The fatal police shooting of Daunte Wright and tactics used to respond to people protesting his killing are putting Gov. Tim Walz increasingly at odds with the left flank of his base, threatening to fray Democratic allies heading into the critical 2022 election cycle.
A growing number of DFL officials are calling for the first-term governor to reassign the case of former Brooklyn Center police officer Kimberly Potter, who shot and killed Wright, to Attorney General Keith Ellison. And Walz is facing a backlash for not roundly condemning tear gas and projectiles used in the first nights of protests in Brooklyn Center, prompting some DFL activists and officials to call for an end to using these tactics on crowds responding to police violence.
"That is trauma upon trauma upon trauma and abuse at the hands of those who are pretending to protect and serve," civil rights lawyer and activist Nekima Levy Armstrong said outside the Brooklyn Center police headquarters at the center of protests this week. "Governor Walz needs to step forward, he needs to push for accountability, he needs to call for an end to that type of abuse."
The tensions come at a pivotal moment for the governor and the state, as the trial of Derek Chauvin nears an end with closing arguments on Monday. The state has increased security and law enforcement presence in Minneapolis after Walz faced widespread criticism when buildings burned and were looted during civil unrest following George Floyd's killing last May.
"It is kind of a lose-lose situation for him. He's criticized when things get out of hand and there's destruction and he's criticized when law enforcement is overly aggressive in the eyes of many people," said University of Minnesota Duluth political science professor Cindy Rugeley. "It's a tough situation. No matter what he does, he's going to get criticized."
At the center of the criticism is his role in Operation Safety Net, a phased-in coordinated response between law enforcement agencies and the Minnesota National Guard, which Walz leads, around the Chauvin trial. But the situation in Brooklyn Center escalated the timeline for bolstering a security presence that was originally planned around the time of the verdict.
Walz said he's "deeply concerned" about reports of peaceful protesters being hit by projectiles and of Brooklyn Center families seeing tear gas near or in their homes on the first several nights of the protests. Tear gas was not used on protesters Wednesday and Thursday.
But it's a precarious balancing act of keeping order while protecting protesters' First Amendment rights, he said, as it can be challenging in the moment to single out the bad actors there to cause destruction. The governor said that will not be tolerated this year, after the Third Precinct and more than 1,000 buildings and businesses were burned and damaged across Minneapolis and St. Paul during unrest last year. Roughly 50 businesses across the metro have been looted since Sunday, according to the Department of Public Safety.
"Those nonlethal means create a space in there to defuse potentially dangerous situations," Walz said. "I ask all of you, what you think would have happened Sunday night or Monday night, especially had there not been a fence there and there had been no one there. … I've learned from the past, that building would have been burned down, and my fear was the surrounding apartments would have burned too."
But his responses have inflamed frustration from his detractors on the left, who say responding to people protesting police shootings with increased law enforcement presence is what's making people unsafe.
"I think that there is still a battle that we're looking to win here about how we keep our neighbors safe in this kind of environment. But I would say, as it stands right now, you're seeing who's on the wrong side of that," Minneapolis City Council member Jeremiah Ellison said on MSNBC this week. "You're seeing the governor brag about the largest police presence toward these protesters. He's bragging about that."
It's the latest challenge for a governor whose first term has been filled with crises, including the ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He has earned the ire of many conservatives for school and business closures and mask mandates to slow the spread of the virus, and his response to protesters now threatens his support from some progressives.
Walz, a former congressman and teacher from Mankato, paved his way to the governor's office in 2018 with a coalition of urban progressives as well as moderate and independent voters living in the suburbs and rural areas. He's expected to seek a second term in 2022 but hasn't announced his campaign yet. No other Democrats have announced plans to run for governor next year.
Michael Minta, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota who focuses on race and representation, said Walz is likely to lose the support of some progressives because of the response to protesters, but if he can make the case for police reform measures at the Capitol, he could still get the support of many Black voters.
Walz this week urged legislative Republicans to hold hearings on a handful of police accountability bills this session, which Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka has agreed to do. Walz has cited issues such as qualified immunity for officers and the need to look at pretextual stops like the one that led to Wright's death.
"By making some changes — maybe they don't go as far as the activist community wants — he will maintain the support of many within the African American community," said Minta, who noted that as Walz loses some support on the left, he needs to gain more from moderates and independents, who might see police presence as necessary to prevent the destruction that happened last summer.
"They just can't afford to have what happened after Floyd, where they're burning down a police precinct," he said. "Politically, I don't know if he could actually survive it."
Reporter Stephen Montemayor contributed to this story.
Briana Bierschbach • 651-925-5042