Acton Institute Powerblog

Finding civil society as Minneapolis burns

On May 25, George Floyd was murdered on the streets of Minneapolis, killed by “asphyxiation from sustained pressure” after his neck was pressed for over eight minutes under the knee of a police officer—a supposed public servant who was sworn to “serve and protect.”

It’s a tragic example of the moral and institutional rot that pervades society, particularly as it relates to the enduring threats of racism, white supremacy, and over-criminalization among minorities and the poor. As if this injustice weren’t enough, the subsequent chaos, division, and destruction has served to paint a bigger picture—illuminating broader cultural challenges and blind spots, from our growing absence of public virtue to our enduring inability to properly recognize and productively respond to injustice.

The riots began in Minneapolis, where I currently live, finding their ultimate climax in the burning of the third precinct police station. As citizens mourned and the rioters raged, Mayor Jacob Frey and Gov. Tim Walz looked on with a mix of shrugging bewilderment and passive sympathy. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump did his best to further foment the chaos, adding reckless rhetoric and partisan gamesmanship to an already tense and terrible situation. Alas, from our local authorities to the president of United States, character, courage, and competence were nowhere to be found.

It was an uncomfortable spectacle to behold, mixing the decadence and detachment of our national politics with a reality that Minnesotans have tried their best to ignore, because it hits too close to home. If the murder of George Floyd challenged our cozy illusions about the “Minnesota niceness” of our approach to race relations, the resulting rioters and placating politicians made the medicine stronger still. Here, in our own subdued, milky, Midwestern way, we had failed to understand what social and racial justice actually is—and what preserving it actually requires.

Until now, it seems, such issues have managed to hide behind our shiny progressive institutions, marked by decades of top-down social engineering and central planning, all routinely couched in carefully crafted, socially conscious sweet-talk. As local columnist James Lileks explains, Minnesotans have long participated in that age-old progressive bargain:

Yes, you will pay a lot, but you’re going to get good roads, good schools, good institutions. It’s going to be clean. It’s not going to be corrupt. It’s going to work.

Unfortunately, despite the flowery rhetoric and the bountiful city budgets, many of our poorest  communities and most marginalized people groups have still largely languished, with the state ranking remarkably low when it comes to various metrics of racial equality. Politicians “say the ‘right’ things; they fund the ‘right’ organizations,” Lileks continues. “Whether or not the money actually gets to the people and changes anything is irrelevant. They have the right formed groups that meet at the city hall and speak the right words, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that anything changes.”

And we aren’t the only ones. As Ross Douthat explains, such an approach has left many of America’s liberal cities with little connective tissue between the individual and the state, making it hard to govern, let alone solve the bigger and more pervasive issues of racial injustice:

The riots engulfing America’s cities aren’t just a testament to Trump’s mix of provocation and abdication. They also reveal how the Democratic coalition’s distillation into a metropolitan formation, a liberalism of the “global city,” has created deep pressures inside the liberal coalition, fissures that can widen with the right cascade of shocks … The weaknesses of the conservative coalition are reversed for liberals. Instead of uniformity, there is Balkanization. Instead of chauvinism against outsiders there is suspicion against neighbors. Instead of a pious Christianity that’s too often distant from the stranger and the orphan, there is a pious liberalism that depends on the cheap labor of immigrants and the surveillance and harassment of the poor.

Above all, the liberal city lacks a middle—the ballast of a substantial middle class, the mediating institutions of old-fashioned machine politics, the cement of shared religious and cultural institutions. Instead, its mediating institutions are the cops, the public schools and welfare bureaucracy, and the professional-activist class. None of these groups have broad legitimacy. The cops are distrusted from below and from above—increasingly regarded by the cosmopolitan class as distasteful mercenaries, a necessary evil to protect gentrification’s gains. The schools and welfare system are stagnant yet resilient, constantly resisting attempted reinventions by elites whose own families rarely use them. The activists portray themselves as spokesmen for their race or class, but their main task appears to be running consciousness-raising sessions to salve the uneasy consciences of white elites.

As America continues to be more polarized—and as religious and community life continue to decline here and there and everywhere—these underlying problems in urban America only become more apparent and their ripple effects more severe. When crisis strikes, as it has with COVID-19 and now this, the dysfunction becomes impossible to ignore. “Put cops to work enforcing social distancing and their authoritarian temptations are magnified,” Douthat writes, “and then all you need is a particularly brazen injustice to light the spark.” Compounded by consolidated control up top and scattered vice down below, where might we turn for the middle?

Indeed, in “normal life,” this void of virtuous institutions can be hard to feel, taste, or touch. Perhaps we are blinded or overly insulated by our status, class, race, or privilege. Perhaps we suffer from what Kenneth Minogue called “Western ambivalence”—a democracy- and prosperity-induced stupor, wherein we prefer the “servile mind” and the perks of individualist-collectivist dichotomies to the hard work of actual freedom. Or perhaps it’s just too darn comfortable out in middle-class suburbia.

In this particular moment, however, as citizens begin to wake up to some of the painful realities of systemic racism, dehumanization, and civilizational decay, the decline is a bit easier to spot. Thankfully, so are the solutions.

As politicians, police and other public officials continue to abuse their authority and flail in the face of crisis—attacking black people, arresting reporters, gassing peaceful protestors, watching cities burn—we see that just laws and virtuous leaders are critically important, and we ought not twiddle our thumbs, waiting quietly for change. But we also realize that justice is needed from top to bottom. If we hope to restore a right relationship between citizens and public servants, we’d better figure out how to restore it across every other organism and institution, as well, including families, neighborhoods, churches, businesses, schools, charities, and more.

Likewise, as media outlets seek to exploit the moment by stoking fear and resentment, and as the masses on the Left and the Right take their cues accordingly, we are reminded of the need to ground our voices in virtue, conviction, wisdom, and discernment. Surrounded by the foolhardy partisans of cable news and social-media meme battles, we increasingly long and look for those who “hold the center,” as David French puts it, channeling W.B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming.” When “the ceremony of innocence is drowned,” we need those who maintain conviction amid the “passionate intensity.” One would hope that such character and constraint would be prevalent in the halls of power or the podiums of the modern media’s chattering class. But these days, it is more likely to be found among pastors, business leaders, academics, activists, educators, poets, and rappers. In times such as these, we need more than the noise of narrow nitpicking.

More importantly, at a deeper, closer, and more local level, we need to steer our eyes beyond the disarray and destruction, and orient our hands, accordingly. This is where civil society truly begins.

As malicious aggressors attempt to burn and ransack neighborhoods, we look to those brave firefighters and police officers, spunky neighborhood alliances, and armed citizen-activists mounting vigilant, coordinated resistance. As violent factions seek to co-opt the cause of racial justice for their own self-indulgent gains, we quickly realize that the real disruption is in principled civil disobedience that aligns with the common good. As our communities are robbed of essential services, we see countless surviving businesses, churches, charities, and residents embodying radical generosity—meeting physical needs, cleaning streets, and providing support to those marked by the devastation. As worshippers gather at 38th and Chicago Ave. to memorialize George Floyd, we are reminded of the power of prayer to break through walls of division and oppression, and the transformative role of our religious communities and Christian witness in the process of reconciliation.

As I marched in Minneapolis last weekend, surrounded by burnt buildings and a flurry of faithful citizens and cooperating institutions, I was reminded that, while our civilizational decline may burn bright and red at night, a remnant of civil society surely remains. From high up in the clouds of our national politics and media frenzy, those “little platoons” may seem quieter or more confined than they once were, but we should not neglect their role in the long, enduring fight for justice.

The voices are there in the crowded streets—serving, fighting, creating, collaborating. The time is ripe for right relationships, and from there, justice will flow. The “mediating middle” is ours for the taking.

(Photo credit: Minneapolis residents clean up the debris after rioters do their damage. Fibonacci Blue. CC BY 2.0.)

Joseph Sunde

is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.