Not long before sundown Wednesday, word began to spread that a Black man had just been killed by police. At a Black Entrepreneur State Fair event in Father Hennepin Bluff Park, across the Mississippi River from downtown and barely a mile from where the death had taken place, a DJ announced that police were using a suicide story to cover it up.
A group marched across the Stone Arch Bridge to where the man died. Soon, hundreds gathered in downtown Minneapolis to protest what they believed was another fatal police shooting of a Black man only three months after George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis police. A replay of the last week of May felt imminent.
As protesters gathered, the Minneapolis Police Department sent out a tweet.
“*WARNING: This video contains graphic images*,” the tweet read. “This evening, a murder suspect committed suicide as police approached them at 8th & Nicollet. No officer weapons were fired. This is a tragedy for our community that is still hurting.”
The embedded video showed the police account to be correct: The man turned a gun on himself as police closed in, and as a group of bystanders scattered. Community activists worked to spread the word online and to the downtown crowd that this was not a police shooting and it wasn’t a moment for protest. As the video of Floyd’s killing inflamed May’s uprising, it stood to reason that video of Wednesday’s suicide could cool the night’s heated emotions.
But that was not fully the case.
The tense and destructive evening underscored the distrust between the community and police. The gut reaction from plenty of protesters was simple: The police were lying.
“We know there is distrust now in certain parts of our community,” Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said Thursday. “As soon as we started hearing the first rumblings that this was an officer-involved shooting, we needed to get that [suicide] information out. There would have been probably a lot greater destruction and chaos had we let that unsubstantiated ... rumor of an officer-involved shooting go.”
And yet on Wednesday night, even as a man with a megaphone shouted, “We have the video — the man killed himself!” emotions morphed into violence. A group looted a nearby Target. A man sat on the hood of a squad car, and two police officers shoved him off and sprayed him with mace, dousing several bystanders. Some tossed garbage cans to the street, and a few took the lids and smashed windows of businesses in IDS Center. They broke windows to Nordstrom Rack, climbed inside and then left with stolen merchandise.
“MPD did not kill him, but people assuming they did is rooted in a steep distrust,” Minneapolis City Council Member Jeremiah Ellison tweeted Wednesday night. “Seeing windows broken and items stolen can be beyond frustrating, especially when all that rage was sparked (this time) by misinformation. But so often our policing institutions have themselves been the source of misinformation. We forfeited our goodwill and this is the ugly cost.”
Late Wednesday, the Star Tribune and other news outlets published at least a portion of that video showing the moments before the suspect’s death. Most news organizations, as well as Minneapolis police, later removed the video because of its graphic nature and as the immediate concerns about public safety eased.
Steve Floyd works with former gang members at the Agape Movement nonprofit in Minneapolis. About 8:30 p.m. Wednesday he took a group of the former gang members and headed downtown to de-escalate any violence. As the Foot Locker was being looted, people threw things at police. Floyd and his group stationed themselves between police and protesters and slowly pushed the crowd back. “If you got to vent, just vent — don’t be crazy,” he told them.
“There’s still a lot of pain from the George Floyd deal,” said Floyd, who is not related to George Floyd. “Just the misunderstanding that they thought police shot somebody triggered anxiety. And then when police show up in riot gear and gloves on, it automatically escalates the mentality: ‘OK, you all want to battle.’ ”
Brad Wright, a north Minneapolis native who now lives in Brooklyn Park, went downtown to find witnesses to the death and be certain it was suicide. Later, he stood in the smashed window of a breakfast joint and prevented looters from entering. More than protecting the business, it was about protecting the integrity of the movement that’s gained momentum since Floyd’s killing.
“It’s a feeling of validation that we’ve finally gotten, and I didn’t want that momentum to get sidetracked by something that wasn’t true,” Wright said. “So I stood in the window and yelled to the crowd, ‘This is not what we do! This is not what we’re standing for!’ ”
Wright and a group of 10 men from several churches patrolled parts of downtown until 1 a.m., shooing away looters who Wright assumed were simply opportunists.
For Wright, it was easy to see how people immediately believed the worst and assumed police were responsible: “We’ve seen things like this over and over in our community,” he said. “It’s not hard for us to believe that something like that would happen in broad daylight in front of everyone. The community does not have trust in the police right now.”
City Council President Lisa Bender said she disagreed with the decision by city leaders to post the video on social media.
“I know the video was shared with the intention of transparency, but it is also a traumatic incident that was painful for people to see,” she said. Its wide public display may have caused additional “trauma and harm.”
But some activists believe that Wednesday’s events would have spiraled out of control without the video.
“It would have been catastrophic” if there was no video, said state Sen. Jeff Hayden. “It shows you how much on edge people are, that even a rumor of police shooting a Black man is enough to infuriate people. I don’t condone the behavior, but I understand it.”
Or, as the Rev. Jerry McAfee of New Salem Missionary Baptist Church said Thursday afternoon, “If it was a cop killing, the city would still be burning.”
“But the flip side is, without the video in the Floyd case, we might still be wondering what really happened,” said Jim Hilbert, a former civil rights attorney and a law professor at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law. “That’s part of the reason we’re seeing so much more energy and efforts for accountability.
“The last 10 or 15 years, we’re all witnessing what used to be kept secret, the shocking brutality that’s now caught on film,” he said. “[Wednesday night] was about mistrust that’s been built over decades of miscommunication and even misleading statements.”
Some activists on Nicollet Mall encouraged people to see the nuances that help explain the situation.
When Kevin Reese, the director of criminal justice at Voices for Racial Justice, heard of Wednesday’s violent death of another Black man, he made his way to Nicollet Mall.
The looting and property damage, he said, was unacceptable. It was also understandable, he said, an expression of raw hurt, anger and feelings of futility in the aftermath of Floyd’s death.
“Take a half step back,” he said. “It’s rooted in real trauma.”
Looting, he said, isn’t about stealing; it’s about lashing out at the power structure that otherwise won’t let them in.
“What happened last night was deeper than disdain for the police,” he continued. “Every day, in some formal or informal way, we are still seeing Black blood in the streets.”
Staff writers Rochelle Olson, Andy Mannix and Liz Navratil contributed to this report.