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Chaotic Minneapolis protests spread amid emotional calls for justice, peace

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 5/29/2020 Holly Bailey, Jared Goyette, Sheila Regan, Tarkor Zehn
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MINNEAPOLIS — “Say his name!” protesters chanted late Thursday night, as police officers in riot gear lowered their face masks and gripped their batons, preparing to move toward the crowd. “George Floyd!”

Thousands of protesters poured into the streets of downtown Minneapolis and demonstrations spread into surrounding areas on Thursday as buildings burning — including a police department’s precinct offices — and as violent skirmishes with police continued. The unrest, now in its third day here after the 48-year-old African American man’s fatal encounter with police, showed signs of intensifying, as calls for justice morphed into attacks on a department that has long been accused of racism against the city’s African American community.

A late night confrontation included protesters entering the Minneapolis Police Department’s 3rd Precinct and setting it ablaze. Police said in a statement that “protesters forcibly entered the building and have ignited several fires.”

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The largely peaceful demonstrations previously had been contained to a neighborhood in the south part of the city, but on Thursday protesters gathered in nearby St. Paul, where the gatherings were accompanied by looting and vandalism. Some protesters tried to stop traffic on a major highway through the Twin Cities. And late into the night, protesters repeatedly clashed with police as some in the crowd set off fireworks and sent projectiles at the lines of officers. Gov. Tim Walz (D) deployed National Guard to help local officials regain control.

Walking down Interstate 35W in Minneapolis, Michael McDowell said the crowds gathered to protest Floyd’s death are the people who have been unheard.

Shirtless and wearing a white face mask, McDowell, an activist and founder of Black Lives Matter Minneapolis, evoked Martin Luther King Jr. in noting how the riots that have raged through the city are a natural response to Floyd’s death.

“There are folks reacting to a violent system,” McDowell said. “You can replace property, you can replace businesses, you can replace material things, but you can’t replace a life. That man is gone forever because some cop felt like he had the right to take his life. A lot of folks are tired of that. They’re not going to take it anymore.”

That’s why, he said, “Minneapolis is burning.” 

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Protesters breached the Minneapolis Police Department's Third Precinct station on Thursday night, swarming the building and setting fires outside. © Jared Goyette/FTWP Protesters breached the Minneapolis Police Department's Third Precinct station on Thursday night, swarming the building and setting fires outside.

Reflecting on the violent images and scenes that have come out of Minneapolis this week, McDowell said there was no controlling a community reacting to the violence like they saw in the video of Floyd’s final moments, comparing what he has seen here to “an uprising.”

“I don’t think that folks are being anywhere as violent as the system has been toward them,” he said.

Much of the city awoke to smoky skies on Thursday, as fires continued to smolder in at least a half dozen buildings that had been set aflame during early-morning protests near a police building in South Minneapolis not far from where Floyd was filmed, gasping for air, as a police officer held a knee to his throat. Grocery stores had been looted and torched; a multistory building under construction to bring new affordable housing to the area burned to the ground; and several city blocks of businesses were damaged.

The chaotic scene left some city officials in tears and appealing for peace.

“You have every absolute right to be angry, to be upset, to be mad, to express your anger,” Andrea Jenkins, a Minneapolis City Council member who represents the area, said at a news conference at City Hall. “However, you have no right to perpetrate violence and harm on the very communities that you say that you are standing up for.”

Jenkins, who is black and has urged the city to declare racism a public health emergency, sang a few bars of “Amazing Grace” as a way of paying tribute to Floyd and to encourage calm. But a few miles away, in neighboring St. Paul, clouds of tear gas were already rising in the air, as police there clashed with looters who had been raiding a local Target store.

Up and down University Avenue, the towering dome of the Minnesota State Capitol in the distance, store owners scrambled to protect their businesses. With smoke rising from a fire in the distance, workers were up on ladders frantically hanging plywood over their windows as police cars, sirens blaring, streaked by.

Scores of businesses had posted simple handmade signs, begging for mercy. “This is a BLACK-OWNED BUSINESS,” one read. “This is COMMUNITY-OWNED BUSINESS,” said another. Many stores were dark, but some owners remained, staying behind, on guard, because they weren’t confident that anyone else would do it for them.

a group of people standing in front of a sign: Demonstrators gather in front of a tire store on Thursday in St. Paul, Minn. Protests over the death of George Floyd, a handcuffed black man who died in police custody, broke out for a third straight night. © Julio Cortez/AP Demonstrators gather in front of a tire store on Thursday in St. Paul, Minn. Protests over the death of George Floyd, a handcuffed black man who died in police custody, broke out for a third straight night.

At a Metro PCS, an African American man guarded his store with his employees and friends. “We want to see peace prevail, but tensions are high right now,” the man said, declining to give his name for fear of retaliation. “The pain and the things people are feeling right now is rooted for years."

At his side was one of his oldest friends, who was there standing guard with him.

“This ain’t anger, this is pain,” the friend said. “This is the type of stuff we need to address in the black community. They need to stop the brutality against black people. This stuff has been happening for a long time. Our congressmen aren’t listening. We’ve got poverty, drug addiction, but they don’t want to help us in our community. Unfortunately, we don t know how to point our pain in the proper directions, so we do this.”

Up the street, police were struggling to contain the scene as packs of looters broke windows at local stores and restaurants. They lobbed fireworks at the police and smashed bricks through police car windows. A few blocks away, thick black smoke billowed out of a Napa auto parts store that was alight.

Miles away, in downtown Minneapolis, the scene was calmer as thousands of people converged on the streets near City Hall to call for the arrest of the four police officers who were at the scene of Floyd’s death.

“If the murder is on videotape for all to see, why aren’t the murderers in jail now?” Michelle Gross, an activist affiliated with the local group Citizens United Against Police Brutality, declared, drawing cheers from the crowd.

She pointed a finger at City Hall, which she said had stoked unrest by failing to address concerns of racism and misconduct by the police department.

“The fires of the night belong completely and squarely at the people over there,” she said.

Later, protesters tried to stop traffic on nearby Interstate 35, while others clashed with police in the shadow of the city’s famed Bob Dylan mural off Hennepin Avenue in downtown.

“No justice, no peace,” they chanted. “Prosecute the police.”

Shortly before midnight on Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis, Shelby Flannery, who is white, said solidarity brought her out to the protests.

“You’ve got to be a part of the reaction in order to find change,” she said, noting that she believes everyone should get upset about police violence. “It’s having values that are aligned with good, not evil.”

Timothy Bella, Tim Elfrink and Hannah Knowles in Washington contributed to this report.

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