Two months after the death of George Floyd, construction crews are few and far between in the riot-torn neighborhoods of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
A handful of workers can be seen installing new windows and Sheetrock, but most of the activity involves big companies with deep pockets like Target and Speedway.
Hundreds of small businesses that were torched and looted in the days following Floyd’s death remain boarded up. While some buildings have been torn down, the rubble remains. On Chicago Avenue, where Floyd was killed, the mood is more funereal than commercial. At the front of one burned-out shop, someone has planted flowers in a scorched steel girder.
A few doors down, Kaltuma Hassan stands in the wreckage of her grocery store and wonders if anybody is going to help her rebuild. Like her neighbors, Hassan is frustrated by the failure of state lawmakers to pass legislation that would have put much-needed cash in the hands of struggling business owners.
“If they want to help us, what are they waiting for?” asked Hassan, who won’t be able to rebuild Bismillah Grocery without assistance because her insurance policy will cover just $100,000 of her $500,000 loss. “It makes you angry. It is destroying our chance.”
Though Democrats have proposed giving small business owners as much as $300 million to cover uninsured damage, Republicans have blocked the legislation from moving forward, citing concerns over the size of the bailout as well as the role local officials played in the disaster. Some key Republican leaders said they won’t support the rebuilding effort unless local officials in Minneapolis and St. Paul contribute to the program.
“It is not outrageous to think that Minneapolis should have skin in the game,” said state Rep. Jim Nash, a Republican from Waconia who serves as assistant minority leader in the House. “They clearly have their fingerprints on what happened. So they should not look solely to the state for help.”
The mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul said they will do what they can to help small business owners, but they said the scope of the losses dwarfs their ability to cover much of the damage. Gov. Tim Walz has told federal officials that property damage is expected to exceed $500 million, making the Twin Cities riots the second-costliest act of civil unrest in the nation’s history.
“The notion that the Twin Cities did this to ourselves is patently false,” said St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter. “We literally had people drive two or three hours to come and start fires in the Twin Cities.”
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey has come under intense fire from GOP lawmakers, who accuse him of mishandling the crisis. At recent hearings at the State Capitol, Minneapolis police officers testified they could have done more to protect the city if local officials hadn’t tied their hands.
Frey said the police did everything they could to protect store owners, but he said there were simply too many calls to handle.
“A crisis is no time for pointing fingers, and it is not a good approach in the aftermath of a crisis either,” Frey said.
Hassan was trying to protect her store from rioters when a group of eight men attacked her at her back door. One of the robbers hit her on the head with his gun. She was robbed of $7,000.
While she was recovering in the hospital, her store was looted and set on fire. Like other business owners who were notified of a break-in by their private security contractors, Hassan immediately called the police.
“They said they can’t help until morning,” Hassan recalled. “When I got there, there was nothing left. The whole building had collapsed.”
Store owners said their concerns about public safety didn’t end with the riots. At El Chuchi Market on Lake Street, which was looted during the protests but reopened a week later, owner Luis Tamay said he is tired of being one of the few entrepreneurs to reopen in his neighborhood. Tamay said crime levels have returned to where they were seven years ago, when he first opened a restaurant next to his corner grocery. The restaurant was destroyed in the rioting.
“We see people breaking into cars and making graffiti every night,” said Tamay, who watched as glass workers installed $50,000 worth of new windows at his store last week. “We need more security.”
Tamay said he would like to reopen his restaurant on Lake Street, but he isn’t sure if his landlord will rebuild. His restaurant was uninsured, so Tamay has raised more than $107,000 in charitable donations through his GoFundMe account. Other riot-damaged businesses have taken the same approach, with varying levels of success.
“I think a lot of people have the money to reopen, but they don’t want to,” Tamay said. “It’s not safe yet.”
Republican lawmakers said the Minneapolis City Council’s move to disband the police department is contributing to that anxiety and fueling a wave of departures. A union lawyer has said that nearly 200 out of 850 officers are currently seeking disability status.
“I think business owners look at that and say, ‘Why the hell should I go into Minneapolis and rebuild my business if it isn’t going to be safe,’ ” said Sen. Scott Newman, a Republican from Hutchinson who oversaw the recent hearings on the riots.
Newman and other Republicans said they are willing to support financial aid for small business owners hurt by the riots when the Legislature reconvenes in August, but they urged owners to explore other options first, including seeking help from private foundations as well as the city councils in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
“Rural Minnesotans look at this and say, ‘This is a man-made disaster created by years of poor policy and weak and ineffective leadership,’ ” said Rep. Barb Haley, a Red Wing Republican who is working on her own relief program for small business owners in the Twin Cities. “So until those entities come to the table, it is a challenging discussion for outstate Minnesota.”
Haley said one idea for helping riot-damaged businesses is to provide up to $100 million in quick cash while owners wait for their insurance checks. She said some owners may have to wait as long as a year for their money, since many of their records may have burned when their shops were destroyed.
“I think it is incumbent on all of us to support these business owners,” Haley said. “Minneapolis … is the center of our economic region. It is an economic engine that we have to restore.”
Frey said he is already working with local foundations to raise money for small businesses, but he declined to say how much money he hopes to raise through the effort. “It will be sizable,” he said.
The presidents of the city councils in Minneapolis and St. Paul said they have already contributed several million dollars to small businesses hurt by the pandemic. They declined to commit to any additional funding for riot-damaged businesses.
“St. Paul has an annual budget of $600 million, so this is beyond the scope of what a city the size of ours can manage on its own,” said Amy Brendmoen, president of the St. Paul City Council.
Democratic lawmakers said Republicans may regret requiring riot aid contributions from the Twin Cities, noting they haven’t made similar demands when rural towns sought assistance after a tornado or other disaster.
“I am fine with the idea of Minneapolis and St. Paul kicking in direct aid as a part of this package, but then that would apply to everyone who seeks disaster assistance from the state,” said Ryan Winkler, a Golden Valley Democrat who serves as House Majority Leader. “That is the new standard then. … The fact is, they want Jacob Frey to suffer for what happened, but there are a lot of ways for him to be accountable.”
Small business owners, meanwhile, said this is the wrong time for partisanship.
“Anybody who drives down Lake Street nowadays is going to see a war zone,” said Ali Barbarawi, who is rebuilding his dental practice on Chicago Avenue. “We have to make a decision: Are we going to leave it like this? Rubble? And have people get scared of what they see and move away? Or are we going to fix this as soon as possible?”