Art Cullen: It’s On All Of Us

Reprinted with permission from the Storm Lake Times.

Tear gas plumed through the streets of Minneapolis this week, after angry residents protested the death of a black man, on the ground, with a police officer’s knee on his throat, begging relief for air. Video shows a policeman watching expressionless. For 10 minutes. Four officers were fired. Then the protests and cloud of gas erupted like it was 1968.

This is the home of Mary Tyler Moore and Minnesota Nice, where everyone loves Tony Oliva. Minnesota also has among the highest income disparities between whites and blacks, and the lowest high school graduation rate among blacks and Native Americans. The racism is there. Always has been, and likewise here. Minnesota and Iowa were created from the theft by treaty of the land had been inhabited by indigenous nations for thousands of years. The slave trade came to Point Comfort in Virginia in the ship the White Lion, to serve the English population, in 1619.

We don’t know what the officer was thinking. We only have the optics, which is a white man with a badge suffocating a black man suspected of petty crime. It is a terrible picture.

Likewise it is dreadful that we order immigrant workers into potentially deadly work environments. You can test food processing last because those people aren’t a priority. They are Mexican, mainly, or black. When it is suggested that the workplace might be where the disease is spread in tight quarters, white people (including a Smithfield man in Sioux Falls) blamed the workers for their living conditions. Blame that careless Mexican. Don’t blame a system that denies them due process and locks them in cages at the border, separating children from mothers, assigning them to camps in Mexico where deprivation is sure and COVID infection is likely. The United States essentially ran Guatemala and El Salvador as plantations for a century.

When all people are created equal, it becomes necessary to suggest that some people are not people, in order that privilege maintains its place for some people.

That is why the state did not care to test Storm Lake. Gov. Kim Reynolds said on Tuesday that you cannot prioritize lives over livelihoods. She called it a balance — the need to maintain pork supplies balanced against the lives of anonymous brown people who are not really of us. Julian Dubuque prioritized his own livelihood over the Native lives he found in Northeast Iowa. We chased the Dakota people out of Northwest Iowa and hanged them in Mankato and roped them off in South Dakota. It is our tradition. Our livelihood. It doesn’t matter so much if the packinghouse is a breeding ground. No need to ship protective gear in March. No hurry to get testing to Storm Lake. They don’t even speak English! They can’t vote, because they are not us.

Get to work no matter the cost. In the South, they pay the black and Latino poultry cutters $12-13 per hour to put their lives on the production line every day. For their effort, the Latinos are raided and deported in Mississippi. For scooping cattle dung in New Mexico, they are branded as felons for criminal re-entry to feed starving families.

It is sickening to watch a man die like that. Or to see a young black man out for a jog gunned down by two white men in Georgia because they thought he must be a burglar. He was black, after all. Neither should surprise us or even shock us anymore. Racism was the mortar of our national foundation.

Because we do not prioritize life over livelihood, and use people of color toward that end as chattel, you can then understand better why Storm Lake was told to rush full-bore into the pandemic workplace blind to the danger. We were told a couple weeks ago that there was no problem, that church could commune again on May 3. And here we are at the end of the month having no idea where fate will lead. Six-hundred sixty-two cases and counting as of Wednesday, up 424 from Tuesday. We don’t really care what happens to people we don’t actually view as people. It’s not just that bad cop or that Georgia redneck, or “it’s just Steve King being Steve King.” It’s the whole ball of wax. It’s us. Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans die of coronavirus at the highest rates. It is a fact of life that we accept, just as we accept another dead black man on the street at 38th and Chicago in Minneapolis or along the side of a wooded Georgia road. Or a Latino father in an Iowa hospital bed alone, for reporting to work as ordered. There is blatant abuse, and subtle. We own it.

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