Two days after George Floyd died, the police chief of Minneapolis called the mayor around dinnertime. He needed help. What had begun as peaceful protests outside the 3rd Police Precinct was turning into mayhem.
“He said, ‘The Target is getting looted. We are not going to be able to handle this on our own,’” recalled Mayor Jacob Frey, who called Gov. Tim Walz, and asked for the National Guard.
The governor said he would consider the request. Afterward, he expressed surprise that city leaders did not seem to have a plan for where they wanted the soldiers to go.
As the night wore on, dozens of buildings burst into flames, without a fire crew in sight. A six-story apartment building that was still under construction collapsed into a ball of fire. A high-tech factory was set ablaze. Residents called 911 desperate for help, but dispatchers were overwhelmed.
Over three nights, a 5-mile stretch of Minneapolis sustained extraordinary damage. The police precinct house itself was set on fire, after the mayor gave orders to evacuate the building. A month later, the city is still struggling to understand what happened and why: Not since the 1992 unrest in Los Angeles has an American city suffered such destructive riots.
The vast majority of protesters in Minneapolis, like others around the country, marched peacefully, and some tried to intervene to stop the destruction. To many, the damage was an understandable response to years of injustice at the hands of Minneapolis police, an explosion of anger that activists had warned was coming if the city did not reform law enforcement.
At the same time, it struck a close-knit, civic-minded community that was already struggling under the coronavirus pandemic. Fires and looting destroyed hundreds of businesses, among them a worker-owned bicycle co-op, a historic diner run by a husband and wife, and the new headquarters of a nonprofit organization that works with Native American teens.
A close examination of the events, including interviews with more than two dozen elected officials, activists, business owners and residents, suggests at least some of the destruction resulted from a breakdown in governance. The mayor and other local leaders, many of them relatively new to their roles, failed to anticipate the intensity of the unrest or put together an effective plan to counter it.
Frey has struggled to regain the confidence of Minneapolis residents. He has been slammed by business owners for not doing enough to protect their property. He has been pilloried by the police for ordering the abandonment of the precinct house. And he’s been booed and heckled by activists because he doesn’t support their demand to dismantle the police department.
When asked about his handling of the looting and fires, Frey said that in the moment he was faced with a series of impossible choices, all of them bad.
“I hope that in years and decades from now, we can look back at this time of great trauma and turmoil and recognize it as the moment where we rose up, united in purpose and finally created the change that we all envision,” Frey said.
And he stressed the unprecedented nature of the crisis — three nights of rioting in the midst of a pandemic. “There is no playbook for this,” he said.
A New Face
The day after George Floyd died, Frey announced that all four officers involved had been fired. He also called for criminal charges to be filed.
“Whatever the investigation reveals, it does not change the simple truth that he should be with us this morning,” Frey said of Floyd in emotional remarks early Tuesday morning, standing next to the police chief, Medaria Arradondo. “Being Black in America should not be a death sentence.”
His swift, unequivocal statement won praise from activists and even some seasoned politicians. But others said the move dangerously alienated rank-and-file officers.
“Once Frey comes out and basically sides with the protesters, he has sent the signal that the police are on their own,” said Lawrence Jacobs, professor of public policy at the University of Minnesota. “If you are going to say something like that, you have to have a plan for what is going to happen, because you have now inflamed both sides of the issue.”
Elected 2 1/2 years earlier, at age 36, Frey had promised to remake the city’s public image after years of negative news stories about high-profile police killings. His meteoric rise in Minnesota politics stemmed from his ability to talk the language of social justice while at the same time wooing the business community with his charisma.
“I’m disgusted that Minneapolis is in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons,” he said in a campaign ad in 2017. “Police shootings. Intolerance and inequality.”
His victory over his predecessor, Betsy Hodges, was all the more extraordinary, given his relatively recent ties to the city. A Northern Virginia native who was a professional runner for years, Frey fell in love with Minneapolis after he ran a marathon there. He earned a law degree and took a job with a white-shoe law firm in the city in 2009. Four years later, he ran for City Council and won.
Two years later, a 24-year-old Black man named Jamar Clark was shot in the head after police responded to a call about a domestic dispute. Activists camped out in the vestibule of the 4th Police Precinct for days. Mayor Hodges personally showed up there to broker a solution, and the 18-day occupation ended without a riot.
“All we kept saying is ‘Our goal is to not have the city burn,’” said Carla Kjellberg, an informal adviser to Hodges at the time.
Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil rights attorney who helped organize that police protest as well as the one for George Floyd, said that she warned city leaders in 2015 that she had personally encountered people who were ready to burn down the police precinct house.
“If we do not rein in the police department and address the economic inequalities, we were poised to become the next Ferguson,” Levy Armstrong said she told the City Council at the time, referring to the Missouri city that had been the site of riots. “This is a combustible situation.”
A Scuffle Breaks Out
The day after George Floyd died, protesters marched from the place where he gasped under a police officer’s knee to the 3rd Precinct where they believed the officer worked.
They rallied peacefully on the steps with a megaphone and signs. Then, as night closed in, they started wandering home. But a rowdy group peeled away, spray-painting graffiti on the police precinct wall. Someone smashed the window of an empty police cruiser. “This is not OK,” a young female protester can be overheard saying on a video later posted to Facebook. A scuffle broke out. “Everybody go home,” someone screamed.
Three miles away, at City Hall, Frey, was receiving calls from worried local leaders. He assured them everything was under control.
“I’m hearing it’s not that bad,” he told a city councilor over the phone.
Jeremiah Ellison, a newly elected city councilor who had participated in the 2015 protest against police, advised the mayor to leave the vandals alone.
“The focus of anger is the police and this building,” Ellison reasoned. “If we let the crowd do its thing, we might spare neighborhood.”
But Frey did not intervene to stop police officers from moving in and firing tear gas and flash grenades.
The next day, hundreds of angry protesters gathered once again outside the precinct house, facing off against lines of officers who occasionally fired tear gas and rubber bullets. Nearby, a white man, who wore a gas mask and carried an umbrella, began calmly breaking the windows at an AutoZone with a hammer. Within hours, the AutoZone went up in flames.
That night, the mayor asked for the Minnesota National Guard to help the city. He left the police to handle the details of the deployment since he believed they had the right expertise.
Assistant Chief Mike Kjos acknowledged “some confusion” over the level of detail required.
“It was a rapidly evolving situation,” he said. “We thought we could put a request in and while the people are arriving, we could be formulating what to do.”
In addition, city leaders did not understand how much time it can take for the citizen soldiers of the National Guard to leave their normal jobs, report for duty, collect their gear, and travel to Minneapolis.
“We expected them to be on site right then and there,” said Alondra Cano, a City Council member, who participated in a “prosecute the police” campaign in college and now heads the council’s public safety committee. Like Frey, the vast majority of Minneapolis City Council members are relatively new to governing. Five took office in 2018; another five in 2014, including Cano.
As Wednesday night wore on, buildings up and down Lake Street burst into flame.
“This whole neighborhood could burn down tonight,” Jamie Schwesnedl, co-owner of Moon Palace Books, a bookstore near the police precinct house, remembered thinking as he spent the night on his roof watching buildings around him burn. “I just can’t believe that the city hasn’t anticipated this or responded to it in any kind of proactive way.”
Schwesnedl, who has long believed that the police caused more problems than they fixed, said city leaders should not have been caught off guard by the level of fury.
“It was clear to me on Tuesday morning that this was a big deal,” he said. “This wasn’t just people were going to come out and protest on Tuesday and go home. This is, people are furious and traumatized and unemployed and they have been inside for 2 1/2 months.”
Firefighters wanted police escorts to protect them from rioters as they battled the flames, and so they held back. Residents did what they could with garden hoses.
‘My District is Burning’
As the sun came up on Thursday morning, many in the city hoped that the worst had passed. But later that day, as peaceful protests continued elsewhere, an angry crowd gathered once again outside the police precinct house.
That afternoon the local district attorney said his office needed more time to investigate before charging officers for Floyd’s death. Frey decided to pull officers off the street outside the 3rd Precinct building in a bid to de-escalate tension. But it had the opposite effect, according to Patricia Torres Ray, a state senator from Minneapolis who represents the district, a racially diverse area that has seen increased development in recent years. Looters broke into the liquor store across the street from the police precinct house and handed out bottles to the crowd.
“People were getting drunk,” she recalled. “The mayor told me that he had this under control,” she said of her brief phone conversation earlier in the day with Frey, who had yet to visit the embattled police precinct. As night fell, smoke began to billow from more buildings. Torres Ray panicked. She called the governor and begged him to intervene.
“I need help. My district is burning,” she said she told Walz. “I do not see the plan of the city to address it. His answer was ‘Senator, I am on my way.’”
Walz was surprised that the city had still not given state officials details on what the National Guard should do.
“I don’t know what the plan is and absolutely I’m not going to wait for the city to tell me what the plan was.” he said. “I thought, ‘They have lost control.’”
A few hundred soldiers with the National Guard, along with members of the state patrol, arrived in Minneapolis late Thursday night. But they didn’t go to the police precinct. Instead, the Minneapolis Police Department had asked them to escort firetrucks, and to protect the Federal Reserve and Nicollet Mall, an upscale mall.
But things were spinning out of control in the neighborhood around the precinct house. Nearly every building around it had been vandalized, looted or set on fire. Neighbors banded together to protect their own property, since 911 dispatchers were overwhelmed. “Do not put yourself at risk to protect our store,” Schwesnedl posted on the Facebook page of Moon Palace Books. “Your life is priceless, just like George Floyd’s.”
At about 10 that evening, a few hours after Frey appealed for calm on Rachel Maddow’s show on MSNBC, the crowd outside the police precinct house breached the doors. Faced with the possibility of hand-to-hand combat, the mayor gave orders to evacuate the building.
“We were faced with these fail fail fail options,” Frey said. “We were literally having to choose between preventing additional looting, protecting a precinct and providing escorts to firefighters to put out fires. There was no way we could do all three.”
Officers left the compound in a phalanx of police vehicles. The crowd cheered and set the building on fire. A horrified Walz took charge of the effort to restore order in the city. Hours later, the National Guard arrived.
In the weeks since the police precinct burned down, at least three men, aged 22, 23 and 26, who were unfamiliar to protest organizers have been arrested and charged with aiding and abetting arson.
Frey, who once campaigned on the idea of putting the city in the news for the right reasons, is vowing to rebuild what was destroyed and put something better — and more equitable — in its place.
“I think we are turning a page,” he said.
Those affected by the fires are tallying what was lost and trying to move forward. Town Talk Diner, which had fed the neighborhood since 1946, so long that its iconic teal sign had been added to the list of historic landmarks, was first looted that Wednesday night, then burned to the ground Thursday night.
“Unthinkable and surreal,” Kacey White and Charles Stotts, the husband-and-wife team who own the restaurant wrote on Facebook. “Brought down by a mighty blaze, the old bright sign illuminated for the final time, in the wee hours, from the flames that surrounded her.”
The headquarters of Migizi, a nonprofit that runs programs for Native American teens, was destroyed by fire just one year after the group raised $1.6 million to purchase and renovate it. “It hurts to see hard work, dreams and spirit — yes spirit — go up in flames,” the staff wrote in a statement. “We will rebuild!”
But the owner of the factory, 7-Sigma, which employed 50 people, announced that the company was moving away because city leaders failed to protect the plant. The company’s Facebook page has been inundated with offers from around the country to welcome the new factory. “Rebuild in Dickinson ND,” one wrote, promising that businesses there were protected, not burned down.
Schwesnedl, of Moon Palace Books, intends to keep his business in the neighborhood, although he admits that area looks “a little bit like Dresden,” the German city flattened during World War II.
Of the mayor, Schwesnedl said he keeps hearing him talk about feelings. “I think it’s really good to have someone in public leadership talk about feelings, but we also need him to talk about policy,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to have his job right now.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.