SURRENDER: How Minneapolis voluntarily relinquished its streets to a mob of vandals, thieves, and arsonists
The video of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis on Memorial Day is sickening. There is no way that arresting a man for an alleged minor infraction should involve a police officer putting his knee on that man’s neck for nearly eight minutes while he cries out, “I can’t breathe” and then goes silent. The police are there to maintain law and order and protect the public. Those laws apply to the police, and George Floyd was a member of that public.
George Floyd’s death was bound to provoke a strong reaction, especially as relations between police and African Americans have been particularly fraught in recent years.
The peaceful protests that followed saw people exercising their rights under the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Authorities should protect that constitutional right as doggedly as any other. It is an indispensable part of a free country.
But these protests were shoved off the front pages by four nights of violence in the Twin Cities that spread across the country and even across the planet. Time and again, city and state governments failed in their central task of protecting life and property. They failed people across the cities, disproportionately those in lower-income neighborhoods with large immigrant communities, who saw their homes and livelihoods destroyed by mobs. And they failed George Floyd by allowing the peaceful protests in his name to be hijacked and overwhelmed by looting and rioting.
Why did the authorities—particularly Jacob Frey, the 38-year-old rookie Minneapolis Mayor, and Minnesota Governor Tim Walz—fail so spectacularly? Is it because they couldn’t do anything to prevent the cities sliding into chaos, a worrying enough possibility in itself? Or is it because, out of sympathy with even the more extreme elements responsible for this mayhem, they wouldn’t act as needed?
An examination of the events of those four days in May reveals the total failure of city and state officials.
Tuesday, May 26
Shortly after Floyd’s death at 9:25 p.m. on Monday, May 25, a video of his arrest began circulating on social media and quickly went viral.
Frey called a 6:45 a.m. news conference with Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo. “What we saw was horrible,” said Frey, who appeared on the verge of losing control of his emotions. “Completely and utterly messed up.” He added, “Being black in America should not be a death sentence.” Walz followed suit, issuing a statement at 9:46 a.m. “The lack of humanity in this disturbing video is sickening,” he said. “We will get answers and seek justice.”
The FBI had joined the Minneapolis Police Department investigation at 3:11 that morning, and at 11 a.m., the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office launched an investigation into possible criminal charges.
During the afternoon, hundreds of protesters blocked traffic at the intersection of 38th and Chicago Avenue South, near the Cup Foods store that called in the original police complaint against George Floyd. By that evening, the crowd of protesters, now numbered in the thousands, marched to the Minneapolis Police Department’s Third Precinct station at Minnehaha Avenue South and Lake Street East. It began peacefully, but as the evening wore on, some protesters tore down fences, smashed windows, attacked squad cars, and threw water bottles at officers. After police responded with rubber bullets and tear gas and rain began to fall, demonstrators eventually fell back.
Wednesday, May 27
Tensions remained high after the confrontation at the Third Precinct. During a Wednesday morning news conference, longtime Minneapolis civil rights activist Spike Moss pleaded for protesters to keep their cool. “You have to be patient and strong and be determined with the rest of us,” he said. “You don’t have to waste your life in the street, go to jail, get shot down. Understand people here care enough about you to fight for you is the reason this press conference is so important.”
But, instead of echoing calls for calm, Frey used his own morning press conference to pour fuel on the smoldering embers. Disregarding the fact that Minneapolis police officer Mohamed Noor was not arrested and charged for eight months following the 2017 shooting death of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, Frey demanded Officer Derek Chauvin’s immediate arrest. “We watched for five whole, excruciating minutes as a white officer firmly pressed his knee into the neck of an unarmed, handcuffed black man,” he said, emotional once again. “If you had done it, or I had done it, we would be behind bars right now.” Frey, a former lawyer, declined to say what specific charge he wanted to see brought against Chauvin.
Frey’s outburst prompted Hennepin County investigators to issue a sharp rebuke against the Mayor, warning him against violating Chauvin’s right to due process. “In order to bring charges and obtain a guilty verdict, there are very specific parts of the law which must be met in prosecuting any crime of violence,” the Hennepin County Attorney’s office statement read. “The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is working as quickly as possible to gather the necessary evidence, and we will expeditiously review the case when we receive the case file and make our decision.”
Hamline University political science professor and author David Schultz argues Frey missed a critical opportunity on Wednesday morning to get out in front of the agitators bent on exploiting protesters for their own aims.
“There is no question that there is a legitimate space and place for appropriate First Amendment expression and mourning. No one doubts or debates that,” Schultz said in an email. “The problem we saw was that when it became clear after the first night [that] protests might turn bad or that there might be some provocateurs involved who wanted to exploit the situation, more decisive action needed to be taken. I am not arguing for a military presence or crackdown, but an earlier call for a curfew or more decisive action to condemn looting and violence was needed.”
Up to now, Walz had been keen to use the coercive power of the state government to enforce his anti-COVID-19 measures. But as of his Wednesday press conference, Walz’s ban on large gatherings effectively disappeared. Instead, he warned protesters to be careful. “I was saddened to see that some of the protesters were in harm’s way last night,” he told reporters. “And I just want to encourage everyone to be safe, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and thank the protesters for their commitment to safely protest during this pandemic.”
The protest continued through the day, again starting at 38th and Chicago Avenue South and moving on to the Third Precinct. There, the crowd became more violent. Bottles and rocks rained down on the Third Precinct building. Around 6:00 p.m., officers used rubber bullets, tear gas, and flash-bang rounds to disperse the rioters, but the violence simply escalated. Somebody set fire to the AutoZone on East Lake Street, and a crowd of at least 100 people started looting a nearby Target store. Video circulated of looters punching a woman in a wheelchair. A pawnshop owner shot and killed a man who he allegedly thought was burglarizing his business. The violence continued throughout the night. Rioters ignited fires and looted stores all the way to Uptown. Arsonists set at least 30 fires along the way, including a towering blaze that gutted a six-story affordable housing apartment building still under construction. A thick curtain of smoke lingered over Lake Street as dawn broke on Thursday morning.
Thursday, May 28
On Thursday, Frey declared a state of emergency in Minneapolis, and the Minnesota National Guard deployed 500 troops to the Twin Cities area.
But even this sparked no immediate urgency in the authorities’ attempts to gain control of the situation. Instead, Frey and Arradondo decided early that afternoon to “significantly reduce our footprint in the Third Precinct,” Frey said later. “We also decided early that the option to vacate the Third Precinct needed to be on the table as a way to both help de-escalate and prevent hand-to-hand combat.”
Walz later confirmed that he had received real-time briefings on Thursday that Frey was openly considering abandoning the Third Precinct station. It marked another missed opportunity to step in to prevent the complete break- down of law and order that soon left the Governor no choice but to take command and control belatedly.
“I will assume responsibility,” Walz admitted the next day. “I, if the issue was the state should’ve moved faster, yeah, that is on me.”
As the day progressed, looting and rioting spread along University Avenue into St. Paul. The St. Paul Police Department said that thieves and arsonists looted and damaged more than 170 businesses. Fires continued to burn early on Friday morning, with the largest one at Big Top Liquor near Snelling and University avenues. As with Lake Street the previous night, lower-income, minority neighborhoods bore the brunt of the rioters’ assault.
Just like his Minneapolis counterpart, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter failed to anticipate and contain the intensifying violence.
Former U.S. Senator and St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman took to Facebook to decry the ineptitude of the two mayors. “As rioters—criminals disguised as protesters—drove through the streets of their city terrorizing law-abiding citizens— Frey and Carter were silent,” he said.
Rioters repeated the previous day’s pattern in south Minneapolis. They massed at the Third Precinct building, and that evening torched nearby buildings on two sides. When they tore down fencing surrounding the facility, police responded with tear gas. “[A]t roughly 9:25 p.m.,” Frey explained later, “when it became clear we needed to divert resources from the Third Precinct to help provide a response to activity downtown, I made the decision [to abandon the Third Precinct]. I notified the Chief, then the Governor shortly after.”
As Thursday turned into Friday, worried Minnesotans were glued to continuous live local television coverage of the mayhem. They watched as a mob of thieves and arsonists now apparently governed the streets of Minneapolis. They were hard-pressed to find any police or the fire department anywhere on the scene, undoubtedly forced to abide by the Mayor’s dictate that they run away. The coverage was interrupted by an early-morning news conference convened by the haggard-looking Minneapolis mayor.
One reporter asked Frey, “What’s the plan here?” Frey struggled to answer.
At around midnight, Frey finally requested the National Guard’s help in restoring order around the Third Precinct. The state formally assumed control, and forces began to enter the city. Still, the contingent of several hundred from the State Patrol and National Guard didn’t actually begin to retake ground until around 3 a.m.
Friday, May 29
One puzzling question raised by the unprecedented devastation is why Walz, a 23-year veteran of the Minnesota National Guard, failed to decisively deploy the national guard units, whose capabilities he was so familiar with, much sooner. Yet this isn’t the first time Walz has faced controversy over deployment issues with the Minnesota Army National Guard. When Command Sergeant Major Walz faced certain call-up for duty in Iraq with the 1-125th Field Artillery Battalion in 2005, he retired to run for Congress. Walz’s departure left his unit without its senior Non-Commissioned Officer at a critical time, according to two other officers. “For Tim Walz to abandon his fellow soldiers and quit when they needed experienced leadership most is disheartening,” retired Command Sergeant Majors Thomas Behrends and Paul Herr wrote in a West Central Tribune op-ed.
Friday got off to a chaotic start when troopers arrested CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez and his crew live on air. Police released Jimenez before 7 a.m., and Walz personally apologized to the network’s president. CNN reported: “The governor of Minnesota just showed what leadership in a crisis looks like.” With the state now in control, Friday would show Minnesotans exactly what that leadership meant.
Walz began his Friday morning press conference by validating anger towards the police: “The very tools that we need to use to get control, to make sure that buildings aren’t burned and the rule of law collapses, are those very institutional tools that have led to that grief and pain.”
He then launched a stinging attack on Frey’s “abject failure” in handling the crisis. Major General Jon Jensen, adjutant general of the Minnesota National Guard, explained that guardsmen under his command had been mustered that evening and were awaiting orders—which should have come from Frey—but no orders came. Walz explained that he deferred to local officials, stressing his fears that the sight of the Guard—soldiers with Humvees in combat fatigues—might further inflame the situation.
“That was the turning point,” Walz said of the fall of the Third Precinct, “where we were prepared, and that’s where we moved in, and we did not believe the Third should be given up and that area was taken back.” He went on: “If this would have been executed correctly, the state would not lead on this.”
Looking to Friday night, Walz adopted a Churchillian pose: “You won’t see that tonight,” he promised. “There will be no lack of leadership and there will be no lack of response on the table.” When asked if he would consider imposing martial law, he said, “Certainly, all those tools are there.” That afternoon, Walz declared an 8:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. curfew for both Minneapolis and St. Paul that would be in effect on Friday, May 29 and Saturday, May 30.
The Governor’s deeds did not match his bravado. Charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter brought against Chauvin that afternoon did nothing to calm the protests
and crowds assembled as they had on previous days. When the 8 p.m. curfew arrived, no one attempted to enforce it. Rioters quickly repeated the pattern of previous nights. “Heaping violent contempt on an 8 p.m. curfew declaration and on widespread pleas for forbearance and peace, rioters rampaged across Minneapolis for a fourth night Friday and into early Saturday, creating unprecedented havoc as they set towering fires, looted and vandalized businesses and shot at police officers,” the Star Tribune reported.
A crowd gathered outside the Fifth Precinct, chanting and throwing fireworks at the building. Fires erupted across the city’s south side, including at a Japanese restaurant, a Wells Fargo bank, and an Office Depot. Many burned for hours, with firefighters unable to reach them because the areas weren’t secure.
“This is a very difficult night for everybody in Minnesota, everybody in Minneapolis and St. Paul,” WCCO- TV reporter Pat Kessler said on the air. “We’ve watched these protests grow, and I think one of the big questions is why isn’t the city of Minneapolis and St. Paul stepping in, why isn’t the state stepping in to stop this violence?”
As the violence spiraled, the authorities’ ability to coordinate a response collapsed. State Representative Aisha Gomez tweeted that she and a fellow state representative had “spent 90 minutes trying to get a gas station fire put out. A basic city service. When I have time and our community isn’t burning I will explain the dizzying game of jurisdictional hot potato we experienced.” Minneapolis City Council member Jeremiah Ellison tweeted: “I did not want to defy curfew, but I also do not understand the plan and no one can explain it to me.” And later: “Communication among officials is not fluid, to say the least. I am trying to get answers re: national guard/MPD. MFD is over north successfully putting out fires.”
The government had collapsed in Minneapolis once again, this time under the leadership of Governor Tim Walz.
Finally, just before midnight and into early Saturday, hundreds of police officers, state troopers, and National Guard troops, some in armored vehicles, fanned out into troubled areas, confronted rioters with mass force, tear gas, and orders to disperse, issued via bullhorn. Their efforts belatedly restored some order, but not before rioters exacted much more damage.
At 1:30 a.m., Walz and Frey held an emergency press conference. Gone was the confidence of the morning. Frey and Walz—who had been lauded for his leadership by CNN just that morning— looked and sounded like broken men, baffled that their repeated statements in support of the protests had brought them no goodwill on the streets. They begged rioters to stop wrecking the cities. “You need to go home,” Walz pleaded. “If you have a friend or a family member that
is out there right now, call them and tell them to come home,” Frey implored.
“It is not safe. It is not right,” he added, leaving immediately after finishing his remarks and before any journalists could question him.
Sounding a desperate note, Walz repeatedly said that the sheer size of the crowds and intensity of the violence had been so shocking that there was no way for authorities to anticipate or prepare
for such an onslaught—this, after three nights of rioting. With the force on the streets now three times what it was during the 1960s race riots in Minneapolis, Walz wailed: “There are simply more of them than us.” In a far cry from the bullishness of a few hours previously, “What you see tonight will replicate tomorrow unless we change something in what we’re doing.” Minnesotans watching at home understood the reality that their state government wasn’t going to protect them. Indeed, in armed groups in affected areas, many had already decided to defend themselves.
Minnesota’s media, usually a sympathetic audience for its politicians, was unimpressed. Ryan Faircloth of the Star Tribune tweeted: “Lots of wishful comments from Gov. Tim Walz and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey. But no clear plan of action detailed for how they will stop riots in the coming days, other than saying they are doing everything they can.” David Montgomery of MPR News tweeted, “The thought that I can’t get past: this is the *fourth* night of protests in Minneapolis. Despite having a huge coordination edge over the decentralized crowds, and despite being able to learn from past nights, government forces have been repeatedly unable to get an edge.”
MINNESOTA – FAILED STATE
Couldn’t or wouldn’t—this is the crucial question. Were city and state authorities unable to protect Minnesotans from the destruction wrought by rioters? Is our government truly that powerless? Or, instead, were they unwilling to apply the force necessary to protect the lives and property of the citizenry?
Early Saturday morning, the Guard announced it had just enacted the most massive domestic deployment in its 164-year history: More than 1,000 additional citizen-soldiers and airmen would now join the 700 that had been on duty the day before. That number was soon increased to a mobilization of 2,500 personnel by midday on Saturday. “The governor just announced the full mobilization of the Minnesota National Guard for the first time since World War II,” Jensen said. “What does that mean? It means we’re all in.”
It had taken four nights of unprecedented rioting to force this decision on the Governor. His action came too late to save the destroyed homes and livelihoods for many in south Minneapolis or St. Paul. Protests continued, but the night of Saturday/Sunday passed in relative calm, demonstrating what Walz could have accomplished had he acted earlier.
“Once the violence began, any effort to ‘understand’ it should have stopped, since that understanding is inevitably exculpatory,” wrote Heather Mac Donald, a Manhattan Institute expert on policing who’s familiar with the Minneapolis Police Department. “The looters are
not grieving over the stomach-churning arrest and death of George Floyd; they are having the time of their lives. You don’t protest or mourn a victim by stealing oxycontin, electronics, jewelry, and sneakers.”
Why didn’t Walz act sooner? Recall his words in the Friday morning press conference: “The very tools that we need to use to get control, to make sure that buildings aren’t burned and the rule of law collapses are those very institutional tools that have led to that grief and pain.” Recall, also, how on Thursday, he respected a sentiment of some that the sight of the Guard—soldiers with Humvees in combat fatigues—might further inflame the situation, as if it could have been further inflamed. Quite simply, Walz didn’t want to act.
Why not? Fundamentally, Walz, Frey, and much of the rest of the city and state leadership agree with the protesters’ aims. But they struggle to differentiate between the protesters exercising their First Amendment rights and the hardcore troublemakers looking for violence.
An example of this struggle manifested itself on Saturday morning as Walz, Frey and Carter all sought to pin responsibility for the mayhem on “white supremacists” and “out-of-state instigators.” At a press conference, Walz said: “I think our best estimate of what we heard are about 20 percent are Minnesotans, and 80 percent are outside.” Frey said: “I want to be very, very clear…The people that are doing this are not Minneapolis residents. They are coming in largely from outside of this city, outside of the region.” St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said: “Every single person we arrested last night I’m told was from out of state.”
Arrest records showed that this was totally false. Of the 45 people arrested for rioting, unlawful assembly, stolen property, burglary, or robbery in Minneapolis on May 29 and May 30, 84 percent (38 people) had Minnesota addresses, according to publicly available jail records. It was a similar story in St. Paul. Of the 18 people arrested between Thursday and Saturday morning, 67 percent (12 people) were from Minnesota. When Walz was confronted with these numbers on Sunday and asked about his claim that the vast majority of agitators were from out of town, he said that he wanted it to be true.
The brutality and senselessness of MPD Officer Derek Chauvin’s excessive use of force caught on camera guaranteed there would be a widespread, emotional reaction that would drive thousands to the streets to exercise their legitimate First Amendment right of free expression. Not that the protests that broke out the day after George Floyd’s death were inevitably going to turn violent.
Yet once violence did erupt, the devastating riots, looting and arson that gutted vast swaths of Minneapolis and destroyed sections of St. Paul were all but inevitable. Not because the level of danger exceeded authorities’ capacity to maintain law and order, but rather due to the indecisiveness, ineptitude, inexperience and ideology of the three highest-profile elected officials in Minnesota state and local government—Governor Tim Walz, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter.
John Phelan is an Economist at Center of the American Experiment. He is a graduate of Birkbeck College, University of London, where he earned a BSc in Economics, and of the London School of Economics where he earned an MSc. John has written for City A.M. in London and for The Wall Street Journal in both Europe and the U.S. He has also been published in the journal Economic Affairs.
Tom Steward is Center of the American Experiment’s Government Accountability Reporter, where he focuses on government waste, spending, transparency and policy issues. He is a veteran broadcast journalist, documentary filmmaker and communications strategist. His television and radio special reports and documentaries were broadcast on local, national and international media outlets.