Protesters angered by the death of George Floyd, a handcuffed black man who died while in police custody, gained access to a Minneapolis police precinct on Thursday, the third straight night of violent protests spreading beyond the city.
Livestream video showed the protesters entering the building, where fire alarms blared and sprinklers ran as blazes were set. Police appeared to have left the building located in the neighbourhood not far from where Floyd died Monday. A spokesman didn’t immediately respond to messages left by The Associated Press.
In footage recorded by a bystander, Floyd can be seen pleading that he can’t breathe as Officer Derek Chauvin, who is white, kneels on his neck. As minutes pass, Floyd slowly stops talking and moving.
Dozens of businesses across the Twin Cities were boarding up their windows and doors Thursday in an effort to prevent looting, with the Minneapolis-based Target announcing it was temporarily closing two dozen area stores. Minneapolis shut down nearly its entire light-rail system and all bus service through Sunday out of safety concerns.
In St. Paul, clouds of smoke hung in the air as police armed with batons and wearing gas masks and body armour kept a watchful eye on protesters along one of the city’s main commercial corridors, where firefighters also sprayed water onto a series of small fires. At one point, officers stood in line in front of a Target, trying to keep out looters, who were also smashing windows of other businesses.
Hundreds of demonstrators returned Thursday to the Minneapolis neighbourhood at the centre of the violence, where the nighttime scene veered between an angry protest and a street party. At one point, a band playing in a parking lot across from the police’s 3rd Precinct, the focus of the protests, broke into a punk version of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” Nearby, demonstrators carried clothing mannequins from a looted Target and threw them onto a burning car. Later, a building fire erupted nearby.
But elsewhere in Minneapolis, thousands of peaceful demonstrators marched through the streets calling for justice.
Earlier Thursday, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz called in the National Guard to try to stem the violence.
Floyd’s death has deeply shaken Minneapolis and sparked protests in cities across the U.S. Local leaders have repeatedly urged demonstrators to avoid violence.
“Please stay home. Please do not come here to protest. Please keep the focus on George Floyd, on advancing our movement and on preventing this from ever happening again,” tweeted St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, who is black.
Erika Atson, 20, was among thousands of people who gathered outside government offices in downtown Minneapolis, where organizers had called a peaceful protest. Many protesters wore masks because of the coronavirus pandemic, but there were few attempts at social distancing.
Atson, who is black, described seeing her 14- and 11-year-old brothers tackled by Minneapolis police years ago because officers mistakenly presumed the boys had guns. She said she had been at “every single protest” since Floyd’s death and worried about raising children who could be vulnerable in police encounters.
“We don’t want to be here fighting against anyone. We don’t want anyone to be hurt. We don’t want to cause any damages,” she said. “We just want the police officer to be held accountable.”
Hennepin County Sheriff David Hutchinson said the rally had been peaceful and there had been no arrests by late evening.
The governor’s order did not say how many Guard members were mobilized or whether they would be in service Thursday night. After calling in the Guard, Walz urged widespread changes in the wake of Floyd’s death.
“It is time to rebuild. Rebuild the city, rebuild our justice system and rebuild the relationship between law enforcement and those they’re charged to protect,” Walz said.
Much of the Minneapolis violence occurred in the Longfellow neighbourhood, where protesters converged on the precinct station of the police who arrested Floyd. In a strip mall across the street from the 3rd Precinct station, the windows in nearly every business had been smashed, from the large Target department store at one end to the Planet Fitness gym at the other. Only the 24-hour laundromat appeared to have escaped unscathed.
“WHY US?” demanded a large expanse of red graffiti scrawled on the wall of the Target. A Wendy’s restaurant across the street was charred almost beyond recognition.
Among the casualties of the overnight fires: a six-story building under construction that was to provide nearly 200 apartments of affordable housing.
“We’re burning our own neighbourhood,” said a distraught Deona Brown, a 24-year-old woman standing with a friend outside the precinct station, where a small group of protesters were shouting at a dozen or so stone-faced police officers in riot gear. “This is where we live, where we shop, and they destroyed it.” No officers could be seen beyond the station.
“What that cop did was wrong, but I’m scared now,” Brown said.
Others in the crowd saw something different in the wreckage.
Protesters are shot with pepper spray as they confront police in Minneapolis, Minn., on May 27, 2020.STEPHEN MATUREN/GETTY IMAGES
Protesters destroyed property “because the system is broken,” said a young man who identified himself only by his nickname, Cash, and who said he had been in the streets during the violence. He dismissed the idea that the destruction would hurt residents of the largely black neighbourhood.
“They’re making money off of us,” he said angrily of the owners of the destroyed stores. He laughed when asked if he had joined in the looting or violence. “I didn’t break anything.”
The protests that began Wednesday night and extended into Thursday were more violent than Tuesday’s, which included skirmishes between offices and protesters but no widespread property damage.
Mayor Jacob Frey appealed for calm but the city’s response to the protests was quickly questioned as things started spiralling into violence. “If the strategy was to keep residents safe – it failed,” City Council Member Jeremiah Ellison, who is black, tweeted. “Prevent property damage – it failed.” On Thursday, he urged police to leave the scene of the overnight violence, saying their presence brings people into the streets.
But Eric Kowalczyk, a police captain in Baltimore during the Freddie Gray riots in 2015, generally supported the Minneapolis police strategy to avoid confrontations with protesters when possible, saying heavy-handed police responses are only met with more violence.
“Nobody wants to see their city on fire, but at the same time, you don’t want to see citizens injured by the very police department they are protesting,” he said.
Protests also spread to other U.S. cities. In California, hundreds of people protesting Mr. Floyd’s death blocked a Los Angeles freeway and shattered windows of California Highway Patrol cruisers. Memphis police blocked a main thoroughfare after a racially mixed group of protesters gathered outside a police precinct. The situation intensified later in the night, with police donning riot gear and protesters standing shoulder-to-shoulder in front of officers stationed behind a barricade.
Amid the violence in Minneapolis, a man was found fatally shot Wednesday night near a pawnshop, possibly by the owner, authorities said.
Fire crews responded to about 30 intentionally set blazes, including at least 16 structure fires, and multiple fire trucks were damaged by rocks and other projectiles, the fire department said. No one was hurt by the blazes.
There was no sign of police at the destroyed shopping centre, although a couple dozen officers were outside the precinct house. One man standing outside the building used a bullhorn to shout “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe. Mama, I can’t breathe,” repeating some of Mr. Floyd’s pleas for relief.
Across from the precinct, someone had spray-painted the sidewalk in red: “Where’s humanity?”
The 46-year-old Mr. Floyd died as police arrested him outside a convenience store after a report of a counterfeit bill being passed. The U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI in Minneapolis said Thursday they were conducting “a robust criminal investigation” into the death and making the case a priority. The announcement came a day after U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted that he had asked an investigation to be expedited.
The FBI is also investigating whether Mr. Floyd’s civil rights were violated.
The officer who knelt on Mr. Floyd and three others were fired Tuesday. The next day, the Mayor called for him to be criminally charged. The Mayor also appealed for activation of the National Guard.