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UMN students, community members respond to the Minneapolis riots

Amid Minneapolis unrest, a community is mourning and students of color are left grieving, but inspired.
A burned-out car remains the morning after a second night of protests where dozens of businesses were vandalized near the Minneapolis Police 3rd Precinct on Thursday, May 28. 
Image by Jack Rodgers

A burned-out car remains the morning after a second night of protests where dozens of businesses were vandalized near the Minneapolis Police 3rd Precinct on Thursday, May 28. 

Following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers earlier in the week, dozens of protests occurred around the Twin Cities. What started out as a peaceful march from the scene of Floyd’s death to the Minneapolis 3rd Precinct building Wednesday evening later turned violent – police clashed with demonstrators and area businesses were vandalized and damaged.

Some of the University of Minnesota students in attendance at Wednesday’s protests were greeted with flashbang-grenades and tear gas.

University senior Emerson Uhlig said he and his friends eventually arrived at the Minneapolis Police Department 3rd Precinct building in South Minneapolis. There, they saw a “barricade” of officers in riot gear and were surrounded by smoke – which they quickly found out to be tear gas. 

Uhlig said he remembered police shooting rubber bullets into the crowd. While some protestors looted the nearby Target, others sat peacefully on the ground with signs in hand, trying to breathe through the thick fog of tear gas. 

“I saw one man that was standing on top of some kind of electrical box,” Uhlig said. “He was not throwing anything, just standing there, and I could hear his skin getting pelted with the rubber bullets. He just stepped off and stepped to the side for a second, took a minute and then got back up to continue protesting.”

Uhlig was eventually shot in the chest by a rubber bullet. He had been peacefully protesting and chanting at the time. 

“I was just standing there with my hands in the air, when we were chanting ‘Hands up, don’t shoot’ and all of a sudden I saw a blue dot coming at me,” he said. “I felt like someone just punched me right in the chest. I was overcome with anger about the entire situation.”

Another University student, who requested to remain anonymous due to worries of retaliation, lives near Lake Street, where she saw more aggressive demonstrations happening. She described broken windows and people “hanging out of cars.” Protesters were throwing things at officers who, in turn, were “macing people.”

“There were no protests. It was just mayhem, to be honest,” she said. 

The student’s family runs one of the many Latinx small businesses located on Lake Street in South Minneapolis. She said that because of the looting of her family’s business and continued chaos near her home, her family is considering staying with relatives in Wisconsin until tensions settle.  

“My parents are really sad,” she said. “They were one of the first people to get into the building after all the looting happened and they saw firsthand how all the stuff was ripped up … It was cleared out.” 

Sierra Baum, a recent University graduate, lives just a few miles away from the 3rd Precinct building. Baum said intense looting Wednesday night and Thursday morning led her and her partner to flee their apartment as the rioting got closer to their building. 

“It was just really surreal, like, we’re just watching a movie,” Baum said. “But it’s happening just miles away — this is real. I still can’t even fathom it because it’s still going on.”

While she is sympathetic toward the cause, Baum said she disagreed with and was fearful of the looting and destructive nature of some demonstrations. 

“I’m just really scared something’s going to come through our window; we are on the ground floor,” Baum said. “I just feel heartbroken for the community … We’re in the middle of a pandemic, and a lot of people are struggling already. I’m afraid so many places are just never going to be able to recover.”

Despite the extensive property damage in South Minneapolis, several protestors noted the communal nature of the protests. 

“We were down there and the sense of community … I’ve never ever felt that before. It was actually overwhelming,” said University journalism student Lauryn Williams. “… Everyone was cool. I don’t think a single person there felt threatened [by other demonstrators].”

Protests and looting continued and escalated the following day. Late Thursday night, some demonstrators took over and set fire to MPD’s 3rd Precinct building. Surrounding buildings and businesses were damaged and burnt, too.

While looting in the city has come under national scrutiny, many defend the actions of community members as acts of those desperate for justice. Protestors like Andrea Thompson, a political science student at the University, said that she was unbothered by the looting of chain outlets. 

“I am completely in support of anyone looting the big corporations,” Thompson said. “… Big corporations are insured, and they’ll get their shit back, but a Black life that was taken cannot be brought back.”

Many University students and student groups have already begun mobilizing in response to Floyd’s death, such as the demonstration in front of Morrill Hall on Friday evening hosted by several student groups, including Students for a Democratic Society and the Muslim Students Association. 

MSA president Abdimalik Ahmed pointed to the police’s history of violence on the campus, remembering an incident that took place at Somali Night in 2018 where an incident resulted in police being called. He said officers “swarmed” the area, using force on attendees and macing those in the crowd.  

“People were running and screaming for their lives,” Ahmed said. “There were even children who were in the line of fire with the mace and there were kids throwing up on the floor. It was a complete oversight of the police department, and I don’t want something like that to ever happen again.”

Ahmed said there was a “mixed bag” of feelings associated with being a person of color and watching this all unfold. 

“My anger has so many different colors,” Ahmed said. “It’s red, it’s white, and it’s blue. … My anger is bubbling and bubbling and messy — ineloquent. … I often wonder how, every time another one of my kin gets slaughtered, the pain punches me in a new place. I often wonder, just how much surface area does my heart have?”

Many other students of color echoed feelings of numbness, hopelessness and anger during this time, pointing out how helpless they often felt despite mobilization efforts. 

“I just had a really overwhelming sense of just helplessness,” Williams said. “And [feeling] that I’m not doing enough, and then also outrage. … How do you express how you’re feeling? There’s so much in me that I don’t know what to do with it.” 

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