Last week, I ventured into a Minneapolis mystery bookstore to hear William Swanson read from Black White Blue: the nonfiction account of a St. Paul police officer killed in the line of duty forty years ago. The next morning, I learned that a man in Minneapolis had shot and killed five people, injuring several others, at his former place of employment, before killing himself.
Two things struck me: at the reading, the audience responded forcefully to the story of the assassinated officer and the subsequent legal case, but they didn't seem as interested in the tumultuous cultural environment in which the crime took place. And in Friday morning's paper, it was a line spoken by the Minneapolis Deputy Police Chief: "This is something we see on the news in other parts of the country, not here in Minneapolis."
For me, such a statement only conveys a desire to separate one's sense of regional identity from unwanted behavior. It communicates, most immediately, I am afraid.
The audience at the bookstore was, I can only assume, typical of nonfiction crime fans: most sat in bright, inquisitive attention as they asked about the specifics of the legal proceedings and the author's access to sources. The murder described in Black White Blue seems to have been entirely sociopolitically motivated: the State's case claimed the perpetrator was vying for the attention of the Black Panthers by orchestrating the shooting of a random white cop. Yet beyond a general description of the seventies as tumultuous, full of police brutality and politically very active (shit being blown up, etc.), very few specifics were brought up about the particular racial climate in St. Paul at the time.
At one point, Swanson said that in addition to the chaos, it was a rather exciting and liberating time, and the one black man in the audience pointed out that it wasn't exactly exciting and liberating for others in the community. I sensed that few attendees wanted to get anywhere near talking about the racism or police brutality or segregation or inequality. In this case, "not here" suggests a different kind of avoidance from the kind the Deputy Police Chief conjured after last week's shooting. But it could've been uttered just the same.
There is likely no better way to write nonfiction crime than to focus on a central character or pinnacle case around which everything else can be explored. Since last Thursday, the local papers have been focusing on two central characters: the shooter, Andrew Engeldinger, and his boss (who had fired Engeldinger that afternoon), Reuven Rahamim. Without fail, this story will be compared to other office shootings and other mass shootings, Colorado no doubt on the top of the list. I won't be surprised when op-eds begin to spring up about modern mental health practices and accessibility, the desperation of the economy, gun control. And other attempts at feeling productive after an event for which there is nothing to be done.
We will come together as a community and be defined by our response, our social activism, our Minnesotan sense of civic duty. Meanwhile, it might help if we stopped trying to cast certain behaviors as un-Minnesotan, so we could be able to move just a little further forward.