As fires burned across Minneapolis on Friday night and protestors mourned the murder of George Floyd, neighborhood watch volunteers found three white teenagers looting Skol Liquors, a few blocks from the city’s scorched Third Precinct. The volunteers worked for American Indian Movement Patrol, one of several community groups trying to keep peace in the city. The volunteers had permission from Mayor Jacob Frey to protect Native land, an organizer said. When they spotted the looting, AIM Patrol rounded up the teenagers, had them lie on the ground with their arms out, and then posted their photos to Facebook, along with a video of the encounter. They also called the boys’ parents — in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, a 90-minute drive from Minneapolis.
As people in the Twin Cities woke up to a devastated city this weekend, state and local officials pushed the idea that the damage was mostly perpetrated by outsiders — a notion that has a long and fraught history in global protest movements. While the Wisconsin teenagers were one small data point supporting that claim, other solid evidence was lacking. And by Saturday night, officials were forced to walk back their claims, after local reporters reviewed arrest records and found that most of the people arrested on Friday and early Saturday in Hennepin County were in fact Minnesota residents.
At a press conference on Saturday morning, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said that every person arrested on Friday in his city came from out of state — a statement that jibed with remarks from Frey and Gov. Tim Walz. The Minnesota Fusion Center, part of a network of intelligence-sharing agencies created in the wake of 9/11 that in the past have monitored Black Lives Matter, Occupy, and Standing Rock protesters, claimed that as many as 75,000 “agitators” were en route to the state, according to the Star Tribune.
After reporters combed over arrest records, though, Carter took back his comment, saying that he’d been given inaccurate information by the police. “Saying they’re outside forces is not to deflect and say we don’t have a problem,” Walz said at a press conference Sunday morning, after reporters asked him about the misinformation.
But that is how such claims have historically been used. The notion that violence is perpetrated by outsiders is one that has cropped up in every major protest movement, from the U.S. civil rights movement on. It has been pushed at past demonstrations in the Middle East; Ferguson, Missouri; at the Standing Rock Reservation in the Dakotas; and most recently by the Chinese government in Hong Kong. For some critics, blaming outsiders is a way of distracting from protesters’ legitimate demands. At a rally at the Minnesota state capitol on Sunday, speakers pointed out that burning buildings could be replaced. It was justice that they wanted.
For some critics, blaming outsiders is a way of distracting from protesters’ legitimate demands.
What was clear in Minneapolis this weekend, however, was that the protests, while centered on Floyd’s killing, had taken on other political dimensions. At a demonstration of thousands of people on Saturday afternoon, Derrick Stevens suggested that some of the actions, slogans, and spray-paint tags suggested that people with other motivations were becoming involved. “There are other people involved in this protest that have their own agenda,” said Stevens, who works as the production manager for the local radio station The Current.
Frey and Minnesota public safety Commissioner John Harrington blamed white supremacists. President Donald Trump offered up a different culprit. “It’s ANTIFA and the radical left,” he tweeted.
On the streets in Minneapolis, though, a palpable anger was still directed at the police. A second video of the Floyd killing had emerged online showing three officers sitting on Floyd as he took his last breaths — not just Derek Chauvin, the officer charged with third-degree murder. “This is the result of the Minneapolis police murdering that young man,” said Frank Paro, co-director of the AIM, which formed in 1968 in response to police brutality. The neighborhood in south Minneapolis where Floyd was killed is the urban heart of the Minnesota Native community. Paro added: “This is Indian land. This is our community.”
Paro, who is helping coordinate American Indian Movement Patrol’s efforts, sat on a folding chair outside Pow Wow Grounds, a coffee shop on Minneapolis’s East Franklin Avenue, as masked volunteers streamed past carrying donated food. Before the protests, the area had already been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic and a tanking economy. Now, it has lost all of its grocery stores to looting. As Paro explained how the patrol network operates, a man fled the Dollar General across the street with a bag of loot. The store had boarded up the windows, but someone had apparently neglected to lock the door. “That guy just opened that door up!” Paro shouted. He jumped into his car, which had a sign taped to the door reading “AIM PATROL,” and drove across the street, where he parked outside to ward off other potential perpetrators.
Others pointed out that Trump had escalated matters by inciting hate, disparaging the protests as a whole and seeming to give a green light for violence against demonstrators. Charles Anderson, a local demonstrator, raised the disparity between Trump’s treatment of the so-called reopen protests and demonstrations against police killing. The protests calling for reopening the country have frequently featured armed white men rallying outside public buildings — including Minnesota’s statehouse. “He said that they were very good people,” said Anderson. “And then he says we’re thugs.”
On Friday, Trump tweeted, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” a phrase with a racist history. Anderson said that response was a dog whistle to the president’s racist supporters to mobilize. “That was a call for people to come to Minnesota — this is where it’s coming down,” said Stevens. “It’s, you know, ‘Let’s start some shit.’”
Throughout the weekend, local groups continued to organize peaceful demonstrations, including one that gave immunocompromised people the option to drive in. Outside the house of the local prosecutor, Hennepin County Attorney Michael Freeman, people danced to N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police” and talked about the issues underlying discontent, like the lack of affordable housing and segregated school districts. Elsewhere in the city, people hauled around mops and buckets and scrubbed graffiti off the walls of local businesses or swept water out of flooded businesses.
As the weekend wore on, State Patrol and National Guard troops streamed into the city. The Minnesota National Guard tweeted on Saturday night that they were “moving toward 10,800” troops in the area. On Friday and Saturday nights, there were reports of law enforcement tear-gassing journalists and medics, as well as demonstrators. One Twitter user posted a video of National Guard troops marching through a residential neighborhood and firing projectiles at local residents watching from their own porches. “Light ’em up!” one officer shouts in the video, before the residents flee indoors. In one instance of a rash of attacks against the press, a freelance photographer was shot in the eye by what she believes was a rubber bullet fired by police and is unlikely to recover her vision.
Minneapolis residents watched as the escalating protests against police brutality were in turn met by police brutality. In the LynLake area of Minneapolis, Alyssa Flandrick and Chris Jones said they watched from their apartment windows at around 1 a.m. on Friday night as law enforcement officers pulled a couple from their car, shot them with rubber bullets, and then shot the tires of the car. “These people in these cars were innocent people, driving, trying to go home or whatever they were doing,” said Flandrick. A day later, the car was still blocking the center of the street and another resident was directing traffic.
People in the building had also witnessed looters setting fire to dumpsters, rounding up bicycles and dumping them in a truck, and crashing a car into a pole on their block. Yet law enforcement’s show of force was what most upset them. Jones was nursing a bruise caused by a rubber bullet, from a demonstration he had attended the night before.
Some fear that police use of force creates a vicious cycle that can lead to more chaos. “What I fear is if a law enforcement personnel kills another person, it’s just going to reignite it,” said Paro, the AIM organizer. AIM Patrol called off rounds Saturday night after National Guard troops flooded Minneapolis streets, according to the website Indian Country Today.
Stevens, the local radio production manager who saw the protesters’ motivations broadening, fears the focus could be pulled away from police killings of black people. “I really hope that we don’t allow the focus to shift,” he said, “because that’s the reason why the anger and frustration and hurt was put out there in the first place — because we watched a man die on film.”