When I happened to wander by the crime scene on Aug. 10, about 6:30 p.m., on the corner of Nicollet Mall and Ninth Street, the police were taking down the all-so-familiar yellow tape. But I couldn’t find anyone to learn what had happened. Almost exactly two years earlier, the rumor of a cop killing a Black man – a few yards from where the yellow police tape had been – sparked one of Minneapolis’ worst downtown civil disturbances. A Minneapolis Star Tribune article, a few days later, and a subsequent one, provided the tragic details of the Aug. 10 killing.
Perishea Young, 23, is accused of shooting Shawna Starr Campbell, 25, due to some kind of “verbal altercation.” Young, according to one article, “at first told police that she shot the woman in self-defense, but she admitted that she is ‘quick to fight,’ and the woman spat in her direction as they argued.” As her court-appointed public defender explained, Young, homeless, had a permit and gun “to protect herself and her 4-year-old son as they bounce around and sometimes end up in unsafe places.” Campbell died from her wounds in the hospital 10 days later. Young, from her picture, is Black, and Campbell, apparently, also.
Since the pandemic, there have been at least a dozen murders, including that of Campbell, within a half-mile radius of my downtown Minneapolis apartment. The Downtown Council, reminiscent of the mayor and city council of Amity Island of “Jaws” fame, does its best to play down those numbers. Consciously, I walk through the neighborhood most days, close enough to groups of people, always Black, who hang out together because they seem to have nothing else to do – loiterers in the eyes of some. Being Black, often called “old school” by the youth, I’m able to hear the conversations in an attempt to understand what might provoke conflict. All so striking is how little it takes for any one person to go off on someone else, because of having been or thinking to have been dissed by the other – that is, disrespected. When combined with easy access to guns, the result can be and is all too often lethal.
In an interview a few weeks before his assassination in February 1965, a reporter asked Malcolm X about the purpose of his project. Was it to “wake [Black people] up to their exploitation?” “No,” he replied, “to their humanity, to their own worth, and to their heritage.” I am convinced that Malcolm’s insight, especially, about “to their humanity, to their own worth” is even more relevant today. The lack of self-worth, it must be admitted, has deepened since then – testimony to why Malcolm’s premature death was so tragic.
How easy it is to feel disrespected? How else to explain such feelings and behavior if not due to the lack of one’s “own worth?”
But that begs the question of why are there so many whose lack of self-worth results in suicide, the largest number of those who die by guns? Based on the facts at hand, it’s possible to offer an informed answer.
First, the big picture: we live in a society that equates self-worth with how much money and stuff one has – the commodification of everything including humans. Homelessness, hence, can’t do much for one’s sense of self-worth in a capitalist society. That condition, however, did not always exist. Only with the privatization of property, a bedrock of capitalism, did homelessness become a reality. Only under capitalism can the phenomenon of being without a roof over one’s head coexist with the nearby presence of empty apartments, condos and houses. The dictates of private property and the capitalist market, enforced by the police, explain why. Recent Twin Cities data indicate the problem will only deepen. That inconvenient fact is only a reflection of another characteristic of capitalist societies – increasing inequalities. On a per square foot basis, probably no other space in Minnesota reveals the inequalities so glaringly as does downtown Minneapolis.
Not the least important characteristic of capitalism is the values it spawns and continually reproduces to rationalize such outcomes – the “I got mine, you get yours,” or, “what have you done for me lately” ways of thinking, that is, its dog-eat-dog values. Defenders of capitalism laud its basic value, that of self-interest or what the rest of us call selfishness. Those values inevitably breed a sense of disconnectedness with other humans, alienation – facilitating, therefore, the ease in taking another human’s life, many lives sometimes, as in Uvalde, Texas, including one’s own.
It’s easy to reduce the murder on Aug. 10 to systematic racism. But that’s only, at best, a partial explanation. As the opioid crisis teaches, being alienated from other human beings has no boundaries when it comes to skin color or other identities under an economic system that inculcates in all of us from day one the norm to seek individual rather than collective solutions to societal problems. It’s no accident, I contend, that Wyoming, the second most sparsely populated state after Alaska, and overwhelming white, has the highest per capita suicide rate.
At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, what some of us knew as the Freedom Now Movement, research revealed that so-called “Black on Black crime” diminished. The militant but peaceful mass protests channeled the anger of those who were “quick to fight” into a constructive project. The George Floyd protests failed, unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, to do just that.
A civil rights solution, however, is inadequate today. The only effective solution today to certain criminal behavior is the organization of the working class in all its skin color and other identities to confine capitalism to the dustbin of history – and for which civil liberties will be indispensable to do so. Even with all of the difficulties and deprivations it faces today – aggravated by Washington’s six-decade long economic blockade of the island – homelessness and homicides remain rare phenomena in revolutionary Cuba.
Except for the agricultural revolution ten or more millennia ago, no socio-economic-political system has been as transformative and beneficial for humanity on a global scale as capitalism. And why for so many it’s tempting to think that capitalism is the best that humanity can do or that it can be tweaked, as many a progressive-minded person believes, to do better. But from here, the so-called heartland, “the Minnesota miracle” as it was once called, that sad afternoon on Aug. 10, on Nicollet Mall revealed that the best that capitalism has to offer humanity is behind us. Every delay in recognizing that sobering fact only reassures more such deplorable outcomes.
In a fundamental sense, therefore, the murder of Shawna Starr Campbell, was not senseless – only for those who, for whatever reason, are unable to come to grips with the cold hard facts about the system we live under and think that there is no alternative to it.
August H. Nimtz is a professor of Political Science and African American and African Studies and Distinguished Teaching Professor with the University of Minnesota.