MINNEAPOLIS, MN —
Outside the windows of Sameh’s black SUV, the slush piled along the curbsides indicated an entire season had come and gone, but the wreckage — still black from char — looked so fresh I almost expected to smell it.
As we crawled along Minneapolis’ Lake St., rubble lined the road. Not on one particular corner, or for a couple blocks, but peppering miles of the thoroughfare known once for tacos, Somalian food and mom-and-pop groceries; a stretch now known for the end of one era and the start of a next.
It was spring when George Floyd’s life was seized not too far from here; outside the local Cup Foods that has now become infamous: an eerie memorial filled with blockades, self-appointed protectorates and impassioned art painted on the brick walls of nearby buildings and strung from lamp posts.
On that day in May, the city erupted— spurred by anguish and mourning, anger at decades of policy and neglect, and finally, simply chaos and anarchy.
Everything in the path of these emotions was a matchstick, and together, the local businesses lining this intimate corridor were licked up into the bonfire; hundreds of buildings turned to scrap, to empty lots, to piles of destruction where neighborhoods once hummed.
“That was a whole building,” he said. They just tore it up. “This entire strip mall is gone. The gas station behind there is gone. Every single liquor store along here, was looted, emptied out, burned down. The banks, same deal. Any business with any value was completely ransacked.
“You understand the why, in the beginning, but you can’t comprend how …”
He paused and gathered his breath.
“It felt like a war zone.”
It was 30 years ago. Kuwait.
Sameh Wadi was 7.
He and his family had just gotten in the car for the first time since the 1990 Iraqi invasion — a brutal, two-day operation that ended in the seven months-long occupation that led the United Nations to intervene, triggering the first Gulf War.
“I remember it vividly,” Sameh said. “Because that’s when I saw my first dead body.”
Years before, Sameh’s parents had moved to Kuwait after fleeing their native Palestine, again.
As children, each had left with their families by force in 1948, when more than 700,000 people — half of Palestine’s prewar population — were exiled from their homes after modern-day Israel invaded and claimed the land for its own. Later, as young adults, they returned, met and married, but ultimately left once more.
Kuwait was a train stop in a lifetime of being moved around.
In the car, that day, a young Sameh looked around. A corpse lay lifeless, on the side of the road. Fires smoldered where buildings once were. Windows of businesses had been shattered, and out of one emerged a troop of people, arms full.
“It was the people I remember the most,” Sameh said, thinking back.
“They looked broken, defeated, like they had no hope.”
He grew quiet as we turned a corner, onto Minneapolis’ East Lake Street, and he looked straight ahead. The texture of the debris alongside us was already seared into his brain.
“At 37, I witnessed it again,” he said.
“It felt exactly the same to me.”
Nineteen ninety-eight. Best Food Market; South Minneapolis.
It doesn’t matter the day. Sameh, as a young teenager, was here on most of them — working the register at his family’s bodega, scribbling homework assignments, trying to pick up girls.
His older brother Rami might give him a ride in the family Oldsmobile, turning off I-35W and steering on 38th and Nicollet, a place where one would think twice about walking a couple blocks alone. A place where they belonged.
“Welcome to the jungle,” Rami would say.
After moving from Kuwait to Jordan, then Canada, Sameh’s family had settled in the United States a few years earlier, finding a foothold in the entreprenurial landscape with a series of small, independent groceries over the years.
Sameh’s youth unfolded in and around Best Food — long summer days selling cigarettes and candy bars; titulating evenings with adolescent crushes stolen away in the basement. He was amazed by the wealth of what he could learn there — new words, and new brands; threre were more than three kinds of orange soda in the United States. More than six dozen kinds of chips. He found importance; in accompanying his brother to drop off deposits at the nearby Wells Fargo; in manning the store solo at times.
“38th Street,” Sameh said, here again, now in the snowy fall of 2020.
“This is where I learned English. This is where I made friends.
“I flirted a little, I talked mad shit.”
His childhood played out like a movie reel in the reflections of the now-empty storefront. As we peered through, I could picture it: a young Sameh, sizzling up fried eggs and tomatoes on the butane stove tucked behind the shop counter. Waxing cars out front. Hauling chuck steaks to the Pizza Hut next door to roast in the borrowed oven.
“It was the first time,” he said, “I felt home.”
May 25th, 2020. Six months ago.
Sameh was at home with his wife Sarah when the news broke.
A Black man had been killed by police during what might have been a routine arrest over a counterfeit $20 bill. George Floyd had been face down on the pavement, officer Derek Chauvin’s knee on his neck.
It took eight minutes and 46 seconds.
Sameh’s mind went somewhere else. To Palestine. To a home where he was never permitted to live. To a familal history, rich with persecution.
That brand of chokehold — the knee on a neck — had long been a tactic of the Israeli military amidst its occupation of Palestine.
“That’s what I grew up on, images of that, burned into my head,” Sameh said, quieter. “Everyone in my family that lived there, they all experienced personal run-ins with the Israeli military.”
Being arrested for petty crimes. Getting assaulted in the streets. The racial profiling of young kids. A friend of a cousin who was shot while walking — a case of mistaken identity.
“The police were supposed to be helping, but they were only policing us,” he continued. “Israel’s military, they put their cops there not to protect us, but to police us as people.
“And immediately,” Sameh continued. “I thought of that.
“I couldn’t watch the video. I was too traumatized.”
**May 28, 2020.**
Sameh’s phone was buzzing.
It was the security alarm company. Someone was trying to break into World Street Kitchen, his Lyndale Avenue restaurant, through the back door.
The eatery had been closed for days because of the chaos that radiated around it.
Since Floyd’s death, over 100 buildings had been completely destroyed. The city’s infrastructure, its very soul, had ignited. Minneapolis — Sameh’s final adopted home— was burning.
For a moment, it was mourning. Righteous anger. Political dissent.
“I understood it,” Sameh said. “I believed in it.”
“And then, the whole paradigm shifted.
“At that point, it wasn’t about politics, it was about anyone who had a vendetta, now is the time to settle it.
“People were getting robbed, assaulted,” he said. “There were no cops in the streets, they were all defending they’re own precincts. The fire department woukdn’t come becaue they didn’t have backup.
“So all these buildings, they just kept smoldering for days until they finaly collapsed.”
The Wells Fargo Sameh used to drop off deposits at was among them.
“It was a war and you didn’t know who was fighting who,” he said.
The same day, the security company was calling, again. Someone was breaking in through the World Street Kitchen side door, now. Later that night, it was through Milkjam Creamery, his adjacent business.
Finally, Sameh gave up.
“‘Don’t call the cops,’” he told the person on the line. ‘Disarm it.
‘Let them burn it down, if they want.’
‘I’m tired. I just want to sleep.’
Early 2000s; 39th Street, Minneapolis. Sameh’s home. A block from Best Foods Market.
Sameh was a new American — without official status, not yet even able to claim the term. But as he began talking with the folks around his new home, he had found a common ground.
“It clicked when I started talking with some of the more educated people I was meeting in the neighborhood,” he said. “Things we weren’t learning in school.”
He was beginning to grasp the complexities of race relations in the U.S.
And something hit home.
“As a Palestinian, I’m told that I shouldn’t exist on a regular basis,” Sameh said. I was told I don’t matter on a regular basis. Told I don’t belong on a regular basis.
”It’s very similar to what’s happening in Black America.”
The trauma knit the neighborhood; connected those who otherwise might not have anything in common.
“There was a lot of shared pain between the communities, and we found solace in it” Sameh said. “Community and camaraderie in it.
“I had a point of reference. And I felt it. I really felt it.”
October. 2020. Cup Foods; South Minneapolis.
A freshly fallen snow had obscured the details.
The letters, on hand-written poster boards smudged. The bouquets, placed with care, drooped beneath the cold. Drawings, ribbons, Covid masks, hung from lines strung across the street at 38th and Chicago; the Cup Foods site where Floyd was killed.
Two seasons had passed, but the eeriness hung in the air, unanswered. Self proclaimed protectorates lingered outside the store where it happened. Across the street, a bus stop had been transformed into a storage unit; a group of people huddled over a trash can fire. They were “holding space,” they said.
Sameh looked ahead as we walked on.
“I haven’t been able to bring myself down here yet,” he said.
We strode past storefronts that had been reduced to monuments in a ghost town.
Past the building he was hoping to purchase for an ice cream facility, pre-Covid. And just beyond ‘Lil Jam, his hot dog and ice cream stand, two blocks away, that sustained a bullet hole.
“I always felt that people should fight,” he said. “Because it’s the only way we can get our rights.”
But he was conflicted.
“All these businesses,” he said. “They’re not coming back.
The moment had come and gone, and the wreckage remained.
Sameh stood before it, torn.
As a Palestinian whose blood line knows oppression — intimately — he was enraged by those who rebuked the protests; who couldn’t — or didn’t care to — see the resistance’s worth, its necessity.
“I know what it means to be a part of a people so oppressed you have no future except dying,” he said.
“So people who weren’t standing up for life, for lives lost, that was really hard.”
There was another anger, too.
He had watched the protests become riots and the riots become destruction — destruction that consumed neighborhoods mostly made up of businesses owned by Black and brown people; that primarily affected minority and immigrant families, much like his own.
An outrage had ignited and smoldered, then somehow turned inward.
“It’s fucked,” he said, a hardness coming into his voice. “We’re saying burn down our own fucking neighborhoods?”
Around us, the heavy cost of the fight was laid bare.
“As an immigrant, coming into this country, I know, you have nothing,” Sameh continued. “My family, we worked really hard.
“Finally you have a small thing — a thing you can say is finally yours and no one is contesting it. It’s a building. It’s brick and mortar.
“But it means something.”
Beyond us was the building never purchased; the hot dog stand with the bullet hole; World Street Kitchen, miles away, that was broken into three times in one day, that lives to stand, but just as easily might have perished — snatched up in the crossfire that changed Minneapolis forever.
Sameh was back in his SUV, and we were cruising along Lake Street, but he had gone somewhere else, again.
He exhaled as if he could no longer hold it in.
“People didn’t know what ‘burn it all down’ means,” he said.
“But I do.”