The greatest challenges for leaders never come when times are good. They come when society is at its most imperiled.
We are in such times right now in Minnesota. By Friday, swaths of Minneapolis and St. Paul lay in ruins after three days of protest, riot, unrest, looting, arson and vandalism.
Early Thursday, the Editorial Board described the test facing state and civic leaders. By Friday morning, it must be said bluntly, it was clear they had fallen short. Mayor Jacob Frey did take some bold action following the death of George Floyd, promptly working with his police chief to fire the officer who knelt on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes while he lay face down, struggling to breathe, as well as the three other officers involved in the arrest.
But it was not hard to foresee that would not be enough, that in a city and country with a long history of rocky relations between police and communities of color, Floyd's death could set off a powder keg.
Where were the plans that should have already been in place at every level — city, county and state — to deal with prolonged civil unrest? Such episodes are not unknown in American history. As Frey himself said at one point, the issues here have been brewing in this country for 400 years.
Would the carnage of the last few days have been avoided? Perhaps not. But the sight of looters and arsonists pillaging stores at will has shaken the confidence of many that law enforcement is capable of maintaining the peace. It has also tainted the very real grief felt over the tragic loss of life.
To then have the destruction continue for days, culminating in the abandonment of the city's Third Precinct headquarters on Thursday is unimaginable. Frey's flawed calculation, that "the symbolism of the building cannot outweigh the importance of life," was puzzling. What it did was signal that lawlessness would reign once police fled, leaving businesses and residents on their own.
Among the many victims: Migizi Communications, a nearby nonprofit serving Native American youth for decades. Its new facility, which was considered a sacred space, was trashed, along with precious historical archives. American Indian Movement members attempted to protect the building, but were called off after the city warned that gas lines to the abandoned precinct might be cut.
Much of the damage in the last few days was to property rather than people. But the damage was deep, costing already fragile communities businesses and assets that took years to build.
Gov. Tim Walz on Friday, along with leaders from the Minnesota National Guard, State Patrol and Department of Public Safety, said that requests for assistance from Minneapolis and St. Paul came late and in some instances, lacked the clarity needed to act. But it's worth noting that Frey told a Star Tribune reporter on Wednesday that he'd asked Walz for Guard support.
When the State Patrol moved in after midnight Thursday, there was another bungle: State troopers cuffed and arrested a CNN crew in the middle of a live shot. It's incredible that Walz, Frey and St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter seemingly weren't on the same page until the violence overwhelmed both cities Thursday night.
Asked what the plans for Friday night were, Walz said at a morning news conference that they would be forthcoming and that "there will be no lack of leadership tonight." But there were few details, speaking again to a seeming planning void. Later Friday, former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin was charged with third-degree murder, and curfews were ordered in both cities.
Every crisis is different. No response is perfect, and understanding must be extended to those who are given little time to make excruciating decisions. And yet, that is the job, and citizens have a right to expect foresight, planning and clear communications from their leaders — along with course corrections.
Early Friday, ordinary Minnesotans took to the streets to exercise their own leadership: fixing, cleaning, patching, helping restore their communities as best they could. They did so while depending on elected leaders to do their jobs — restoring safety and, even more importantly, making the often-talked-about, seldom-executed changes that will avoid similar events in the future.