Hundreds of people took part in a Black Lives Matter demonstration near the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on June 6, 2020. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Arne Vainio: Black lives matter

Difficult times. Uncertain times. How many times have we heard that in the past few months? The COVID-19 pandemic came to us in March and social distancing has caused millions to lose their jobs and countless businesses won’t make it.

Hospitals in some parts of the country are overwhelmed. In other parts surgical floors are empty and people are afraid to come in to the Emergency Room. Clinics have changed the way they see patients and much of medicine is changing to virtual visits by computer and phone. Some of those changes will likely be permanent.

There are stories upon stories of people dying in the hospital without family members allowed to be there because of the pandemic. Health care workers are in harm’s way and they worry about bringing the virus home to their loved ones. Elders are isolated and lonely and afraid.

We weren’t ready for this as a nation and that lack of preparation cost lives.

Wearing masks and social distancing have become a flash point and have become a way to further divide us. Essential workers have been required to work and many of those jobs are low paying. Minorities and those living in poverty have been hit especially hard. COVID-19 has spread like wildfire through the Navajo Nation and resources are spread thin.

In the middle of all that uncertainty and fear arose a recurrent nightmare. A police officer in Minneapolis knelt on the neck of a Black man and 3 other officers were complicit in his death. Life left George Floyd on a live video seen around the world. He cried for his dead mother and she couldn’t save him.

Protests followed and neighborhoods burned. My son was close to that burning and took turns with his neighbors watching their building through the long and dangerous nights. I wonder about rites of passage and I wonder when I became a man and left boyhood behind.

Defending and protecting your neighbors is certainly one of those passages.

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I was 10 years old when Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. I remember seeing those images in the stack of black and white Life magazines in my Finnish grandmother’s house. I remember seeing photos of fire hoses and police dogs being turned on Black people who dared to take a stand. I remember the photos of a little Black girl walking between U.S. Marshals on her way to school. I remember wondering how she got herself into that situation.

It took me a long time to realize she didn’t do anything. That situation was waiting for her for hundreds of years. I remember staying with my Ojibwe grandparents in Minneapolis when I was young. My grandmother read True Detective magazines and kept the doors locked and the shades pulled down. She was suspicious of anyone different than her. She locked the car doors when my grandfather drove through the Black part of Minneapolis. She would keep them locked until we got back to their run-down apartment with the run-down apartments surrounding it. I remember the broken tiles and cockroaches scurrying under the bathtub when I pulled the chain for the single light bulb hanging in the bathroom.

Fast forward fifty-two years. Death was waiting for George Floyd and it had also waited for hundreds of years. Death has always been patient. For some it comes after a long and full life with boats and vacations and mortgages and big weddings and handshakes and Christmas cards from bankers. It comes with friendly nods and gentle warnings for driving a few miles above the speed limit.

For others it comes randomly with agony and pain and humiliation for a twenty dollar mistake. Eight minutes and forty-six seconds is enough time to realize you are dying. It’s an eternity and it’s no time at all.

My wife sought out her family on her father’s side after our son was born almost 22 years ago. We went to Florida and we found them in some of the poorest parts of Tampa. We had never been immersed in Black culture like that and we were welcomed with open arms and love that grows deeper each time we see them. This is an entire community held together by faith and devotion and spiritual strength.

They believe.

We met Clarence on one of those trips. He was maybe 50 and missing most of his teeth. His only possession was a rickety old bicycle he rode everywhere. He loved knowing a doctor’s family and he was always proud when we wanted to visit him. On one of our trips we found out he had died from complications of poverty. He was too young and his death left an empty place in us. I still miss hearing him laugh.

George Floyd’s death leaves an empty place in us. We need deep changes as a society and we need to live by the principles that are in us when we’re born. Within us all is the knowledge of the difference between right and wrong. The more you treat all other people fairly the stronger that part of your spirit becomes.

Our Grandfather teachings are humility, truth, honesty, respect, wisdom and courage.

And love. Zaagi’idiwin is the Ojibwe word for love. Zhawenim is unconditional, compassionate love and I learned it’s meaning in the poorest parts of Tampa. Martin Luther King, Jr. lived by these principles and maybe used different words.

We need to see the best in each other.

We’re better than this. We have to be. Four hundred years of oppression is too long. I stand with my relatives in the Black community everywhere and I feel their pain.

Black lives matter. Say it out loud.

Black lives matter.

Arne Vainio, MD is an enrolled member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and is a family practice physician on the Fond du Lac reservation in Cloquet, Minnesota. He can be contacted at

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