I live in South Minneapolis, where I grew up, in a galaxy of communities, punk houses, home recording studios, apartments I used to live in—where I’m less than a mile from my high school, the first house my father owned, just a block from the church that held the first funeral I ever attended for a friend. Powderhorn, the park at the geographic and cultural crossroads of the Southside, is just a few blocks east of where I now live. It’s just as lively as it ever is in May, probably more so since the virus hit; some days, it’s almost alarming how many people are out. But I’m there, too. I mostly skate the tennis courts at night, where the nets were recently put back up, the gates unlocked; where, during the stay-at-home order, I sanitized my hands after hopping the fence, before opening a beer. More dedicated skaters might not feel this way, but I always liked skating because it made me feel less in my body. The speed and muscle memory of balance gives a sense of weightlessness, where walking, by comparison, feels clumsy and awkward, the frustration of my body’s limitations showing up in each subsequent step. Skating the courts holds so much of the disorienting atmosphere of “these times”: Everything is so bad—how is it that, for a moment, everything can feel so normal?
I realize how much I’ve resisted wondering about “safety” around other bodies in my city, or how much I’ve suppressed the possibility of dwelling in that question. Instead of wondering, I would foster a performance of control—sovereign, directed, aware of my surroundings but staring straight ahead, careful not to make eye contact with anyone, particularly not the white folks who’d cross the street when I approached, or warn that their dogs would attack if I got too close. I thought that to worry at all about my safety around others would make me no different from the gentrifiers and yuppies who would live Southside for its liberal climate, and would see its Black, brown, and Indigenous populations as reminders that the neighborhood is not quite theirs. I don’t want to paint a caricature of the neighborhood, but I also don’t want to act like there isn’t a low-key, general tension here. Three of my classmates were murdered in my two years at South High School; as a teenager, a cop held me at gunpoint for flashing my brights; I’ve had the cops called on me for sitting in front of my own house; as I write this sentence, the nearby east-west thoroughfare, Lake Street, is still smoldering after long nights of protest and grief following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police. Even if I don’t characterize this place as “scary,” I have known fear—the fear I have felt in my body and others’ fear of my body, itself—as an element that I have tried to build an identity around resisting. I would be at home in my city by staying in my lane and playing my position, maneuvering around others through the space I know. It’s like skating—at once so serene, effortless, and brutal.
The pandemic has taught me the extent of how judgmental and fearful of other people I can be, and I can’t stand myself for it. No longer is it enough to access the illusions of composure and control that kept me comfortable (in a dissociative, masculine way, at least). I am sitting in my roommate’s car around the block from the grocery store parking lot, anxiously sucking down a cigarette before tying a mask around my face and tucking the cuffs of my sleeves into another pair of nitrile gloves, both worried that my precautions are inadequate, and psychologically unprepared for coming into too-close proximity with unmasked shoppers. Worried, too, that I am not doing enough: that others will fear me with good reason, that I will be a danger to their health. In the context of the pandemic, I have learned an anxiety that wells up when I think of being present with the people of my city when it matters most—while the Southside I love is burning, mourning, and rising up.
I’m tripping, honestly, and revising what was supposed to be a simple COVID dispatch is taking the ground out from under me, like diving into the deluge of grief and rage I’ve been numbing by staring into the news cycle. Moving through my neighborhood, I feel vulnerable, stripped bare, and controlled—not by myself, as I’d like to be, but by the seemingly undefeatable violence of white supremacy, the state, and, yes, COVID. It’s as if going out is stepping into a role I haven’t had time to rehearse, one that changes radically and frequently, one in which the stakes are as high as they can be. Moving through my neighborhood, I want to be reckless and impulsive with my love for others, I want to protest and riot and channel this rage into something larger.
Last Thursday, overwhelmed, I took off and skated the tennis courts at Powderhorn while the Third Precinct burned. Friday night, a curfew went into effect at 8pm. Instead of coming out and criminalizing protest, the mayor has opted to, in effect, criminalize the public presence of bodies themselves. I am noticing how disturbingly natural that feels—even before COVID, before George Floyd’s murder—how familiar it is to negotiate the criminality of the body in this place.