The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After killing of George Floyd, white liberals embrace ideas that once seemed radical

Meredith Webb, a community activist from the Hiawatha neighborhood in Minneapolis. (Joshua Lott/for The Washington Post)

MINNEAPOLIS — Three days after a police officer knelt on George Floyd's neck, killing him, and only a few hours after enraged looters ransacked a Target and torched an AutoZone, Meredith Webb woke to an early morning message from a close friend across the street.

“Beloved city . . . so much pain,” read the text from her neighbor, Michelle Garvey.

“Exploding pain,” replied Webb, who had seen the news and cried. “Can we talk outside in a little while?”

Theirs is a block of mostly white, liberal families, tucked inside cute bungalows with carefully tended gardens and century-old shade trees. The two women met on the sidewalk where their sons — ages 5 and 7 — had spent much of the last few weeks racing back and forth on their bikes and scooters.

On this morning, their conversation turned to the looting and fires that had unfolded just a few miles from their homes. To Garvey, 39, the destruction of the Target and surrounding stores was sad but understandable, “a perfectly warranted and justified response . . . an expression of righteous rage.”

Webb, 33, wasn’t there yet, and she felt a little guilty about it. “I wasn’t sure what side I was supposed to be on,” she recalled. “It felt wrong to say we’re with you until you start looting.”

In Washington, President Trump has stoked fears of rampant lawlessness and issued calls to crack down on looting in an apparent effort to solidify support from white voters. But among white liberals, the anger and unrest that followed Floyd’s death have provoked a far different reaction, leading them to embrace positions that only a few weeks ago might have seemed radical or unthinkable.

The response follows a pattern that has held for much of the past decade as white liberals have moved dramatically to the left on racial issues. In 2009, 50 percent of white Democrats said the country needed to do more to give blacks equal rights with whites, according to a survey of racial attitudes by the Pew Research Center. By late 2017, 80 percent of white Democrats said the country needed to do more to help blacks.

In 2016, white liberals actually began to rate nonwhite groups more positively than whites, said Andrew Engelhardt, a postdoctoral research fellow at Brown University. “Usually, it’s the opposite,” he told NPR last year.

The change in white liberal attitudes, which one journalist described as a “Great Awokening,” has coincided with the rise of Trump’s brazenly racial politics as well as a series of police killings of black men caught on video, beginning with the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.

And it seems to mirror what has happened in recent weeks in Minneapolis, where throngs of white protesters, like Webb and Garvey, have taken to the streets to cheer on black speakers as they blast the city’s police force, attack its largely left-leaning leadership and decry systemic racism, which they believe contributed to Floyd’s death.

Webb said she turned to Garvey for solace in the wake of that first wave of looting and fires because she was sad, scared and needed to talk with someone in person.

“Where does this go next?” she worried. “Is our neighborhood going to burn?”

But she also knew her friend would be a “gut check.”

“I didn’t want to let myself default to the simplistic reaction of wanting this all to go away,” she said.

In those first days after the Floyd killing, Webb watched as the chaos crept closer. Store owners in the little business district just down the street from her home boarded up their windows, and a nearby gas station went up in flames.

The thrum of National Guard helicopters was constant.

On television, the mayor and the governor initially blamed the looting and chaos on outside agitators and white supremacists.

In Webb’s neighborhood, as in many throughout Minneapolis, residents quickly formed citizen patrols. For several days, Webb and her husband, like many of their neighbors, sat in their front lawns until well after 3 a.m. Garvey and a neighbor gave chase to three white strangers she spotted in their neighborhood one evening.

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Few, if any, white supremacists were caught, and in the days that followed, Webb and Garvey wondered whether the mayor and governor — both Democrats — were stoking fears of outside agitators to justify curfews, delegitimize the looters and dissuade more legitimate protesters from taking to the streets.

“We woke up feeling a little duped,” Webb said.

“We bought into some of the paranoia,” Garvey added.

Gradually, the two women joined the demonstrators in the streets. Webb took supplies to a church group that was providing aid to protesters. She attended a demonstration at the governor’s mansion, where a slate of largely black speakers urged a crowd of 2,000 mostly white protesters to set aside their white privilege and push for systemic change.

The next day, she stood with about 300 people outside Minneapolis Public Schools headquarters to push the school board, which was meeting later that evening, to sever ties with the city’s police force. Webb had discussed the proposal with a few of her neighbors, who were uneasy about removing the school resource officers.

“Who is going to keep our kids safe?” she said one neighbor asked her.

“I don’t know,” she recalled saying. “But I know the current system isn’t working.”

Now she stood outside the school board headquarters holding a sign that read “white silence=white consent,” as the rally’s featured speaker, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), took the microphone.

In Washington, Omar is a controversial figure who has drawn the ire of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for her fiery speeches and her comments about Israel, which some deemed anti-Semitic. Her remarks, though, did not seem to hurt her standing in her majority-white and very liberal Minneapolis district.

A light rain began to fall as Omar decried the use of taxpayer dollars to “police and brutalize our young children in our schools.”

“To every single person who has remained silent and been complicit . . . this is the time we step up and show the world what we’re made of!” the congresswoman shouted.

“Yes!” Webb replied.

About a dozen black high school students shifted uneasily and waited for their time to talk. When it was their turn, they spoke about Charles Adams Jr., the African American police officer who kept their school safe and coached their high school football team. Now they worried he was going to be forced from their school.

“To me, I have my dad first and second to that is Officer Adams,” said one student.

“Officer Adams is like the father I didn’t have,” added another. “He makes me feel like myself.”

Last up was a history teacher from the school: “I beg you. I beg you. Look at these young men. They came on their own because they are worried about their safety and losing someone they consider a family member.”

Webb listened carefully. “It’s complicated,” she whispered to a friend.

“Maybe he should be a teacher?” the friend suggested.

“Maybe he could be brought back to the school in some other role?” Webb replied.

And with that, the rally was over. Webb drove home past businesses boarded up to ward off looters. “Occupied, alive inside!” one owner had painted on the plywood covering his storefront. “It’s like a plea,” Webb thought.

Back at her house, her phone chirped with a message from Garvey, who had been listening to the school board’s deliberations online. The vote to expel the police from the schools had been unanimous. For Webb, it was thrilling to see how fast things seemed to be moving.

“Ten days ago, there was no will for this,” she said.

As the chaos abated and the citizen patrols petered out, Webb slowly came around to Garvey’s position on looting.

She read a Facebook post from the Gandhi Mahal restaurant, which had been partly destroyed in the days after Floyd’s death.

“Let my building burn,” the owner had written. “Justice needs to be served, put those officers in jail.” She decided that she didn’t need to worry about the protesters who carted off merchandise from the Target, a global corporation.

“This was an explosion waiting to happen,” Garvey said one afternoon as they sat in front of their homes. “It’s a form of taking back by the vulnerable. That’s why it felt righteous.”

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Webb nodded in agreement. “I am trying to push myself to understand looting, and understand that we have to go outside the law sometimes to make things happen,” she said.

Webb had attended demonstrations following the 2016 shooting of Philando Castile by an officer in a St. Paul suburb, and a year later started an anti-racist parenting group in which she and some friends pushed each other to confront their own blind spots and biases.

Now, like so many liberals in Minneapolis, she was looking for a place where she could do something more than just talk and protest.

“Abolish the police” had become a battle cry at protests throughout Minneapolis. At first, the notion seemed “naive,” Webb said. Then she talked with friends at TakeAction Minnesota, a liberal advocacy group that was working with two other groups — Black Visions Collective and Reclaim the Block — to draft a proposal to defund parts of the Minneapolis Police Department and plow the savings into alternatives such as more drug counselors and mental health advocates.

A few days later, nine of 13 Minneapolis City Council members told a crowd of protesters gathered in a park that they were ready to “begin the process of ending the Minneapolis Police Department.” Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey has voiced opposition to the plan.

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Webb had written a letter to her city councilman asking him to get behind it.

“I see that putting our faith in the Minneapolis police to keep our community safe is never going to be a healthy way forward for our city,” she wrote. “No black and brown neighbor of mine should have to live one more day under the terror of such a regime.”

As the week drew to a close, she headed off to one more demonstration, this one in a park in southern Minneapolis. She passed a torched drugstore that she hadn’t noticed before, and then settled down on the grass next to an old friend.

“Damn, the Walgreens,” Webb said before catching herself. “Not that I should be sad about a Walgreens.”

“Well, they employed people,” the friend replied.

“Yeah,” Webb agreed.

The host for the event approached a microphone draped with plastic flowers and got the rally underway with a call-and-repeat that had come to define the last two weeks in Minneapolis. “Say his name,” she said to the crowd of several hundred spread out on the grass in front of her.

“George Floyd,” they replied.

“Say his name,” she repeated, this time a little louder.

“George Floyd,” the crowd chanted back.