The residents of one south Minneapolis apartment building started desperately warning one another with shouts and pounding a little before 4 a.m. Saturday as the city suffered through perhaps the worst night in its history.
“Our neighbors were banging on all the doors and screaming, ‘Fire, fire, fire,’ ” said Catharyne Bryant, who lives with Brandon Byers in the building near the intersection of Nicollet Avenue S. and W. 35th Street.
“My reaction was get my cat and get out,” she added.
Immediately next door, separated by only a few feet, a building containing O’Reilly Auto Parts and a Family Dollar store was on fire — one of hundreds that burned as a third night of riots and unrest spread to more neighborhoods in Minnesota’s largest city.
Lizz Brazen was awake and following the news when she realized the Fond du Lac building was in imminent danger. She jumped right to notifying neighbors instead of bothering to call 911, then helped organize teams of residents to wet down the apartment building with garden hoses and buckets.
“Because we knew no one was coming for us,” Brazen said.
What started as demonstrations in response to the death of George Floyd after being restrained by Minneapolis police last Monday had mutated by Friday night and Saturday morning into widespread arson, looting and violence. For some, it was a night of abject terror as calls to 911 failed to deliver help.
The worst of the violence started after nightfall despite an 8 p.m. citywide curfew, even though former officer Derek Chauvin had been charged with murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death earlier in the day. The neighborhoods around Lake Street and Nicollet Avenue became one focal point as groups of protesters converged on the Fifth Precinct Police Station.
Gov. Tim Walz, at a news conference Saturday morning, said that “the situation in Minneapolis is no longer in any way about George Floyd.” He pinned responsibility for the worst violence and arson on what some officials believe are organized groups from outside the city looking to accelerate mayhem and lawlessness.
Facing widespread criticism for the lack of law enforcement and National Guard support, Walz said those instigating the violence were random in choosing targets and quick to adapt to changing conditions.
“When you’re a force of good or law and order, you play by the rules,” Walz said, promising an unprecedented mobilization of the full Minnesota National Guard in an attempt to calm the situation. “When you are bent on destruction and harm and chaos, you don’t have to do that. And it makes it very, very difficult.”
As the chaos ramped up, residents like Byers who found themselves adjacent to burning businesses were forced to flee homes, some with children or pets, some quickly grabbing a few vital documents or keepsakes.
“Pray for Lake Street tonight,” Minneapolis Council Member Alondra Cano tweeted just before 10 p.m. Friday as she reported that a gas station at the corner of Lake Street and Park Avenue was on fire.
About 40 minutes later she tweeted: “If we don’t send National Guard to Lake and Park now people are going to lose their houses to the adjacent fire.”
Cano followed up later to report that firefighters finally made it to the scene and brought the flames under control. She said she’d been told National Guard soldiers had all been deployed to a different part of the city.
By Saturday, reeling and shellshocked Minneapolis residents were holding meetings in city parks and at neighborhood intersections, sharing safety tips and making new connections as they braced for what’s ahead, wondering if they can count on their government for protection.
The residents of the 26-unit building at 35th and Nicollet found out early Saturday that they could not. Several saw fire trucks and police cars speed by, lights flashing, as flames leapt from the O’Reilly and Family Dollar stores.
“There’s only so many emergency responders that can go around,” Brazen said. She said it’s too early to cast blame: “There will be time for that later. Right now we need to take care of one another.”
For a time, several building residents said, the fire seemed to die down. But they believe they saw several people come back to relight it. Firefighters finally showed up about 5:30 a.m., said Elly Underwood, another resident who evacuated with her cat and a few mementos.
“They were very apologetic about not being able to get here sooner,” she said.
The apartment building never caught fire — “the wind was on our side,” Underwood said — and residents were back inside later Saturday morning. Underwood said she was deeply touched to see neighbors of all races work together to protect the building.
“Minneapolis does care about its neighbors,” she said. “We are a great community, and I can’t wait to move beyond this and keep living in Minneapolis. I love this city.”