Hamster-ass alleluias on the Green Line

green line train at night

A sturdy Black man boards the train at Prospect Park. In his 40s, he’s midway between hail-Mary hope and a shuffling resignation. Tonight, the train’s lights piercing the dark, he’s blissed out on hip-hop, belting out lyrics. 

Fuck the police.”

He climbs steps to the raised section and sits with his back against the conductor’s cabin. Eyes closed, holding his phone up like a lantern, he searches the song for places where he can enter, yelling the words he recalls. “The niggas on the street is a majority.” Why broadcast the lyrics with such exuberance on the light rail? Maybe he’s being bold. Or maybe he’s just high.

Either way, I’m irritated. I’ve come from a closing reception for an exhibition, where conversations flowed non-stop for hours. I’m craving silence. Instead, the trains wheels squeal at a high pitch around curves and I’m trapped in a train car with a human amplifier. 

You hamster-ass nigga. You just stuck in a loop.”

Two teenagers across the aisle from the man seem oblivious to these outbursts. Chattering and laughing, heads leaning toward each other, they’re making their own music and they don’t seem to mind his mixing in.

Oh please, mister, please be quiet. Surely the conductor hears these outbursts. Surely the cabin door will fly open at the next stop and the conductor will sternly advise the man to turn down his volume. I sigh as the cabin door remains closed.

At the Snelling Avenue stop a Black woman wearing loose, robe-like clothing boards the train and takes a seat halfway between me and the amplifier, facing me. 

“I’ve got 99 problems, but a bitch ain’t one.”

The outbursts gain momentum as the man listens to a song he knows well. The woman between us fidgets with a pamphlet. Gradually a soprano voice rises from the din, singing just one word, slowly, over and over: alleluia. The clarity of her voice shines like the sun breaking through storm clouds. 

As the woman’s voice grows louder, so does the man’s, Alleluias layer over expletives and profanity layers over alleluias. 

I begin to see the Black man in a different light. Perched in the elevated section of the train car, it’s as if he’s in the pulpit, sharing a liturgy from streets littered with needles and Colt 45 cans, from the confines of a prison cell, from yet another funeral for a Black man killed by the police. He’s reciting psalms of lament, a rapper’s version of “I cried unto the Lord with my voice…I poured out my complaints before him, and showed him of my trouble.” 

As the angelic choir in this impromptu church service on the Green Line, the Black woman sings praises to the One who knows the pain of those who suffer. Her melodious voice softens hearts hardened by the fear of being overwhelmed by the suffering of others, the uneasiness of profiting from systemic oppression.

She softens my heart. 

Take everything

image of graffiti

Little did I know when I saw this graffiti on May 13 that in two weeks, looting and burning of buildings would spread like wildfire throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul. I was returning from a walk through the Bruce Vento sanctuary, lush with vibrant shades of green, turtles basking on rocks, redwing blackbirds balancing on cattails gently swayed by the breeze.

I missed that day what the breeze was telling me.

image of graffiti

Take everything

Those two words carry new meanings and nuances in light of the George Floyd murder by police on May 25, the outrage that it triggered, and the rioting which quickly followed.

“Take everything” may have been the slogan of looters. Was their smashing of windows motivated by a sense of lack? An attempt to redistribute wealth? Anger toward the dominant culture? Maybe a stolen lamp serves as a symbol of taking matters into one’s hands instead of continuing the long, agonizing wait for a more equal society where no one lacks food or housing. Tragically, those most affected by the looting and destruction are people of color who lost businesses, jobs, and services in their neighborhood, such as grocery stores and drugstores. 

Image showing a firefighter and police in Minneapolis
Photo by David Joles

“Let my building burn!” That’s how Ruhel Islam responded to the destruction of his restaurant, Gandhi Mahal. For Ruhel, “take everything” points the sacrifice he is willing to make for an end to police brutality. “Let my building burn, justice needs to be served, put those officers in jail.” The Gandhi Mahal building, heavily damaged on May 28th, burned to the ground the following day after the Minneapolis’ Third Precinct caught fire. Ruhel’s daughter Hafsa wrote on social media, “Gandhi Mahal May have felt the flames last night, but our firey drive to help protect and stand with our community will never die! Peace be with everyone. #JusticeforGeorgeFloyd #BLM”

An affordable housing unit under construction burned to the ground on the first night of protesting. I stared at the news in disbelief. Too many people living on the streets in Minneapolis desperately need housing. How is perpetuating oppression an answer to the grief over George Floyd’s last minutes of life? Surely “take everything” isn’t urging us to strip all hope from those in need.

Haven’t we taken far too much already? 

In spite of my limited perspective from the space of middle-aged whiteness, I do understand that Mr. Floyd’s murder alone did not combust into violence and destruction on May 26. It merely sparked kindling piled sky high from centuries of white supremacy. 

Awful as it is to imagine, it’s possible my ancestors had a hand in taking Africans from their communities, their land, their livelihood. We took everything from them except the one thing we couldn’t touch: their spirit. Now, more than a century after “emancipation,” it’s as if we white folks still hold a grudge against Blacks because they didn’t give us every damn thing they had. 

When the white settlers arrived on the shores of what would become the United States of America, they followed narrow-minded greed into the newly discovered land, lush with resources. The settlers blindly assumed this abundance had been created specifically for them, for the taking. This arrogance continues to this day, with the government once again taking back land it had “given” to indigenous people. This time, it’s from Native Americans in the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation – Oak Flat – for copper mining interests. 

photo of protester in Washington, D.C.
Photo by Steve Pavey

How is that Blacks and Native Americans are still alive? Do overtly racist white people hate them because they refuse to be exterminated? And those of us who don’t think of ourselves as racist – why have we remained silent in the face of oppression?

Take everything

A homeless man in my neighborhood carries all of his possessions in a daypack and two plastic bags. He takes everything he has with him, wherever he goes. Amazingly, Dave seems content. I bring him cold water and food, and we talk for a bit, sharing stories about our lives. As he sits, all day long, patiently waiting for the shelter to open later that night, Dave prays.

Psalm 23 comes to mind: the lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. I’m not blind to the possibility that Dave entered my life as a reminder of how much I want, how often I forget to trust in “enough.”

During the rioting I worried that the condo under construction beside the building in which I live would be an easy target for arson. Large gaping holes not yet filled by windows seemed to invite a molotov cocktail. Laying in bed, in the dark, listening to the thump-thump-thump of national guard helicopters overhead and the wail of sirens in the streets below, I wondered which of my belongings I would grab in my escape from fire. Everything I’ve acquired and placed throughout my living and working space would go up in flames. All of the artwork I’ve created would turn into ash. My sanctuary from the outside world would crumble. Would I be woke enough to echo Ruhel’s words? “Let my home burn, justice needs to be served, dismantle white supremacy, end police brutality and racism so that all may have life, liberty and happiness.”

I’d like to think that I would. If I’m honest, though, I’m not so sure. 

take everything

What am I willing to give up? How much am I willing to let go of? What is the social cost of my own security if people of color aren’t safe in this country? Those are some of the questions I’m pondering. While I’m personally not taking anything from people of color – rather, I focus on giving – I’m unwittingly participating in a social structure that continuously takes, takes, takes. Instead, I need to take something different. I need to take action. I need to take steps toward change. Lasting change.

image showing a wishbone and pottery

One thing I would save from flames in my home is a tiny grouse wishbone, which my beloved Val gave to me in 2014, the year before he died. I haven’t made a wish yet. I’m saving it for just the right time.

It could very well be that the right time is now.