This is what it feels like when the Twin Cities — when our cities — go up in flames: The air is noxious and gritty after days of fires. Bits of dirt and dust, of smoke and debris, float down into your eyes. The closer you get to the destruction, the more the smell clings to you, a combination of sulfur and spent fireworks and — if near the St. Paul NAPA Auto Parts store that by Friday was a smoldering heap of twisted metal — a skunky chemical odor.
There are no buses, with mass transit suspended at least through Sunday. Spray-painted signs are ubiquitous: “JAIL KILLER COPS,” “WE WANT COPS IN CUFFS,” “PLEASE DONT BURN KIDS LIVE UPSTAIRS.” As if marked by Passover blood, business owners signal why looters or arsonists should spare their storefronts: “SMALL BUSINESS,” reads one Japanese restaurant in Lyn-Lake. “MINORITY OWNED,” says a convenience store on Eat Street. “BLACK OWNED! WE’RE TITHERS!,” at a hair salon on East Lake Street.
Across the Twin Cities, from the areas far removed from this week’s protests to the areas most devastated by this week’s destruction, the physical and psychic toll of these erupting emotions in the daytime and these lawless horrors at night bear a heavy weight.
It is a city under siege.
It is a city filled with anger and sadness and fear and, yes, love, love that comes out during the daytime after destruction reigns at night.
The looted Target near the abandoned Third Precinct station still has a cheerful sign — “We’re hiring, starting at $13.00/hr” — but now Minnesota National Guard troops bisect E. Lake Street to keep people away from the protests’ destructive epicenter. Disaster tourists taking selfies near stone-faced soldiers mingle with hundreds of volunteers, armed with just brooms and dustpans, sweeping up broken glass.
On Lake Street, a skeleton of a brick building smoldered near a couple of National Guard Humvees. Da’Ray Sherow of St. Paul reflects on the ruins with ambivalence. These disturbances — protests, looting, riots, whatever you want to call them — had led to the arrest of police officer Derek Chauvin, Sherow believes. But that doesn’t mean all this anarchy is justified.
“It’s pain coming out. It’s not logical,” says Sherow, who is black. “My heart goes out to the people who lost property and the people who don’t have access to food and the people who have to rebuild this community.”
A ladder truck douses an apartment fire above a Foot Locker Friday afternoon. The smoke drifts toward Midtown Global Market, an international food and craft bazaar in what had been a vacant Sears building — a testament to the progressive international city that Minneapolis aspires to be. By Saturday morning, evidence of unrest has kept spreading, even as normalcy keeps popping up amid the chaos: People mowing lawns, going for bike rides, drinking coffee on their porch.
The Twin Cities seem to have two faces: One when the sun is up, a face of good and of kindness, of powerful protests against George Floyd’s death and of thousands of volunteers working to clean up their city. A more menacing face comes after nightfall, when looting and arson and riots — a vast majority, said Gov. Tim Walz, sparked by people from out of state — bear little resemblance to the meaningful, powerful protests of just hours before.
Chris McPherson works for the owner of a strip mall south of Lake Street. On Saturday morning, the parking lot is full of volunteers cleaning up debris, and McPherson appears dazed by it all.
“The bakery right there, that’s a [Hispanic] family. They’ve been running this business for years. And it’s just ruined them,” McPherson said. “The same with the Chinese restaurant — it’s a mom-and-pop. The laundromat, mom-and-pop. It’s just unbelievable.”
Nearby stands Camilo Ramos, owner of Sol Travel on Lake Street, which he started about 20 years ago. The check cashing and money transfer business, which caters to the local immigrant community, is in disarray. His storefront has been looted three times this week. He cleaned it up and boarded the business Friday. He arrived Saturday to find looters had returned and lit a fire, which set off a sprinkler system. He is holding off cleaning up the latest mess, unsure what the next night would bring.
“I’m very sad this week,” he says.
It is not lost on Twin Cities history buffs the sad irony of where has seen the brunt of the looting and arsons and riots. E. Lake Street is perhaps the city’s most vibrant immigrant business corridor, recently designated by the city as a cultural district and this week called “a precious jewel of our state” by state Attorney General Keith Ellison. The University Avenue corridor in the Midway neighborhood is St. Paul’s equivalent: A bit less small business-y, a bit more strip mall-y, but with the same flavor of aspirational immigrant- and minority-owned businesses lifting themselves up.
On University Avenue, volunteers bag up broken glass, black soot and debris. At the ransacked and torched Sports Dome, the only things left after the roof collapsed are bricks and twisted metal bars.
“I’m really hurt because this our hood, this our city,” says Latimah Abdullah, who is cleaning up with her son, Massiah. “That police officer should be in jail, because if it was a black man that black man would be in jail right now. So I feel the pain, I feel the hurt. But at the end of the day it didn’t have to be like this.”
At the Laundry Place on University Avenue, building manager Jim O’Meara nails boards to windows. He is angry: Angry about George Floyd’s death, angry at looters and arsonists whose destruction bears little resemblance to the ideals of the protests. The night before, looters broke into the laundromat, busted up the ATM and tried to light fires. A neighbor chased them off.
In the morning, though, O’Meara manages to see some goodness.
“The first we saw this morning after all the questionable people left were ladies and men with brooms and dustpans, people coming through that were cleaning the streets,” he says. “Never seen anything like that before. Ever.”
A woman is passing out homemade cookies. Boxes of Diet Cokes and Sprites sit outside Magic Noodle restaurant, and a sign: “FREE For All Angels.” A man with a rifle slung over his shoulder and a pistol strapped to his waist walks past: “I kicked them out a million times last night!” the man shouts to O’Meara. “They almost burned it twice.”
The man’s name is Mahar Safy. His family owns Midway Tobacco and Vapor in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood plus seven more shops around the Twin Cities. On Thursday night, after their insurance company said rioting wasn’t covered, he and 10 family members spent all night patrolling the store. Every few minutes, one circled the building, shooing people away. “Come and shoot me!” one rioter yelled at him. But Safy didn’t shoot, and they all went away, and his was one of the few untouched businesses in the neighborhood.
Safy has been through this before. He is a Palestinian from the West Bank. This week’s riots in Minnesota were not his first riots. But he never imagined — having moved to America more than two decades ago — that he’d be emptying his stores of inventory and risking his life to protect the family business.
“It was up to us to take control,” Safy says. “If we weren’t here, this building would have been burned for sure.”
Early Saturday morning, St. Paul was more quiet than the night before, but Safy heard one of their stores on Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis was being broken into. Several armed family members headed over there. They stayed for the night and patrolled the whole strip mall, sparing it from the nearby violence.
And on the drive between the two cities, between Minneapolis’ epicenter of the chaos and St. Paul’s, you see an American flag at a gas station. The flag is at half staff. It feels entirely appropriate, and for every reason.
Staff writeers Matt McKinney, Eric Roper, Maya Rao contributed to this report.