Peaceful protests, fires and looting coincide at 31st & Nicollet

A crowd of about 1,000 peacefully protested in front of the 5th Precinct headquarters while around them small groups of arsonists and looters destroyed the Wells Fargo bank and other businesses. Photo by Isaiah Rustad

A large-scale protest entered Southwest Minneapolis for the first time around 9 p.m. Friday evening, with a peaceful crowd of more than a thousand people breaking curfew to gather outside the 5th Precinct headquarters at 31st & Nicollet in anger over George Floyd’s death Monday after being choked by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. 

Nearby, small groups of people looted and set fire to a U.S. post office branch, a Wells Fargo, a Stop N Shop gas station and the Atlas Staffing employment agency, releasing billows of heavy black smoke into the air. Protesters backed up from the gas station out of worries it would explode. A nearby Office Depot was also looted. 

A little before midnight, 350 State Patrol troopers used tear gas to quickly clear the 31st & Nicollet intersection of protesters, with people fleeing into residential neighborhoods and law enforcement marching through the streets of Southwest as looters ransacked the city on an unprecedented scale.

Officials are now saying that outside organizers, including white supremacists groups, have hijacked the protest movement in the past few days, causing most of the damage. “People have come from outside of our community and/or state to wreak havoc and take advantage of our pain and burn us to the ground,” said Angela Conley, the Hennepin County Commissioner for District 4. “Last night was tactical and methodical destruction carried out by outsiders.”

Mayor Jacob Frey pledged to mobilize “the largest force in Minnesota history” to quell the uprising.

“This is about violence, and we need to make sure that it stops,” he said. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic right now. We have two crises that are sandwiched on top of one another.” 

During the protest in front of the 5th Precinct, most participants wore face masks, though there was little social distancing. 

Jake Armato, a Northeast Minneapolis resident with a little EMT training, taped a red cross on top of a yellow safety vest and prepared to offer first-aid to protesters; he said he’s treated about 100 people for injuries from rubber bullets and tear gas and for panic attacks. 

Armato was at the 3rd Precinct Thursday night and described the atmosphere at the protests as “not what you’d expect” from watching the news. “It’s very jovial — cathartic rage toward the police, but almost like a party,” he said. 

While the vast majority of protesters were peaceful, the crowd was mostly tolerant of looters, though some were told off.

“George Floyd was lynched during a plague,” Armato said. “That’s state violence, and it’s been happening for years. So of course people are looting everything.”

Jessica Turner came to the protest from Champlin with her husband, Jeff, who grew up near 31st & Pillsbury and attended Lyndale Elementary and Southwest High School. 

“I’m with my people, whatever they want to do, however they want to do it,” she said as the Wells Fargo ATM burned across the street. “I’ve got to keep my eye on that! Has any building exploded down here yet?”

Jeff Turner said it’s sad to watch the destruction, but the 3rd Precinct had it coming because of its history of corruption and racism.

When he was a teenager, he said, he was sitting at the bus stop in front of the Blaisdell Avenue White Castle. 

“A cop pulls up, and I remember we made eye contact and I laughed,” he said. “I had saliva in my mouth, and it came out when I spit. I literally just spit on the ground. He went through the drive-through parking of the White Castle, came back around and made us all stand up — asking what I was laughing at. He put our hands on the hood of his car. … Imagine what was going through our heads.” 

After school, Turner worked as a night manager at the Uptown Rainbow Foods, where he would have to call police when there were shoplifters. Turner said he remembers officer Chauvin, who was arrested and charged with third-degree murder on Friday.

“He was one of the weird, kind of ready-to-go ones,” Jeff Turner recalled.

“When consumers would come in, suspected of stealing, he wanted to take them into jail, but he didn’t have to, he could have just written this person up for trespassing,” his wife added.

“Even with a minor charge, it was like ‘I’m going to f–k up a person’s life forever,’” he said.

Photographer Isaiah Rustad surveyed the scene around the 5th Precinct: