MINNEAPOLIS—Flames and black smoke poured into the sky here early Thursday as protests over the death of George Floyd took a violent turn, with multiple local businesses and residential buildings near police headquarters set ablaze and at least one person fatally shot in the area.
Minneapolis Police spokesman John Elder confirmed the shooting shortly before midnight local time, but did not say if it was connected to the protests, according to the Star Tribune. A video shared on Twitter and purportedly filmed at the scene showed medics frantically trying to save a man lying on the ground; at one point, one of the medics can be heard urging people to stay away, yelling, “There’s somebody in there with a rifle, back up! Back up!”
The shooting came amid major fires across the southern part of city, including an AutoZone that burned to the ground overnight, spewing toxic fumes across the entire neighborhood. Widespread looting included mobs—whose ties to organized protesters were vague at best—clearing out a Target across from the precinct house, and video emerged of heavily armed white men who said they were trying to keep people from damaging property.
By 1 a.m., Mayor Jacob Frey, a first-term Democrat, said he was calling in the National Guard and state police to help get the scene under control. He pleaded for peace and urged people to go home.
But for some protesters who’d faced down the threat of tear gas and rubber bullets, the fires were nothing compared to the death of Floyd, 46. The unarmed black man’s last moments were captured on camera for the whole world to see as a white police officer knelt on his neck.
“The whole city can burn down. They should all be out here protesting, not just people who care about black lives. Everybody. Burn it down. Make them pay. Maybe then they’ll understand,” one protester, Elicia S.—she declined to give her full last name—told The Daily Beast late Wednesday.
“I read somewhere that you’re never gonna care until it hits your front door. We are here now, knocking in the front door,” demonstrator Becky Mathews added.
The chaos came after police tried to fend off protesters surrounding Third Precinct headquarters by erecting barricades and firing projectiles at the crowd.
One demonstrator, Jeremy Kocke, held up the back of his shirt to show a large bruise forming from a rubber bullet. “I turned around and was shot in the back,” he said Wednesday evening. “I didn’t do anything to get shot.”
The 32-year-old was one of several protesters struck by projectiles after activists surrounded the department’s embattled precinct house. Some threw water bottles and rocks over a hastily constructed police barricade. From the roof, looming police brandished weapons at the crowd below.
Earlier on Wednesday, Kocke and a roommate had listened to Minneapolis City Council members “talk about how the police need to be restrained and will show restraint,” he told The Daily Beast. “They asked protesters to show restraint. But they [the police] aren’t. This isn’t restraint. There is no restraint. This is chaos.”
Like COVID-19 death rates and social-distancing arrests, a new wave of protests—and their police response—are highlighting racial disparities in the coronavirus era. Tuesday’s initial demonstrations in Minneapolis, which protested the death of Floyd, likewise saw officers in riot gear crack down on demonstrators, striking at least one protester in the head with a rubber bullet and bloodying a reporter. Meanwhile, right-wing “reopen” protests in Minnesota and elsewhere have generally proceeded without police violence, even as mostly white demonstrators—some with extremist ties—occupied government buildings with semi-automatic rifles.
Activists in Minneapolis say race is a motivating factor in police responses to the protests. It’s why some say they’re coming out to protest—even during a deadly pandemic—in the first place, and why an increasingly volatile landscape in a progressive city began to take on the feel of Ferguson-style unrest.
“Throwing tear gas at kids is not going to help,” Leslie Redmon, president of the Minneapolis NAACP, told The Daily Beast.
Redmon said she was among the demonstrators hit with tear gas on Tuesday and that the heavy-handed response would not improve the police’s relationship with protesters.
Nekima Levy-Armstrong, Minneapolis-based civil-rights attorney and founder of the Racial Justice Network, a racial equality group, described the police response as “excessive and militarized.” Officers were filmed using tear gas, rubber bullets, and what appeared to be stun grenades on demonstrators on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.
“There was no communication to protesters that police were going to start shooting projectiles and shooting rubber bullets and spraying tear gas,” Levy-Armstrong told The Daily Beast, echoing activists and journalists who were caught in the crossfire. “They just started doing it. They didn’t give people time to leave the area if they didn’t want to engage with police on that level.”
Monique Cullars-Doty, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Twin Cities, said the police response hindered medical care for at least one person struck in the head with a rubber bullet.
“They called 9-1-1 and the protesters were told that the police [on the scene] were the first responders and no medical attention was given. They were trying to get this person to ride to the hospital,” said Cullars-Doty, whose own nephew was killed by police in nearby St. Paul in 2015.
After witnessing one night of tear gas, Lisa Grimm brought water and milk to Wednesday night’s protest. “I live less than a mile away from the murder. This is my home,” she told The Daily Beast.
“How have the killers not been arrested and held like anyone else? This wouldn’t be happening like this. We wouldn’t have to risk our safety. We wouldn’t be at risk for coronavirus. It’s common logic.”
Some of the response might have stemmed from the police department’s unprecedented decision to fire four officers involved in Floyd’s death. A viral video showed Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for at least seven minutes after police apprehended him over an alleged forgery. In the harrowing video, captured by a bystander, Floyd repeatedly states that he cannot breathe and that he is dying. Bystanders plead with Chauvin to get off Floyd, noting that he appears to have died. Although police initially claimed Floyd later died in the hospital after a “medical incident,” a Minneapolis Fire Department report found that he had no pulse when he was placed in an ambulance.
The four officers’ brisk firings were a first for the city and may have motivated police response to protesters, Levy-Armstrong argued. (The Minneapolis Police Department did not immediately return a request for comment.)
“They want to retaliate,” she told The Daily Beast earlier Wednesday. “They’re angry, they’re upset, and that’s what we witnessed last night. Why did they need to wear riot gear and treat people like they were serious threats?”
Images from reopen protests, including of white militia members lynching an effigy of Kentucky’s governor, or armed protesters storming Michigan’s statehouse, have led some protesters to question whether activists of color could get away with the same stunts.
“When I look and see the angry white protester with their guns and having the opportunity to celebrate their constitutional rights, then look at black protesters who are peaceful… getting tear gas and shot with rubber bullets,” said Toya Woodland, a minister and Black Lives Matter activists. “We’ve never been looked at as whole people. We’re still being looked at as animals, by the Three-Fifths Compromise,” she said, referring to the part of the U.S. Constitution classifying enslaved people as less than fully human.
Carmen Perez-Jordan, president of the nonprofit The Gathering for Justice, likewise tied the disparity in police response to America’s centuries-long racial divides.
“How is it that an officer feels safe with an armed white person yelling and spitting in their face, but not with an unarmed black person?” she asked.
Minneapolis, in particular, has struggled with those narratives. In 2015, Minneapolis police shot and killed Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old black man. When activists staged a days-long occupation outside the police station in protest, white supremacists fired on the crowd, seriously wounding five people.
In 2016, a police officer in nearby Falcon Heights shot and killed Philando Castile, a black man during a traffic stop, while Castile’s girlfriend and her young daughter looked on in horror. Chauvin, the officer who kneeled on Floyd’s neck, has hired the lawyer who defended Castile’s killer.
Protests over Castile’s killing were also marked by arrests.
“My friend had a bouquet of flowers in her hand, and there’s a photo of her being arrested,” Cullars-Doty said. “How much more peaceful can you be when you’re just standing holding flowers?”
She noted that the Castile protests had taken place at the state capitol in neighboring St. Paul, which has its own police force, where reopen protesters had demonstrated earlier this month, without incident.
Reopen protesters don’t deserve the crackdown Minneapolis protesters experienced, Perez-Jordan noted. But their demands differ.
“Black and brown people are asking for their full humanity to be respected. They're asking for the right to live,” she said, as opposed to reopen protesters who are demanding “a perceived right to access to privilege, like having a certain haircut or being able to go out to eat in public. That’s very different from what we’re seeing online every single day when it comes to police officers who can kill an unarmed black person or an unarmed brown person with impunity.”
And while reopen protesters will theoretically go home when the lockdowns end, Minneapolis protesters said the demonstrations might continue. (If protests do go on, Floyd’s family—through their attorney, Benjamin Crump—has asked that looting and violence be rejected.)
Anika Bowie, an activist who attended the Minneapolis protests on Wednesday, said the demonstrations were building on momentum from the Black Lives Matter protests that touched off after the killing of black teenager Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
“Just since Ferguson, we’ve had this whole backlog of history of police brutality,” she said. “Now, we have more networks to exchange this information and communication.”
As a press conference Thursday, Frey tried to make protesters feel seen even as Police Chief Medaria Arradondo decried a “core group of people who had really been focused on causing destruction.”
“What we’ve seen is the result of so much built up anger and sadness, anger and sadness that has been engrained in our black community—not just because of five minutes of horror but 400 years,” Frey said. “If you're feeling that sadness, that anger, it’s not only understandable, it’s right.”
For her part, Cullars-Doty attributed the protest explosion to the nature of Floyd’s death. It wasn’t the first time a horrific video of a black man who died in police custody went viral. But the deaths are adding up.
“That video that we just have is gut-wrenching,” she said. “I was getting messages from people who haven’t been out protesting ever. They’re saying now that they’re either fed up; they sat on the sidelines too long and some people have had their eyes opened. So I think this really is a big one.”