Peaceful demonstrations against the police for the killing of George Floyd turned to looting and fires across Minneapolis on the night of May 27, 2020. So far, 13 people are facing arson-related federal charges. Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer
Three days after the police killing of George Floyd, a 22-year-old from Brainerd allegedly threw a Molotov cocktail at the Minneapolis Police Third Precinct.
The next day, a Mankato resident was arrested and charged with third-degree burglary from a boarded-up St. Paul Walgreens. A few days later, a Grand Marais resident and two Austin residents were charged with curfew violations in St. Paul.
At least 127 people are facing charges related to the unrest after Floyd’s death, according to a Reformer review of all unrest-related charges filed so far by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Hennepin County, Ramsey County, the city of St. Paul and the city of Minneapolis. The vast majority of people charged are Minnesota residents — but fewer than half live in Minneapolis or St. Paul.
During the days of peaceful protests and nights of arson and destruction following Floyd’s death, one question baffled Minnesotans: Who’s to blame?
Six weeks later, an answer to that question may be a long way off.
Few of the people charged — if any — so far seem to fit the profile of the organized, politically motivated criminals and provocateurs that Minnesota officials initially claimed were responsible for the mayhem.
A handful of charges have been filed in connection with the burning of the Minneapolis Police Third Precinct, but the suspects were so inept they boasted about their activities on social media, often sharing video of themselves committing the acts, according to the charges.
No charges have been filed related to the destruction along Lake Street, where dozens of businesses were looted or burned, including restaurants, a U.S. Post Office and Native American nonprofit MIGIZI. The person dubbed “umbrella man,” captured on video smashing the windows of an Auto Zone — outfitted with a mask and umbrella despite the sunny weather — also doesn’t appear to have been charged yet.
Of the 127 people charged so far, 13 are facing federal arson-related charges.
All but one of the 13 are Minnesota residents. Two live in the Twin Cities, and others drove from as far away as Brainerd and Staples to throw Molotov cocktails at the Minneapolis Police Third Precinct, charging papers say.
Another 24 people are being prosecuted by Hennepin County or Ramsey County for lesser felony charges like burglary. All but two live in Minnesota, and just over half are from either Minneapolis or St. Paul.
Although St. Paul has charged nearly 90 people with misdemeanors like curfew violation, Minneapolis has yet to file charges against any of the 512 people arrested or cited for misdemeanors related to the unrest. The city attorney is still reviewing cases to decide which to dismiss and which to charge, a Minneapolis spokesperson said.
The search for an answer to the question of blame became contentious immediately during the protests, and justifiably so given the long-term political ramifications. Assigning blame to villains and acclaim to heroes would encase the narrative in stone. Was it white supremacists? Was it Antifa? Was it local hooligans who wanted to burn and loot?
From the answer to the question of blame would come political action and public perception.
No one understood this more than Gov. Tim Walz, who said on the morning of May 30 that the chaos that had swept the Twin Cities for the third night was the work of outsiders.
Organized criminals from out-of-state who wanted to destroy Minneapolis, he said, were responsible for the fires and destruction that damaged more than 1,500 buildings, reducing some to little more than piles of rubble and broken glass.
The mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul repeated this line, even as police records showed most of the people arrested were Minnesota residents. Walz walked back his comments the next day: “Candidly, I want to believe it’s (outsiders),” he said. “It can’t be Minnesotans. It can’t be Minnesotans who’ve done this.”
“While investigators work to determine who was responsible for arson and property damage, Gov. Walz remains focused on working with the Legislature to rebuild communities and pass meaningful legislation on police accountability and reform into law,” Walz spokesperson Teddy Tschann said in a statement.
Minnesota Senate Republicans are also keenly aware of the importance of assigning blame. Earlier this month, they held oversight hearings ostensibly dedicated to uncovering who caused the fires and looting, even as lawmakers’ negotiations on police reform stalled. Critics charged that the hearings were less about fact-finding and more about election-year politics.
Local officials initially blamed extremists. Reports of white supremacists roaming neighborhoods abounded on social media. But none of the filings reviewed by the Reformer allege that the individuals charged had political motivations or extremist connections. Nor do they seem to describe particularly shrewd criminals.
In addition to the people facing felony charges who boasted about their activities on social media, another was charged with third-degree burglary only after refusing to leave a parking lot when officers released him. A duo was arrested after police saw their car — containing bottles of isopropyl alcohol, an empty mason jar box and an empty lighter fluid bottle — near the burning Dakota County Service Center. Police located the car’s keys on the ground nearby, then found the men near the building.
In the end, unless and until investigators make more progress, Minnesotans are still left to ask, who is to blame?
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