A steady rotation of protesters has been keeping vigil outside the Hennepin County Government Center this week, chaining themselves to a fence, one at a time, in a push for police reform.
Local high school teacher Kaia Hirt first started Monday evening, after the opening statements in the Derek Chauvin murder trial inside.
Hirt, who teaches 10th grade English at Champlin Park High School, said she was demonstrating to show her support for families of those who have been killed by police. She wants local politicians to do more to support police reform legislation.
"I'm frustrated by local and state officials' failure to address racist policing in the community," Hirt said early this week as she sat chained to a fence that had been erected for trial security.
Bundled in a sweatshirt, blanket and gloves, Hirt said she was relieved that Floyd's family has been treated with dignity by authorities, but she noted that other families of those who have been killed in altercations with police are still hurting. She said those families need support as well.
"We will not have justice until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are," Hirt said.
When it comes to talking to students about racism and current events, Hirt said there is no such thing as political neutrality.
"When we say nothing about the things that are going on in our world … we are failing them as educators," Hirt said.
She said she is hopeful that her school district will be supportive of her activism. A spokesman for the Anoka-Hennepin School District said that district employees have the right to exercise their First Amendment rights outside of work, but he would not comment specifically on Hirt.
Hirt said earlier this week that she took two unpaid days off to participate in the demonstration, part of the group Good Trouble for Justice.
Behind Hirt and along some of the fence line in the plaza, activists have installed padlocks with the names of people who have been killed by police, as well as ribbons and other artwork. The group says the fence symbolizes "the city's negative relationship with the community and their attempts to silence peaceful protests."
Earlier this month, law enforcement officials removed locks that the group had placed on the fences, so they have decided to stay overnight to keep watch over the installation, group members said.
They plan to stay outside the courthouse until authorities meet their demands, which includes Gov. Tim Walz, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter agreeing to meet with some of the families of those who were killed in police conflicts. They also want an end to qualified immunity for police officers and are asking legislators to move forward with voting on police accountability bills.
After Hirt returned to work midweek, other volunteers took her place against the fence, sitting for hourslong stretches in a circle of camp chairs. A woman at the site Thursday said she had been chained to the fence from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The corner of 5th Street and 3rd Avenue has evolved into a mutual aid station, where protesters have stockpiled water, jackets, pillows, blankets and sleeping bags for people to take and use.
One man sitting on the street side of the fence was suddenly handcuffed by a group of Hennepin County sheriff's deputies Thursday afternoon. Bystanders said he had received a citation for trespassing early that morning. About 10 protesters confronted the deputies as they placed the man in a squad car, asking what he had done wrong. No others were arrested.
Staff writer Susan Du contributed to this report.
Nicole Norfleet • 612-673-4495