The Best Moment of 2020: The Burning of the Third Precinct

Everything else was bad

Hamilton Nolan

Got em. Carlos Gonzalez/Star Tribune via Getty Images

This year, wretched as it was, was not steadily wretched from beginning to end. It was more like a wave, cresting right at the edge of optimism before crashing down hard and washing everything back out to the black and hopeless sea. It’s especially easy to remember the high points in a year like this: They were brief moments when events broke the heavy pull of gravity and rose up, before falling back down again. 

On February 22, under bright and mild blue skies, I went to a plush casino on the Las Vegas strip and watched hotel workers vote overwhelmingly for Bernie Sanders in the Nevada caucus. Bernie won by a mile, and there was a swelling sense of elation — this was our time. He stood, that day, as the clear favorite for the Democratic nomination, the man who was poised to sweep away our grotesque leader and usher in a new age of humane progress. Joe Biden’s campaign volunteers were staying at my hotel, and I remember looking at them with pity as they stood around in their Biden shirts in the lobby, a sad bunch of misfits fruitlessly trying to resurrect a long-dead dream. The people power was on our side. The atmosphere was giddy. There were celebrations. There were crowds. Everything was open, and you could see, just down the road, the world that we wanted, just waiting. 

One month later, Joe Biden had the nomination well in hand. The Las Vegas strip had been shuttered, along with everything else. The mighty Culinary Union, whose members ran the casino industry, was suffering from 98% unemployment. New York City was in lockdown, the pandemic had begun to rage, and our bizarre national nightmare of sickness and death and solitude and devastation was beginning to unfurl in all of its horrific majesty.

And it’s been pretty bad since then. The year teased us with false hope, then snatched it away and unveiled a grinding, ceaseless calendar of monotony stirred together with tragedy. Even modestly good events like Trump’s election loss or the making of vaccines were leavened with the heavy knowledge that there is an alternate world where they would have turned out much, much better. 

There is only one moment in 2020 that stands out as one of undiluted elation. That moment came on the night of May 28, three days after George Floyd was killed by police. The protests that would soon sweep the nation were still centered in Minneapolis. Around 10:00 p.m. that night, I sat a thousand miles away, slackjawed, watching a live stream of riot police evacuating from the Third Precinct headquarters. The cops all scurried away, and protesters proceeded to burn down the police station. 

The cops ran away and the protesters burned down the police station. That was one of the coolest fucking things I’ve ever seen. 

Is that immature? I don’t care. The cops ran away. The people burned down the police station. Take that! Stupid cops! If the sheer cinematic gall of such a thing does not fill you with some level of delight, you are too mature. You have allowed an important part of you to die. I pity you. You see, normally, cops chase people. Police come into our homes and do what they want. In this case, the people chased the police. And they went into the police’s home, and they burned it the fuck down. Now do you see? This was beauty. This was, for a few hours at least, the triumph of hope. It was like watching a very ephemeral war being won. I do not care that one of the people later indicted for this was a right winger — that just makes that night a very rare example of the entire political spectrum achieving a common goal. I do not care to hear any rational arguments about what such an action did or did not accomplish” in a cold, analytical sense. Life is full of injustices large and small, of powerful institutions that subject us to all manner of unnecessary inconveniences and outrages, and nothing embodies this perpetual state of unfairness more than a police station. Sometimes it is necessary to see the power of the people in action, just to feel alive. I will tell you what this action accomplished: It was awesome. We all needed that. 

This was a bad year. But it was also the year that the cops ran away, and people burned down the police station. I guess you never can tell when your luck is going to turn around. 

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Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. More of his work is on Substack.

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