After nearly a week of unrest in response to the death of George Floyd, city and state officials were optimistic Sunday after a night passed without the dangerous fires, looting and violence that have cut a wide swath of devastation through the heart of this Midwestern city.
But it came with a new reality: Thousands of National Guard troops and state and city police officers moving to aggressively — and sometimes violently — regain control of the streets, and a lockdown that has residents under curfew and has closed the major highways at night.
In some neighborhoods, residents stand outside their homes and businesses with guns, fueling a sense of lawlessness, while medical students descend on the scene with supplies to assist those in need, adding to what increasingly feels like a domestic war zone.
With violent protests spreading to other cities across the country, officials here plan to keep troops on the ground and restrictions in place, suggesting the worst is still not over.
“There will be critiques of me that this is excessive. Why are you keeping forces on the ground?” Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D) said Sunday. It would be “irresponsible” to dial back the state’s response, amid rumors of outside agitators that he and other officials say have come into the city to sow chaos, he said.
But some of the security tactics have been criticized as overly aggressive. On Saturday night, a South Minneapolis woman filmed state police as they fired nonlethal projectiles at her as she stood on her front porch.
“These aren’t particularly pretty actions that we take,” Col. Matt Langer, head of the Minnesota State Police, said during a news conference Sunday when asked about the video. But he defended the tactics as “necessary” to maintain the peace.
At the same time, Walz publicly apologized after several reporters were pepper-sprayed, shot by rubber bullets and detained as law enforcement cleared the streets, even though news media is exempt from the 8 p.m. curfew. A reporter for the Star Tribune was left bloodied after police shot out the passenger window of his car as he drove near the scene. Walz called the response “unacceptable.”
The stronger show of force Saturday came after four days of destructive protests, in which a police precinct and hundreds of businesses were looted, burned and destroyed across Minneapolis and neighboring St. Paul.
Law enforcement was widely criticized for being absent from the scene as fires were set and stores were looted in the increasingly raucous protests that erupted in the days since a viral video captured Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, face down on the street and struggling to breathe as a white police officer restrained him with a knee on his neck. Floyd lost consciousness and was later pronounced dead by responding paramedics.
In response, some residents have formed informal militias to protect their homes and businesses in recent days, citing their lack of confidence in the police to help them. Near the destroyed 3rd Precinct police station, where businesses were burned and looted last week, a small group of men whose families live above a looted Sally Beauty supply store stood with clubs and guns to fend off opportunists Thursday, with police out of sight.
Ricardo Simmons, 33, said his wife and four children were upstairs, and he had prevented gasoline-carrying rioters from setting fire to the store at gunpoint on Wednesday.
“We have beautiful people living in this community and we’re all one big family and we’re not going to let people take over,” Simmons said. “They’re not punishing the police right now, they’re punishing their own community. But I’m not surprised at all that the police aren’t protecting us right now. Minneapolis police is responsible for all of this.”
At the Karmel Mall, a shopping center off Lake Street that predominantly serves the Somali community, a viral video showed shoppers, including many women, chase away a group of white men. At night, security guards from the community stood guard, asking small groups of protesters who approached to go the other way. Somali youth vetted journalists who approached on Google, matching their publications with previous work online before they would agree to speak.
One of the guards, Kawith Abi Muhammed, called what happened to George Floyd “ugly.” “But this mall, it belongs to the immigrant people, poor people. They go to work every day, paycheck to paycheck,” he said. “That’s the reason I am here. I promised them I would save this place.”
While state and local police closed the highways, other residents installed makeshift roadblocks of their own, trying to prevent rioters from entering into their neighborhoods. There are used cars parked in the middle of the road and orange construction barrels, carried away from other roadblocks by local residents. Some even used lawn chairs and upside-down tables.
On Sunday, only a handful of stores were open in the looted areas — including Longfellow Market, one of the only food stores in the area. Across the street, Brenda Ingersoll sold lattes through a fabricated door with a window. A group of volunteers had been guarding her business at night, chasing away looters and sparing her from the worst of the rioting so far.
“This is the new normal,” she said, adding that she could no longer depend on the police. “They’ve abandoned us.”
The events have been particularly traumatizing for neighborhoods along Lake Street, an immigrant-rich community where some of the worst violence and destruction has occurred. The area has long been a destination for new immigrants both as a home and for opening businesses, many of which were burned in recent days. The unrest has sparked unwelcome memories of the countries they left behind.
“We came to the United States as refugees. We are survivors of a civil war, so for a lot of our older relatives, this is traumatizing for them. They still carry a lot of PTSD when it comes to seeing their country torn apart,” said Zee Thao, 29, an activist with Hmong for Black Lives.
That history of trauma compelled her to join thousands of other people at a peaceful protest Sunday on the state Capitol grounds in St. Paul.
“I don’t know the exact experience, but I understand oppression, it lives in my body,” she said.
Sheila Regan contributed to this report.