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Letter to Minneapolis
I lived in Minneapolis from 1999 until I moved to Sydney in 2017. In the last few days, the Minneapolis Police Department is again making the local news in Australia (following on the case of Justine Diamond) with the murder of George Floyd. Thanks to the internet (thanks internet !?) we can now livestream Minneapolis WCCO-TV here, along with the dumpster fire that is Twitter.
When I first took the job, and before moving, the University of Minnesota connected me to a real estate agent (from Edina Real Estate) who showed us around some neighbourhoods he thought we would like (Uptown, Edina). I asked about crime rates. He wouldn't tell me (I think he implied it was illegal, which it may have been) and said I would need to look that up separately. I asked about some other neighbourhoods, like North Minneapolis, and he, in his Minnesota way, discouraged it. After moving there, I figured out why.
We ultimately moved to Prospect Park in Southeast Minneapolis. We would shop and eat out at restaurants in the area around Lake and Hiawatha that was recently torched. We would regularly shop at the Targets on University in St. Paul and Snelling in Roseville that were looted. [Their logo is a target, obviously they were asking for it. And just sitting there, loitering in bad neighborhoods at all times of day and night, imagine what would happen to a person who did that.] [I am assuming looters are not reading this, if they are: looting is bad and does not directly address the problem, and probably undermines the general cause.]
Obviously much of this is crime of opportunity, which can be understood in game theory terms, following on the signalling of collective action among potential rioters, along with the distraction of police. But the core is not looters, the core is a protest against the police, and societal dysfunctions more generally. If society does not treat you with basic respect for your life, liberty, and property, the courtesy should be extended in reverse.
American society is broken. While irrational optimism is important to see our way through the present dilemmas, I believe it is important to recognise the degree of brokenness to do what is necessary. While this might bring us through the Kübler-Ross stages of grief from denial through acceptance, it is only with acceptance and recognition of reality that appropriate change can occur.
By all means vote for the right people, it may be necessary, but do not believe for a moment that it is sufficient. Elected officials, even when the "right people" are in a majority, do not control the Minneapolis Police, or many of the other institutions that are the root of America's failures.
America, more than perhaps any other country, has become first-rate at admiring readily-solved problems problems [e.g., but this is not a complete list: police violence, gun violence, traffic violence, pollution, disenfranchisement and election malpractice, health insurance, congestion, pandemics, inability to build]. The most basic indicator of social success, life expectancy, is low for a country of its wealth, and falling. This is infuriating.
I say they are readily-solved as developed nations (a list we must sadly now exclude the United States from) have solved them, at least better than the US, and resources are hardly scarce in a country where the average size of a new home is on the order of 3000 square feet and there is a car for every driver, and a military which outspends the next 10 countries combined. This is not to say it is politically easy, otherwise one assumes they would have already been dealt with. But there are no technological barriers, nor lack of good ideas, just an unwillingness to make a hard decision. Politicians should be willing to take votes that will cost them their jobs. They will inevitably find work with the revolving door in industry anyway. There remain other problems (like endemic racism) which are more difficult, which also remain unsolved. America would collectively rather not go through any short run disruption to address even solvable problems with a huge long-run payoff. It suffers from failure of delayed gratification.
I have always thought Minnesota was one of the better governed US states, with a longer time-horizon than most. Minneapolis is very good (for the US, not on a global scale) at building bike lanes and of course it attracts hipsters (and wannabe hipsters) with coffee shops and microbreweries, and the city's population has risen significantly over the past decade, but it also leads in segregation. All of the progress in bringing people back to the city is for nought when they cannot walk unafraid from violence perpetrated by the police.
This is not new. In recent memory, most notable was the well-known case of Philando Castile, nominally a traffic stop in a local suburb with a trigger happy cop, which inspired numerous peaceful protests closing freeways to temporary inconvenience. There was also Jamar Clark. But before that St. Paul tasered and arrested someone for sitting in the Skyway waiting to pick up his child.
The earth will continue to spin on its axis. Life will find a way. Civilization on the other hand is not nearly so robust. Nominally civilized Europe fell into how many wars last century? It's not beyond repair, but every moment it remains unrepaired it gets harder. When in a hole the first step is to stop digging. Whether it gets fixed or not is a collective decision and I wouldn't bet money on it.
"Look for the helpers." Mr. Rogers said. The helpers are supposed to be the government, which includes the police. That's what they teach in elementary school. They are not. No amount of policy change will should ever convince us they should be trusted. Their very position, arrogating to themselves a monopoly on the use of violence is perhaps necessary for the avoidance of anarchy, but not without questioning. Of course one must deal subserviently with any organization like the police that has more weaponry than you do. But that doesn't mean you trust them.
There is an institutional problem that multiple weak mayors have been unable or unwilling to solve. Institutions only work with the consent of the governed. Removing and replacing a police force, especially one the size of Minneapolis is difficult, but not impossible. However with both the murder of residents they are charged with serving and their failure to maintain order in the aftermath of their own misdeeds, they have demonstrated unfitness for purpose. This is not a few bad apples, it is systematic. Fewer than 10% of officers live in the city. It would be easy enough to insist it be 100% and shed many officers voluntarily.
In contrast, while police in many other countries are overly militarized, they retain the confidence of their citizens. Our encounters with the local (New South Wales) police here have been professional as they investigated 1 break-in and theft (and recovered a laptop) and 1 attempted, including taking fingerprints, something Minneapolis could never be bothered to do when we had break-ins there. Notably the police are state rather than locally run. None of this is to say there are no problems: police brutality exists in Australia.
Disband the Minneapolis Police. Bring in temporary outside security forces with clear directives if necessary. Start over. That is what the protests are telling you. Listen to your residents, you govern with their consent.
Although this is not the general point, a modern banking system may have averted the whole problem, which reportedly started with questions about the legitimacy of George Floyd's cash payment, resulting in the police being called (4 cops for a fake $20 seems excessive in normal circumstances), rather than the use of readily verified electronic debit transaction. It was startling returning to the US in January on the lack of universality of debit payments and the use of signatures in so many places.