A day of protests took a heart-stopping turn two hours before Sunday’s curfew when a tanker truck barreled toward thousands of protesters gathered on the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis, scattering the crowd and narrowly missing what could have been a mass casualty event.
The incident came as the sixth day of protests — many peaceful, some violent — of George Floyd’s death after being restrained by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin spread around the globe, from Toronto to London and Berlin, and to at least 75 American cities where streets echoed the chaos of 1968.
Chauvin, charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter, was moved Sunday to the Hennepin County jail and then to the state maximum security prison at Oak Park Heights, according to Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell.
Hennepin County Sheriff Dave Hutchinson requested the transfer due to concerns about the coronavirus and possible overcrowding at the Hennepin County jail. Chauvin had been held at the Ramsey County jail after being arrested. His first court appearance is scheduled for June 8.
In a news conference late Sunday, Gov. Tim Walz said many of those arrested Sunday appeared to be peaceful protesters “caught behind the curfew.” Schnell said the situation was “at present stable” and that those arrested had been “very respectful” so far.
Officials had expressed concerns Sunday evening about acts of arson, saying they found caches of accelerants stashed in neighborhoods and cars in recent days. But Schnell said it had been “very quiet” on the fire front and that officials will “do everything we can that we don’t wake up to those flames.”
No decision was announced on whether to extend the 8 p.m. curfew to Monday.
A bit before 6 p.m. Sunday, thousands of people marched peacefully on closed Interstate 35W north of downtown Minneapolis. The protesters were observing a moment of silence when a tanker truck going north sped toward the crowd, slamming on its brakes at the last moment. The crowd scattered.
“The horns were blaring,” said Melanie Ramos of Minneapolis. “It was picking up speed. It was plowing down the highway into the protesters. It was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen.”
Minneapolis police, guns drawn, descended quickly on the truck alongside Minnesota National Guard troops and hauled the driver away. Police pushed back protesters with pepper spray, tear gas and at least one flash bang grenade.
Somehow, none of the protesters was injured. The driver was arrested and taken to Hennepin County Medical Center after being pulled from the truck and beaten, according to witnesses. He was released from HCMC a short time later after and taken into police custody.
Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell confirmed that the driver was “assaulted” by a number of people, but added that others stepped up to try to protect him and keep the peace.
“The incident just underscores the volatile situation we have out there,” Gov. Tim Walz said. “To not have tragedy and many deaths is an amazing thing.”
Drew Valle, a special education teacher at Washburn High School in Minneapolis, said cars still on the freeway were moving slowly alongside the throngs on the bridge when the truck came speeding toward marchers.
“He wasn’t stopping,” Valle said. “He was beeping loudly and driving into a crowd of people. That’s the same kind of malice that brought us here. It’s a callous disregard for someone’s humanity.”
The site of the near-tragedy hearkened back to Aug. 1, 2007, when the bridge over the Mississippi River collapsed, killing 13.
“It was a tanker truck full of gas,” said Dominic Kerr of Minneapolis. “You could smell it and hear it sloshing around. He was coming about 30 miles per hour. I know at least one person who definitely needs help.”
Minutes after the truck rolled to a stop, people shouted, “Back to the stadium!”— U.S. Bank Stadium — to resume the march.
Ashley Gary of Minneapolis and her three sons marched 4 miles from Cup Foods at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in south Minneapolis, where Floyd died, to the Washington Avenue Bridge.
“We’ve been through Jamar Clark, we’ve been through Philando Castile and there was no justice whatsoever,” she said. “We’re tired of it. We are very tired.”
At a news conference held an hour before the 8 p.m. curfew, state leaders girded for the possibility of a night filled with fire after Saturday night had passed with relative calm.
Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington said flammable materials had been found in neighborhoods that have already seen fires and “in cars we’ve stopped as recently as this morning.” Some of the caches looked like they’d been planted days ago and some only in the last 24 hours, he said.
Harrington noted that many cars without license plates were being seen in parts of the Twin Cities, indicating “an organized activity.”
One person pulled over in Bloomington while driving a car without plates attempted to “douse the car itself and set it on fire,” Harrington said, “not something you see on most traffic stops.”
“This is not done yet with those who seek to disrupt,” Walz said, pleading with people to head home before the curfew. “Let’s move another step forward toward that healing.”
The specter of after-dark violence loomed over the day, despite the thousands showing up at peaceful protests. The two largest were at the State Capitol and in downtown Minneapolis.
Outside U.S. Bank Stadium, thousands chanted: “No justice, no peace! Prosecute the police!” “What’s his name? GEORGE FLOYD!”
Claire Bunker, a 21-year-old black woman at the protest, spoke about the importance for people who aren’t black to join with the voices.
“If it’s just black people out here, they’ll see us as thugs and looters,” she said. “It takes everybody to come out here and say we’re not going to sit for any injustice. ... Just because it’s one officer [arrested] doesn’t mean you changed the system.”
As the curfew approached, the protest downtown began to thin out until a group arrived to cheers from 38th and Chicago. The march then continued back to the I-35W bridge, with no signs of breaking up at 8 p.m.
“People are trying to make it more about the looting,” said Danella Thompson, who said she has protested all week for her son, whom she doesn’t want to grow up afraid of being black in Minneapolis.
“People have a right to be mad. But it’s like four days of looting does not equal 400 years of slavery. The oppression is way deeper than this. People can’t see that they’re part of the problem. There is always some collateral damage.”
Less than an hour after curfew, police surrounded a dwindling group of protesters at the parking lot of Bobby and Steve’s Auto World near U.S. Bank Stadium. They told the protesters they were under arrest and asked them to lie down. They complied and were taken away.
“We’re doing it for America!” shouted one woman.
State officials provided more insight Sunday into the identities of some of the protesters who looted and burned property. After state and local officials on Saturday blamed much of the damage on out-of-state agitators, they acknowledged Sunday that might not be the case. Most detained or booked Saturday night were Minnesotans.
Walz said Sunday he had wanted to believe the destruction was due to outsiders. “That might go to the problem that we have of saying, ‘It can’t be Minnesotans. It can’t be Minnesotans who did this,’ ” he said.
Meanwhile, Walz announced that Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison will lead the prosecution of Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in Floyd’s death. He will work with Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman.
Ellison said it was too early to discuss potential charges against the other three officers who were present when Chauvin restrained Floyd on the ground with his knee on his neck. Ellison said that it was “very difficult” to prosecute police officers.
“I just want to let the public know we are pursuing justice, we are pursuing truth, we are doing it vigorously,” he said.
Staff writers John Reinan, Pam Louwagie, Torey Van Oot, Maya Rao, Mary Lynn Smith, Michael Corey and Briana Bierschbach contributed to this report.