It had been several weeks since he had seen his daughter. So Bryce Williams, a 26-year-old former basketball star at a small Minnesota college, picked up 2-year-old Kinley and took her to a playground.
Williams had just returned from a two-week road trip in the days after George Floyd's death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, joining a documentary film crew that started in Los Angeles and toured protests nationwide. The trip was invigorating. As a biracial man growing up in Minnesota, Williams had always struggled with identity. The protests gave him purpose. It was as if a lifetime of struggles to reconcile his Blackness finally burst out as he spoke at racial justice protests at every stop.
At the playground, Williams pushed Kinley on the swings. She slid down the slide. The whole time, though, something felt off. Like people were watching.
As they walked home, a dozen or so police cars roared up. Officers jumped out with guns drawn. Kinley screamed. Her mother — Williams' co-parent and ex-fiancée, seven months pregnant with their second child and living in Staples — sprinted to retrieve her. Williams had no idea what was going on until an officer told him: He was being arrested on federal charges of conspiracy to commit arson. Months later, he would plead guilty to a charge that will give him up to five years in federal prison.
Later, Williams would admit he was at the arson of Minneapolis' Third Precinct station but claim he wasn't a primary actor: "I never physically burned down anything. I never physically lit anything."
But according to law enforcement, Williams was not a passive observer. As Williams had traversed the country, investigators pieced together images from his TikTok account and media reports and matched them with surveillance images. They surmised Williams had been at the forefront — that he had helped others light and throw a Molotov cocktail, and that he had thrown a box on the fire.
According to prosecutors, Williams shared in the blame for the most searing moment of May's unrest, which terrified residents and caused more than $500 million in damages, including to many businesses owned by immigrants. But the deeper symbolic effect of a police station on fire — a fire that endangered police officers and would cost some $10 million to replace — continues to linger, even into January's riot at the U.S. Capitol by extreme right-wing insurrectionists.
Each side of America's deepening political divide painted what happened after Floyd's killing in its own way: "The riots," one side called it. "The uprising," said the other side. The politicized terminology has one thing in common, implying deeper motives by the most violent actors of those days of anarchy.
Except Bryce Williams does not fit neatly into those extreme labels. He is no activist at all; in fact, he has never even voted. He laughs at labels put on him, that he must have been either a white supremacist or "antifa." He sees himself as more diplomat than fighter.
Williams has a much more mundane explanation: He is a regular guy who got caught up in a moment.
Here's who Bryce Williams says he really is: He's the second-oldest of four, whose white mother had him at 17, who doesn't know his Black biological dad but whose stepdad, who is also Black, has been in his life since he was a year old. The most trouble he got in as a kid was for throwing snowballs at cars. He came of age in Christian organizations like Awana and Athletes in Action, and he has a chest tattoo of a crucifix and Philippians 4:13: "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."
He loved basketball so much he would shovel snow at Fridley's Madsen Park so he could put up shots. He attended five colleges in five states, chasing basketball dreams and eventually getting a business management degree from University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
"I didn't even graduate high school," his mother said. "He really broke family barriers."
He is careful with this wardrobe, from a sherpa jean jacket to pristine Jordan 6 Rings Nike sneakers. His prior criminal record had only speeding and parking tickets.
He's also soon to be a felon. In March, a judge will determine his fate.
A couple of weeks before Williams' arrest, as the Twin Cities convulsed with peaceful protests and violent rioting, a crowd of hundreds gathered outside the Minneapolis Police Department's Third Precinct building. "Burn it down!" the crowd chanted. Officers evacuated, and the building went up in flames.
Williams was there, broadcasting it all on social media. Later, he'd say he got caught up in the moment: The excitement of protests and riots, the notoriety of his TikTok account blowing up to some 150,000 followers. The next morning, as the sun rose on a smoldering Twin Cities, he boarded a flight to Los Angeles for a previously planned trip to help a relative retrieve a car. Instead, he connected with the filmmakers.
After his arrest, he sat in jail, isolated, worried he'd be scapegoated for all the violence. He vomited every morning. He assumed he would miss his son's birth in August.
But the portrait of him as some anarchic arsonist just isn't the case, Williams says. Yes, he was there, and yes, he would eventually become the first to plead guilty in the arson. (Three others have since pleaded guilty.)
Williams will not discuss the specifics of what he did or did not do that night. "Yes, I regret being there," he said. "It's not who I am, not how I want to be represented. As a person, would I take it back? Yeah. … I don't believe that building should have ever been burnt down. Ever."
Yes, things got out of hand those nights — dangerously out of hand. In a bigger sense, though, perhaps being in the thick of weeks of protests was exactly where Williams needed to be.
"George Floyd helped me figure out who I am, 100%."
"He grew up Black in white spaces," said his mother, Angela Williams.
His childhood was typical of suburban Minnesota. Bryce was the leader of a group of boys in a townhouse complex in Shoreview, climbing trees, making forts and riding dirtbikes. Family members had cabins Up North, and Williams grew up fishing for walleye on Lake Mille Lacs. But race shadowed a childhood that was often a quest to fit in.
His mother tells of going to her stepgrandfather's house for Christmas when Williams was a year old. All the kids got gifts except Bryce. His mother's white stepgrandfather made a racist joke: "I don't hate Black people. I think everyone should own one." His mother never returned.
In elementary school in Mounds View Public Schools, Williams says he was "the poor Black kid." He built friendships through sports. He was so dedicated to basketball that he'd play for 10 straight hours at the Coon Rapids YMCA.
By middle school the family had moved to Fridley. White friends would joke around and call him a racial slur. He knew they were joking but it still stung. It was around then when he started hanging out with students of color: "I was the intermediate between both crowds," he said.
As a star guard for Spring Lake Park High School — a crafty lefty shooter who modeled his game after Chris Paul and Ray Allen — he felt caught in a subtle but always present racial divide. Once, he got invited to a rich white kid's house in Blaine. He asked to bring his Black teammates. "Just you can come," the white friend replied. "And then," Williams recalled, "my Black friends would be like, 'OK, you're leaving us so you can go hang out with them?' " When he played country music in his car — he loves Florida Georgia Line and Rascal Flatts as well as Tupac and Drake — he'd switch to hip-hop if Black friends teased him.
He feels his race subtly affected his life. Like when he and his girlfriend were pulled over driving to a Christmas party in Brainerd; officers said his car smelled like weed, so they put him in the squad car and searched his car. (They found nothing and let him go.)
A pivotal moment came after high school, when he joined the Minnesota National Guard and went to basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C. Shortly before completion, he got in trouble for calling his mother. Cellphones are strictly forbidden, so Williams was told to either go home or start over. He went home. Soon he was on a basketball scholarship at Northeast Community College in Norfolk, Neb.
It is a decision he regrets.
"I probably would have still been in the Army full time if that hadn't happened," he said. "Just one little thing that trickles down so much."
On the evening the Minneapolis police station burned, Angela Williams knew her son was there. "Get home before it gets dark," she texted.
She awoke to a photo Bryce had texted her of him holding a Molotov cocktail.
She berated him. "This goes against his character," she said later. This was a man who once delivered 50 pizzas to homeless people. "It's like something snapped in his heart."
His first call from jail was to his mom. He said he was sorry, knowing he'd let her down. "I was just sad as hell," he said.
The months since have been a roller coaster. He was released on strict conditions. He lost 20 pounds during a stressful summer. He couldn't sleep. He lost close friends. One friend said Williams could no longer be a groomsman in his wedding. People made death threats on Facebook.
His son was born: Kalix Ezekiel, which means "God strengthens." He's working as a leasing agent for a St. Paul property management company, but he'll lose that job when he's officially a felon.
With time and prayer, he came to peace with what he did.
He blames himself, though he blames the system as well: "There were four officers that hadn't been arrested for killing a man when they easily could have just put him in the back of the police car. None of this would have ever happened. Know what I mean?"
He regrets what he did. But he also knows it's complicated, like everything about these chaotic times in America.
"Riots are the language of the unheard," Williams said. "That's what Martin Luther King says. And he's not saying he condones or approves of riots. He's saying riots happen because people who cause riots are being oppressed and aren't being heard. It was just the last straw, I guess."