelve hundred miles of travel from the South, I mapped local eateries in my area—the few that remained open. On the list of pizzerias and diners pinned to the city’s grid within Yelp, I saw street names and intersections that should have been unrecognizable to me but were eerily familiar. My thoughts turned to George Floyd. I abandoned my quest for food and searched for the exact location of his death. 38th and Chicago. Eight minutes and 1.9 miles. That’s how close my curb is from the one where Minneapolis police knelt on a black man’s body for more than eight minutes before forcing him to take his last breath.
Pensive but desperate to take in the city and moment, I rode through Central Minneapolis just before the 10 p.m. curfew and saw blocks vacant and wet; the buildings raised above them dead, hollow, lifeless, and boarded up like still bodies paused, awaiting resurrection. Spray painted on the plywood covering the broad windows were inscriptions—substituted with cardboard signs by day—displaying the moniker turned battle cry: “George Floyd.” The connection of Floyd’s death to these buildings was more than the result of cause effecting outrage. The way he died immersed his existence within a history of resistance to lynching and tortures born by black bodies effectively converting his name into usable capital. Protecting white and black businesses from the unrest surging each night, configurations of phrases bearing George Floyd’s name became marks of solidarity with the fight for justice in response to race-related deaths and over-policing in black communities.
Walls around the city dripped with paint spelling out “George Floyd” like Passover offerings for the reckoning spirit of the mob coming to exact judgment on the nation’s firstborn. These signs operated the same way “Black Owned” signs have for decades. These badges of exemption have historically protected black stores, shops, restaurants, and homes from vandalism, destruction, and looting in the wake of race riots during America’s long nineteenth-century racial saga. They signaled that black stuff matters, too. Pointing to a near sacred impulse to preserve the hope seemingly lost following the destructive forces of white mob violence, the signs suggest that further destruction of black things only contributes to the group’s casualties. From lynched bodies to the razing of thriving black communities by white rioters in places like Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921, Rosewood, Florida, in 1923, and Washington, DC, during the 1835 Snow Riot, the destruction of black things elevated interest in making African-American businesses inviolable.
When black protests against violent acts of racism have turned riotous, business owners tapped into what Pierre Nora calls milieux de mémoire, or the real environments of memory, to protect historic black shops and gathering places with an explicitly worded referent: “BLACK OWNED.” During the Watts Riots (or Watts Rebellion) of 1965, black citizens devised a complex system of written signs and hand gestures to distinguish who and what was off-limits. During the 1992 L.A. riots, however, the Los Angeles Sentinel reported May 14, 1992, that while some black businesses posting “Black-owned” in their windows were spared, black businesses remained the hardest hit. However efficacious they have been, the signs have endured in the black imagination. More recently, similar strategies by black business owners can be observed in places like Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 and 2015; Baltimore, Maryland, in 2015; Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2016; and, now, Minneapolis. And this time, being a bit closer to the epicenter, the moment was more palpable to me, and the details more detectable. What struck me were not the particular uses of black-owned signs in this case, but the ways the spirit of the signs might have been appropriated. There were other kinds of signs peppered across the city, not posted by black businesses but those asserting solidarity with black interests. Allies. These alternative signs read, “Justice for George Floyd,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE”—performing the same kind of work as the racial Passover.
These signs of solidarity led me to inquire who is allowed to evoke the spirit of the racial Passover. I was curious, too, whether mine was a fair question. More than black people have a desire not to see their businesses ruined and their livelihoods reduced to ashes. If some buildings matter, couldn’t an argument be conjured that they all matter. The same day we arrived, June 2, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a headline that stirred up social media. It has now been retracted with an apology, and at least one resignation. The big, bold letters of the headline announced, “Buildings Matter, Too.” Written by architecture critic, Inga Saffron, the article was written with the intention of raising concern about what cities lose when riots consume them. Saffron opened that article with the question: “Does the destruction of buildings matter when black Americans are being brazenly murdered in cold blood by police and vigilantes?” The question, she notes, is less hers than one circulating in the public discourse, but she never gets around to providing a satisfactory answer. Rather, Saffron’s repetition of the chorus of “this only hurts you” came off as a cold reflection of her seeming position of privilege and cursory acquaintance with the deep history of race in America.
This affection for buildings shows how the outrage over Floyd’s abused body is easily entangled within a complicated past of race, people, and property. When someone asserts that property matters, they are right. In this case, however, the problem is not whether structures matter, it is that someone has already had to say black lives matter. What some people find to be unbearably absurd is that we have to have a conversation on whether buildings matter in light of black women, children, and men being murdered—cavalierly, with impunity, and with a hand in the pocket. The historical fact of hereditary racial slavery, of human chattel, the slave coffle marching through the streets, and the slave sale stripping people of existential value all constitute ground zero of the problem of discussing property and people. Formalized in the rationally framed market for slaves in the Atlantic World, merchants, planters, and slavers imagined African women, children, and men as tradable goods, fixed and circulating assets. The fact of black people existing as breathing and walking property changed what it meant to own, to be wealthy, to transfer and even destroy property.
When Floyd’s body was in Derek Chauvin’s custody, the idea that he—as a municipal official, as the law—could do what he wanted with the city’s chained property illustrated Floyd’s hyper-materiality. With Chauvin’s knee resting on George Floyd’s neck as Floyd pleaded for mercy, Chauvin, Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng, and Tou Thao demonstrated this black body belonged to them. He was their n&%*!@. Both the human body and physical space can hold sacred value. But entertaining a discourse that essentially suggest a calculus for measuring commensurable value between the two only points to the absurdities erupting in America’s past and its present. Maybe there’s just too much history here to bear up. A history so absurd that one can, at best, resign to cynicism. In the aftermath of Tulsa being bombed and burned, black people were supplied with green badges to signify that they were protected and law-abiding blacks. After the 1906 Atlanta riots, it was also suggested that good blacks wear a badge. This method was also quite effective during the Antebellum Era, when masters hired out the slaves of their peers. Maybe George Floyd needed a badge. A suit, or a uniform, perhaps? Being a living, breathing soul was clearly not enough. Like Saffron, I also struggle to answer her question and do so with a straight face. Maybe my best answer is embracing the words written on the back of a candy-pink Impala parked beside me during a stopover in Indiana just before Minneapolis: “I Can’t Breathe! F&%* Racism! Respect.”