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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

A Letter from Minneapolis: Pain, Outrage and a Call for Moral Leadership

As I sit in my home, just a few blocks from stores that are closed indefinitely, I feel sadness, pain and outrage at what has happened to our city in the last few days.

Penny and I came here fifty years ago. After changing companies twice, living overseas in two countries, and teaching at Harvard Business School the past sixteen years, we are still here because we love and are proud of Minneapolis. We have worked together throughout these years with business, health care and community leaders to make Minneapolis the most attractive place for people of all races to live.

The senseless killing of George Floyd has shattered our dream of Minneapolis as a progressive city on the rise. The video of police veteran Derek Chauvin with his knee on Floyd’s throat is almost too painful to watch, as Chavin impassively suffocated him as he pleaded for his life. Meanwhile, two fellow officers assist Chauvin, holding down his legs and torso while a third surveys the bystanders pleading with the police officers to stop. Floyd’s alleged crime? He reportedly used a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes.

If ever we needed a living example of “man’s inhumanity to man,” it is Chauvin with his hands in his pockets never easing up the pressure even after Floyd loses consciousness. It was later reported that Chauvin has had 18 complaints filed against him, three of them for excessive use of force. Yet he has been allowed to stay in the police force – until he was fired after Floyd’s death.

The Minneapolis police department is notorious for the death of African Americans suspected of crimes. Although the force is predominately white, the only officer convicted of a crime in its entire history was Mohamed Noor, the Somali immigrant officer who shot Justine Ruszczyk, a white woman who had called the police. The policemen who caused the deaths of Philando Castile and Jamar Clark were found not guilty, nor is there is any assurance Chavin will be found guilty, as proving criminal guilt of an on-duty police officer is extremely difficult. On Sunday evening Minnesota Governor Tim Walz asked the Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison to lead the prosecution for Chavin’s case.

This past week the world watched as Minneapolitans reacted. The vast majority of protesters were young people of all races protesting peacefully, most of them wearing masks to protect against COVID-19. However, extremists bent on creating civil unrest, many of them from out of state, burned and looted stores and businesses. The stores less than a mile from our home had their windows broken, goods stolen and significant damage done. As we drove down Hennepin Avenue through our Uptown neighborhood on Sunday, all the stores were boarded up with hastily assembled plywood walls.

The Minneapolis police attempted to control the crowd and stop the violence with non-lethal methods, but they were overwhelmed by the sheer number of protesters. On Saturday Governor Walz called in the Minnesota National Guard to take control as the sun was setting. Given that a curfew had been in effect since 8:00 pm, the National Guard was quickly able to establish control. A similar tactic on Sunday brought the protests under control, with curfew violators arrested.

On Sunday afternoon, Penny and I were among the protesters on the Hennepin Avenue bridge. Most knelt as singers sang gospel hymns. When the movement began, they began chanting, “George Floyd,” “Black Lives Matter,” and Floyd’s last words, “I can’t breathe.” The thousands of people we saw were peaceful and serious, with many carrying signs to honor Floyd.

Over the weekend the community has been responding to help those people and businesses harmed by the violence. Hundreds engaged in clean-up efforts. When a school near the 5th district police station asked for food for students and families, citizens dropped off several thousand bags. A fund to rebuild Lake Street stores received over $1 million in contributions in less than a day.

Reflections

While it is difficult to fully comprehend what is happening, here are my reflections at this early stage.

The killing of George Floyd set off a powder keg of pent-up frustrations and despair at the pervasive of the inequities and racism soiling our city and country. Many people are saying, “Enough is enough.”

I believe we must address the deep inequities, racial injustice, and prejudice that people of color have encountered for years. Changing the culture of the Minneapolis police force is only an essential first step. The police must reclaim their sworn obligation to protect and serve. Beyond that, business and community leaders must provide equal opportunities for people of color to progress through their leadership ranks, until the diversity of their leaders reflects the diversity of the people they serve. Elected officials at the state and local level must ensure equal justice under the law for everyone.

While these steps are imperative, none of them will impact what is in people’s hearts. As long as people judge others based on the color of their skin instead of the content of their character – to quote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – we will have work to do.  We need moral leaders who call upon “the better angels of our nature” to guide us on this journey.

Moral leaders call upon clarity of purpose and consistent practice of their values. They inspire and empower us to step up and lead authentically. They summon us to do the right things for the right reasons in building a just society where everyone is treated with fairness and justice and has equal opportunity to achieve and live the full life they deserve.

My greatest desire is for people to step up as moral leaders, each in their own way, to restore greatness to our city and our nation by building a just and moral society.