TOM COYNE: Back In Circulation — Better Safe … But Sometimes, Sorry

On a warm evening in late May, my wife and I were in the midst of removing the remnants of our permanently damaged basketball hoop. After 25 years of wonderful service, that old bucket was crushed by a fallen tree last summer. Now, we were finally getting around to eliminating what was left of the pole.

Because I never fancied myself a “handyman,” I recalled having my trusty neighbor, Tom, help lay the concrete and dig the hole back in the mid-1990s. Tom never did anything second-class. Fast forward to 2020 and hours of frustration, attempting to undo the rebar and concrete left over from Tom’s Fort Knox-like approach.

It just so happened that several containers of shrapnel would lay strewn about on our driveway, that same night when civil unrest was unfolding 15 miles to the north. The now infamous murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police had set off anger and protests unlike anything seen in the Twin Cities. Looting, fires and extensive damage to businesses was viewed nationwide.

So, after watching Gov. Tim Walz call in the National Guard and impose an 8 p.m. curfew, Laurie and I looked at each other and those pails of concrete. With talk of neighborhoods being targeted and our southeastern suburb just close enough to raise concern, we took the extra time to haul the beastly buckets into the garage. No reason to provide weapons of mass destruction. “Better safe than sorry,” as they say.

Nobody came to prey on Apple Valley that night. In fact, most of the protests gradually turned more peaceful in Minneapolis in the following days, save for some scary Guard encounters with rubber bullets and tear gas.

But when I arose the next morning, it got me thinking about how much I needed a lesson in self-awareness. I felt safe, but rather sorry.

These days, our world is so fragmented, it seems I could post on social media that “I love this beautiful, sunny day” and somebody, somewhere would find a reason to disagree. We are torn about politics. We don’t agree on the severity of COVID-19. Whether to stay home or go out. The validity of masks.

And now, a re-examination of the mistreatment of people of color.

My goal with this story is not to tell you how to think. I’m not in the camp of squelching opinions that differ from mine. In fact, I think we need frank, open discussions about a variety of subjects, now more than ever. This one, for sure.

Rather, I’m here to reflect on some facts about the advantages we too often take for granted. About the life of a 67-year old, relatively comfortable, white male. Me.

In 1960, I was 7 years old. My family lived in southeast Minneapolis.

My aunt signed me up to compete with a number of other youngsters for a spot as a “Junior Commodore” in the Minneapolis Aquatennial, the city’s annual summer event in late July. Somehow, I won one of the spots, was given a little sailor’s cap and rode in the parade downtown.

By that year, Minneapolis had a population of nearly 500,000 and 8 percent was African-American. Yet in reviewing the clipping my mother saved from the Star Tribune, I couldn’t help noticing that all 34 Junior Royalty winners were white.

In 1961, like many other families, we migrated to the suburbs. Both of my parents worked and we weren’t particularly wealthy. Our home was in Golden Valley, just a few miles from what was called the “Near North Side” of Minneapolis. One- third of the city’s black population resided there. Yet I recall having no persons of color in our district, when I entered the third grade. We stayed away from that North Side, told frequently that it “wasn’t safe.”

Around 1965, I had my only significant confrontation with a police officer. As 12-year olds were inclined to do, we got carried away with the tossing of water balloons and I ended up in the back seat of a squad car. My recollection was one of embarrassment more than fear, as the officer scolded me but was nice enough not to tell my parents. I wasn’t pulled over unexpectedly, forcibly detained or ever stared down the barrel of a gun.

In 1971, I would graduate from Golden Valley High School. I consider myself fortunate to have enjoyed the rare benefits of a suburban school with a small population, conveniently located close to downtown Minneapolis. It allowed me to play multiple sports and partake in a variety of activities. Yet, once again, of the 126 in my senior class, none were black.

By 1977, I’d finished college at the University of Minnesota, where I met a number of friends of different ethnic and racial backgrounds. Yet, the fraternity I joined included just one black brother. Sadly, even that initiation was temporarily challenged by an old, white alum who thought we were “breaking tradition.” I remember being angry about that, but certainly could have been more pro-active in helping to recruit more members of color.

In the 1980s, I would work for three different television stations in North Dakota. As a sportscaster, I was proud of the relationships we built and the stories we told. But despite the confidence I possessed in my abilities, I am equally confident that I was far less likely to be hired had I not been white. Black athletes abounded, but there were few hired as broadcasters. In fact, on my drive up to Williston to begin my first small-market job I remember scanning the FM dial on my car radio to learn the call letters of the local station then, were K-L-A-N. Disgusted, yes. But did I do anything about it? Not really.

By 1992, I was married, the father of twins and back in the Twin Cities. For the next 24 years, I would cherish my days as an instructor at Brown Institute and later, Brown College. Ironically, I would work first on Lake Street and Hiawatha — the very heart of where the George Floyd protests lit up the sky with flames 28 years later. That location still has bittersweet memories for me because it provided a central location for so many students of color. The bus routes were convenient and we took pride in having a diverse staff of former broadcasters.

But even there, I look back with regrets, as the school was eventually moved to a larger facility in Mendota Heights. The reasoning made sense. Lake Street was becoming more dangerous … in fact, we were shaken one winter morning when a body was found in the parking lot. Bomb scares became frequent.  So, “safety” won out. Trouble is, it somehow felt as if we were running away from the chance to narrow the racial inequalities and abandoning a community that relied on our presence.

Which brings me back to my initial premise. Sometimes we’re all so caught up in our own daily challenges that we forget to see life through the prism of those less fortunate. The racism isn’t always so much about what we do. Or even perceive that we’re doing.

It’s more about what we don’t.

Living in Apple Valley or Golden Valley, staying inside, honoring the curfew. Even dropping off a few bags of groceries at the local high school. Feels safe.

Moving a school to the ‘burbs. Telling friends about a clearly racist set of call letters. Maybe even standing up to an old codger who wants to keep your frat back in the dark ages. They’re all nice and safe. Maybe even well-meaning.

But say what you want about the protesters and their various intentions. They’re clearly not sitting on the sidelines. Getting hit with tear gas or rubber bullets definitely doesn’t qualify as safe. Standing up to police brutality and pushing for change … might even cost you your life.

In the end, there’s something to be said for making “safe”decisions. Maybe that’s why I’m still around to write this piece. But I’ll also admit to being “sorry” when I look back on inequities I did little about.

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