Tech Sgt. William Hildebrand stood in a camouflage uniform as the sun went down on another night of protests in the Twin Cities, and as thousands of Minnesota National Guard soldiers and Air National Guard airmen helped keep a tenuous peace.
Hildenbrand is 35 years old. He has three children. He worries how they’re dealing with 2020, from the global pandemic to the protests and violence in their home state. He has spent nearly half his life in the Minnesota Air National Guard. He works for U.S. Bank, managing a team that helps employees through serious life crises: domestic violence, mental health issues, the worst moments of their lives. He has shared select details of the past few days with his kids — that he spent Friday night on a concrete floor at the armory in St. Paul, that he is now sleeping on a cot, that he hasn’t had a shower in three days — and he constantly assures them he’s safe. He served in Iraq for six months in 2010, during the drawdown, and says that being activated for the protests and riots after George Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis police is much more stressful than Iraq.
Because this is his home.
On Minnesota’s steamiest night of the year so far, he would have liked nothing more than to be on the deck at his home in Champlin, 26 miles away, drinking a beer.
Instead, Hildebrand was standing outside Regions Hospital in St. Paul, a gas mask strapped to his waist, an M4 rifle slung over his shoulder, waiting to see if Monday night’s peaceful protests at the State Capitol would turn violent.
“You’re just waiting for the scales to tip one way or the other,” Hildebrand said. “Things are either going to get better or they’re going to get worse. We’re not going to maintain this kind of riot purgatory. You’re just kind of waiting. All of that plays into the human dynamics of it. People gotta feel heard. People gotta speak their piece. But we also have to defend the city, protect the people. It’s a balance.”
This is life for Minnesota’s citizen-soldiers and citizen-airmen now: Long days and tense nights as they continue the Guard’s largest domestic deployment in its 164-year history.
“When it’s sunny out, your guard is never down, but your mind is more at ease,” said Airman 1st Class Jordan Hopwood. “As soon as that sun touches the horizon, you’re getting ready for it to be a long night. And that’s been since the start. I don’t think anybody is really scared or nervous. We’re just like, ‘How long is this going to go on for?’ ”
About Hopwood: He is 23 and grew up in Woodbury. He is biracial. His mother used to be a St. Paul police officer. He loves playing his Xbox: “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” or “NHL 20.” He plays left wing for the 133rd Airlift Wing’s hockey team. Fellow Airmen tease him by calling him Hollywood, since he’s done modeling since he was a kid.
A security forces squadron of 45 airmen from the Minnesota Air National Guard’s 133rd Airlift Wing, based at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, started their Monday evening at Jimmy Lee Recreation Center across the street from St. Paul’s Central High School. They were tasked with the same mission as all 7,000 Minnesota National Guard and Air National Guard troops called up last week by Gov. Tim Walz: To assist state and local law enforcement in the face of historic protests and riots that started here and spread across the nation.
The heat was beating down: Still 90-plus degrees an hour or so before dusk. Hopwood’s shadow grew long. A convoy of Minnesota Air National Guard troops combined with St. Paul police officers and drove to a public works building to gas up. As they pulled out of the parking lot, a Jeep Cherokee on Marshall Avenue stopped with its windows down. A young man and woman, both white, extended middle fingers for more than a minute as troops moved out.
By 8 p.m., the squad was milling around a parking lot next to the Cathedral of St. Paul. Church bells chimed. Then a St. Paul officer shouted, “Loading up!” The convoy turned onto Kellogg Boulevard and headed toward the Capitol. A jogger paused and stared. A protester held up a sign: “ABOLISH THE POLICE!”
They came to a halt between Regions Hospital and the Harold E. Stassen Office Building: A couple blocks from the Capitol protests, close enough to react quickly but far enough away so they weren’t seen as a provocation. They parked in a line of 20 or so police vehicles. One Airman ate an MRE, Meal Ready to Eat: A taco, room temperature. Catered dinners soon arrived. Humvees blocked roads to the Capitol so that only foot traffic could come through. Airmen waved to nurses who gathered at hospital windows to watch.
“Thank you for your service!” a woman shouted as she drove past. A waxing moon rose in the clear sky.
The crowd of peaceful protesters at the Capitol dwindled as the 10 p.m. curfew crept closer. By 10 p.m., perhaps 30 remained. Those who remained were arrested.
“We want to be there if things go bad,” Hildebrand said, “but we also want to allow them the opportunity to peacefully do their thing. Because that’s their constitutional right. They need to be able to do that. And sometimes our presence can be an agitation if we’re there — if they’re peaceful and we’re coming in, rolling deep, that can be agitating.
“It’s better to be a couple blocks behind and let them do their thing and still be there — and protect the people from having the city burn down.”
The city wasn’t burning down on Monday as it had been just days before. Senior Airman Nathan Van Beusekom (22, a full-time student at University of Northwestern, St. Paul, finance major, football player, married) has lived here all his life: Turtle Lake Elementary School, Chippewa Middle School, Mounds View High School. He was part of a “snatch-and-grab” team with St. Paul police. They look for bad actors. Over the weekend at the Capitol, his squad hauled away a rowdy man accused of punching a woman during the protest.
Like so many across the Twin Cities, Van Beusekom both appreciates the motive behind the protests — “It’s a worthy cause,” he said — and hates when they turn violent.
Amid the past week’s destruction, Van Beusekom has seen some light.
“Those moments when law enforcement and protesters come together and have a moment — it’s just completely opposing what’s out there in people’s minds,” he said. “I had one of those moments yesterday, with the Army colonel out there, the one in charge of everything out by the Capitol. He took all his gear off: His helmet, his vest, his weapons. He went outside the fence and started talking to the protesters when they were all riled up. He got them to kneel with him, talk with him. They were taking pictures with him. He ended up de-escalating the situation all by himself.”
“There’s just a bigger message out there to take in,” he said. “We’re all people, and we have to love each other.”