FARGO — Thousands were peaceful protesters. But a few turned out to be rioters.
People gathered early on Sunday, May 31, to sweep away the destruction from a protest the night before that turned violent in the heart of a downtown littered in the aftermath with broken glass and debris.
The more difficult job, leaders acknowledged in a somber press conference, will be to address the simmering distrust and alienation that boiled over into violence as remnants of a peaceful throng turned into an angry mob.
The first signs of unrest became evident the afternoon of Saturday, May 30. Demonstrators marched from Island Park near downtown to demand justice in the case of George Floyd, a Minneapolis man who died after an arresting police officer knelt on his neck for eight minutes as he pleaded for mercy.
Most of the demonstrators carried signs. A few hurled rocks and water bottles at the police who lined the streets along the route, which took marchers to police headquarters in Fargo and West Fargo.
It was an early sign of what was to come. A crowd gathered outside Fargo police headquarters and, when it became clear that unrest was possible, Moorhead Mayor Johnathan Judd turned to Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney and said they had to intervene.
A peaceful dialogue, joined by Fargo Police Chief David Todd and some of his officers, some holding signs in solidarity with the protesters, seemed to defuse the tension. Todd even posed for photographs.
The trouble came Saturday evening, when demonstrators gathered downtown.
A turning point came at 5:53 p.m., when a mob surrounded two Fargo police officers in a squad car at First Avenue North and Broadway, throwing rocks and bottles, badly damaging the cruiser and menacing the officers, who were rescued by fellow officers.
Todd decided that there was a limit to patience, that police should try to clear lingering protesters out of downtown before darkness fell and the situation could spiral out of control.
The police had stood by with restraint “for as long as we thought we could,” Todd said Sunday. But given the reports that elements within the protesters planned to “loot and burn,” the chief decided the time had come to act.
“So we thought, while we’ve got daylight and we can see everybody, let’s try and start pushing everybody out of the downtown area.”
Similarly, the mayors who had acted as peacemakers earlier in the day concluded that the situation was too combustible to try another round of dialogue with the now-angry crowd.
“I have to be safe,” Judd said. “So my compromise was to stand on the bridge with the law enforcement officers from the state of Minnesota and their jurisdictions should anything come into Moorhead.”
Around 8 p.m., police fired the first tear gas canisters to scatter the crowd, numbering perhaps 400 or 500, which Todd said was seeded with “instigators” whose mission was to egg on others to become violent — intelligence gleaned from plainclothes officers who mingled undercover with the demonstrators.
“They were traveling from city to city to do specifically this, to cause mayhem and confusion,” he said, adding that some other protesters might have been drawn into joining the violence.
A line of police officers formed on First Avenue North, slowly edging east toward Fifth Street, in a prolonged standoff with demonstrators that was punctuated by looting of several businesses, escalating into a riot.
“That was heartbreaking last night,” Todd said at the press conference Sunday. “It was hard to watch that happen.” He added: “You could see some hostility in that march, but you could see good people, too. There were a lot of good people.”
Looters stole furniture and other items from JL Beers and broke into Gate City Bank, but did not succeed in stealing any money, Todd said.
Gov. Doug Burgum activated the North Dakota National Guard, many of whom were training over the weekend to assist law enforcement. The Guard was deployed at 9 p.m., Burgum said, and stood ready to protect firefighters if any fires were started.
“We came through it without a fire; we came through it without any serious injuries,” the governor said. “That’s something to be said.”
Police arrested 10 demonstrators for inciting a riot and preventing arrest. Four officers needed medical attention, including two for concussions from objects thrown and two for heat exhaustion and dehydration, Todd said.
Two demonstrators received medical attention, including one for a gash on an arm, he said. There was no severe property damage, officials said, although 8 police cars were damaged.
Police will be reviewing video of the march and downtown confrontation and more arrests are possible, Todd said.
Mahoney and Judd said the protesters’ voices were heard. They promised to work to address their concerns, but pleaded for a peaceful dialogue to address what Judd called “institutional racism” that lies at the heart of the grievances that transformed downtown Fargo into a riot scene.
On Sunday morning, Mahoney lifted a curfew he had imposed Saturday night and said he hopes there will be no further demonstrations as the city works to rebuild and heal. As the day moved along Sunday police, who had been standing along intersections throughout downtown, left and it began to look like nothing had happened downtown.,
“The heart and soul of our community … that’s our focus now,” Mahoney said.
“Last night’s actions do not define this community and its people,” he said, pointing to the swift way people came together to clean up. The mayor urged people to come together to peacefully resolve grievances.
“We need to hear each other, we need to be tolerant, we need to care about each other,” Mahoney said.
Cass County Sheriff Jesse Jahner said that while the majority of the protesters were peaceful, many wanted confrontation, and struck a firmer note when he vowed: “Law enforcement will succeed in regaining control.”
North Dakota respects and honors people's right to free speech and assembly, Burgum said. He said officials want to send a message valuing “justice and humanity” and pledged to join together to resolve issues.
“It’s lost when it moves from a peaceful protest to what I think can only be described as an organized riot,” Burgum said. “If you want to have a dialogue in North Dakota, all you have to do is ask.”
Local members of Black Lives Matter, which organized the march, were on hand Sunday as workers continued to clean up downtown.
“The crowds down here last night does not represent us,” John Lewis said.
“It was not us,” fellow organizer Ritchell Eve Aboah said.
A few troublemakers turned a peaceful protest into a riot, Lewis said. “But we can’t claim responsibility for that. I’m a student. I want to make the world a better place. We are very sad that this went down yesterday. This is our home. We’re going to clean this place up, but this is not Black Lives Matter.”
Judd, who said he had little sleep over the past four days, delivered an eloquent appeal to deal with the root causes underlying the frustrations that reached a flashpoint Saturday.
“We honestly need to have a very serious conversation about race in this country,” he said, including a “candid conversation about institutional racism.”
He added, for emphasis, “It’s true, folks.”
Judd praised the Fargo Police Department, which he said acted in an “extremely professional capacity,” for displaying patience before they took firm action. “They acted with integrity,” he said.
For those who turned out to protest, Judd added: “We heard you. We need in this community to listen with humility. We don’t have all the answers individually, but collectively we can make a difference in this community, and we will.”
Archie Ingersoll and Chris Flynn contributed to this report.