Thousands of Minnesota National Guard members and law enforcement officers from all over the state swarmed the streets of Minneapolis and St. Paul as night fell Saturday, quelling some of the unrest that had destabilized the state’s two largest cities for several days.
They were on foot and in police cruisers, military Humvees and helicopters, fanning out to try to disperse crowds, to stop looting and violence before it began across both cities. They used tear gas and projectiles and handed out curfew violations instead of waiting to contain unrest.
By Sunday morning, Gov. Tim Walz was hailing a night of restored, if not fragile, order in the Twin Cities. Sunday into Monday loomed as an immediate test of whether that could hold, with huge crowds still out demonstrating and frequent tense flare-ups.
Walz thanked “our neighbors and our public servants” for a night that passed without fatalities and minimal property damage, the result of what he called “the most complex public safety operation in our state’s history.”
Col. Matt Langer, chief of the Minnesota State Patrol, said officers, working under the orders of the governor, were trying to function in “a dynamic, dangerous situation,” wearing heavy gear and helmets, with bottles of gas or urine and other things being thrown at them.
“These aren’t particularly pretty actions that we take,” Langer said.
Law enforcement officials said they were prepared to repeat their efforts Sunday night and into the coming days if needed.
Some tactics drew criticism as authorities moved aggressively to clear streets and break up large groups, with some peaceful demonstrators and, in a few cases, journalists arrested, tear-gassed or injured.
Michelle Gross, the president of Communities United Against Police Brutality, spoke Sunday at a news conference outside the State Capitol with leaders from a coalition of civil rights groups.
Gross said she understood the harm inflicted on the cities by the riots, but said that the death of Floyd and others like him was a greater tragedy than property damage. She took issue with characterizing the law enforcement intervention as a success.
“This was a police crackdown by the very same forces that killed George Floyd, and many people before that,” Gross said. “They might call this order. But it sure as hell isn’t justice.”
Crowds of demonstrators swelled again Sunday at spots throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul, including the Capitol and U.S. Bank Stadium. Protests spilled onto Interstate 94 earlier and thousands marched on I-35W in the early evening.
Walz issued an order for an 8 p.m. curfew for the third night in a row.
As protests spurred on by Floyd’s death and concerns over police violence spread to American cities large and small and even to Europe over the weekend, Walz said a move back toward order in Minneapolis and St. Paul would give its leaders more room to respond to what he called systemic problems that enabled Floyd’s death.
A National Guard force of 700 on Friday night had grown to more than 4,100 either on patrol, or ready to be, by Saturday night into Sunday morning.
The effort included officers, agents and support personnel from the State Patrol, Department of Natural Resources, police departments and sheriffs’ offices from throughout Minnesota, with assistance from the FBI, the U.S. Attorney and U.S. marshal offices.
The State Fire Marshal’s Office and DNR, using aviation support, geared up a fire protection mission, with helicopters dipping buckets into Lake Nokomis and dumping the water on burning cars. But unlike the previous two nights, Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington said, fire didn’t turn out to be a major problem Saturday night or Sunday morning.
“We did not allow the rioters to get set up, and we kept the rioters moving,” Harrington said. “At every opportunity we arrested rioters for violations of the curfew.”
Adjutant General Jon Jensen said the Guard executed 19 separate missions in support of law and order operations, fire response and EMS support.
“I’m impressed and inspired by these men and women who in just a few short hours left their lives as civilians, schoolteachers, business owners, mechanics, truck drivers, and in a very short period transitioned into the role of citizen soldier, citizen airman,” Jensen said.
By Sunday afternoon, the state reported more than 155 arrests from the previous night, a number that could grow as more arrests are processed. Charges include curfew violations, rioting, weapons possession and narcotics possession.
Harrington said law enforcement teams scrambled quickly to act on intelligence about trouble spots and suspicious people or groups, often received directly from community sources.
About a quarter of the arrests were of people not from Minnesota, Harrington said, which contradicted what Walz and other leaders said a day earlier when they suggested up to 80% of violent demonstrators came from outside the state.
Walz said the state was receiving lots of information, and admitted that he may have been overly optimistic in his hope that it wasn’t Minnesotans doing the worst damage. He said it was most important to acknowledge that Floyd’s death in Minneapolis is what prompted the demonstrations in the first place.
Still, Walz emphasized the highly organized nature of the groups involved in the vandalism, theft and destruction, including what he called a cyber “denial of service” attack on state computer systems.
“That’s not somebody sitting in their basement,” he said.
Authorities said they would review scattered complaints of excessive force, including an incident involving several people sitting on their front porch in south Minneapolis who were seen on video being targeted with marking rounds fired by riot police or soldiers yelling at them to get inside. “Light ’em up!” one of the officers yelled.
“This is unacceptable,” Minneapolis City Council President Lisa Bender tweeted.
Walz and the mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul faced criticism Friday and Saturday for not more quickly ramping up the law enforcement response as riots escalated over several nights.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, the Legislature’s top Republican, on Sunday praised the state’s response after calling it insufficient for the several days previous.
“Last night there was finally a plan, and it was executed very well,” Gazelka said.
Walz said deciding when to move and with what level of force was a delicate balance. The scale of the logistics was also complicated, he said.
Another dynamic was also a factor, Walz said: “A community that is raw from law enforcement. Keeping in mind that the spark that lit this was law enforcement killing an innocent man on the street.”
Patrick Condon • 612-673-4413