DULUTH – Police Chief Mike Tusken said in his 28 years on the force, he's never seen civil disobedience like what Duluth saw on Saturday in response to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
But after one night of unrest in Duluth, Sunday evening was relatively calm — a stark contrast to ongoing riots in the Twin Cities that have now stretched on for days.
On the sunny Saturday afternoon, more than 1,000 marched peacefully downtown, protests that longtime residents called unprecedented.
As dusk fell and turned into night, offshoots of those protests grew increasingly rowdy and violent. Duluth police deployed tear gas to disperse a crowd of dozens at the Kwik Trip on the corner of W. Superior Street and W. 28th Avenue after officers heard shots fired early Sunday morning.
Seven adults and four juveniles were arrested Saturday on a variety of charges, including assault of a police officer and felony rioting. Fights broke out, fireworks popped, and two cars were set on fire in a parking lot on Central Entrance.
Tusken said 101 officers, including some from the St. Louis County Sheriff's Office and the Superior Police Department, were deployed across the city Saturday night. Duluth Mayor Emily Larson imposed a curfew that started at 10 p.m. and lasted until 6 a.m. Sunday.
Despite those efforts, Tusken said when a faction of protesters switched from marching on foot to speeding around in vehicles, the situation became more difficult to manage. It has been years since Duluth police used tear gas for crowd dispersal purposes, he said.
"If citizens were frustrated by the time or delay of our response, it was truly due to resources," Tusken said at a news conference Sunday.
Earlier in the evening, protesters marched on Interstate 35, blocking for several minutes a portion of the major roadway near downtown Duluth. Officers wearing helmets and face shields stood shoulder to shoulder, some with batons in hand, containing the crowd to an overpass while redirecting traffic.
The protesters — now a group of about 100 — then marched peacefully through downtown, waving signs and chanting as they walked up the city's hillside in the direction of Miller Hill Mall.
"Our voices are silent. It's time to be heard," said Lachelle Hayes, a 19-year-old from Duluth. "You can't fix a system that wasn't built correctly."
Officers eventually tracked what seemed to be the largest remaining contingent of a few dozen to the West Duluth Kwik Trip around 11 p.m.
Tusken said police gave protesters three warnings that they planned to deploy tear gas after objects were thrown at officers.
"You've made your point — go home," an officer said on a speaker.
But the protesters did not leave. Around 1 a.m. Sunday, officers hurled several gas canisters, scattering the crowd. The area was cleared, save for a slight haze from the gas, within 15 minutes.
Duluth imposed a curfew Sunday night, but the city was much quieter. A police spokesperson said Monday morning that there were no large crowds of protesters, though a few individuals were arrested for defying officers' orders. According to the St. Louis County Jail roster Monday, three men were being held for charges of violating the curfew.
On Monday morning, Larson posted on Twitter saying the city is considering whether extend its curfew another night "for safe keeping."
All of those arrested Saturday live locally, barring one individual from Minneapolis. Officials have been monitoring rumors that out-of-town agitators were heading to Duluth, as police say some have in the Twin Cities, but on Sunday Larson said "that is not what we saw last night."
Police said they've received preliminary reports of eight properties damaged across the city — mostly broken windows and spray painting. An anti-police expletive marred the ground beneath the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial, which honors three black men lynched by an angry Duluth mob 100 years ago after they were falsely accused of raping a white woman.
That vandalism was a turning point Saturday, when Larson said it appeared protesters were choosing chaos.
"A sense of outrage and anger spilled onto the floor of a national treasure and asset that tells the story of deep pain and anguish already laid bare," the mayor said.
On Sunday, the city was cleaning up the memorial, the starting point for the prior day's organized peaceful protests — separate from the smaller group involved in the more chaotic night events.
Jordon Moses was organizing a slate of events to honor Clayton, Jackson and McGhie this June, but they were postponed to 2021 due to COVID-19. Moses said he's moving to Minneapolis before they happen; after 11 years of living in Duluth, he's frustrated by the lack of change he feels is needed.
"This city really struggles. Both the culture and the formal institutions have struggled to really support black and brown people," he said.
Moses was one of the hundreds that marched down First Street, from the memorial to Duluth's City Hall, where people knelt for nine minutes — the amount of time Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis officer now charged with third-degree murder, knelt on Floyd's neck.
"This protest did feel different," Moses said in the afternoon, noting that the peaceful event was pulled together by young community members. "It felt more vocal, more energized. I hope this energy continues."
Staff writer Brooks Johnson contributed to this report.
Katie Galioto • 612-673-4478