Huebner: My view of Fargo's peaceful protest and later riot
FARGO — People here watched in disbelief as a day of peaceful, unifying protest devolved into a night of rioting and destruction.
An estimated 2,000 people turned out Saturday, May 30, to march in solidarity with others nationwide protesting the killing five days prior of a black man, George Floyd, by a white Minneapolis police officer.
The Forum and WDAY-TV covered the day’s events, and as it became clear in early evening that tensions were rising, they mobilized even more to show the community what was happening.
Nine charged in Fargo rioting, two with felonies 'I felt like a sitting duck at that moment and thought, we're dead' a Fargo police sergeant said in her report about a violent demonstrator kicking her windshield.
Community continues digging deep Monday to help erase Fargo riot scars
Reporters, photographers and other staff streamed in to document it all with online updates, live broadcasts and Facebook livestreams.
Not scheduled to work, I was almost finished with a long overdue hair appointment when I began hearing some people in the crowds downtown were no longer peaceful.
Fargo police tweeted that some were throwing water bottles at officers. Protesters jumped on the hood of a squad car with an officer inside, breaking the windshield.
Heading downtown, my intention was to stick around just for a bit, but the move turned into an hourslong view of something I’ve never seen firsthand in my 35 years as a journalist.
Sometime after 7 p.m. Saturday, I parked my car along First Avenue North near Roberts Street and walked to the intersection, which was blocked by law enforcement.
I tried to take stock of the crowd — a mix of people in their 20s and 30s, some older, some very vocal and engaged, many recording on their phones, and others standing by, just observing.
One vehicle came through, its occupants cheering and applauding for law enforcement, as did another, squealing through the intersection with people on the roof, shouting profanity.
At 7:25 p.m., I saw and heard a commotion at the northeast corner of the Quentin N. Burdick U.S. Courthouse and went to shoot cellphone video.
It’s unclear what happened, but I caught the tail end of what seemed to be an altercation among protesters.
I started doing a Facebook live, and not long after, one person in the crowd threw a rock about the size of a softball that struck a man squarely in the face.
Another person lobbed it back, the rock covered with blood.
This happened just northwest of the main group of protesters, which had settled in on First Avenue in front of Wurst Bier Hall.
Around 7:50 p.m., officers at the intersection announced on a loudspeaker that protesters needed to disperse before tear gas would be deployed in about ten minutes.
To my recollection, it was more like 20 minutes before that happened.
I had moved away from there, not wanting any part of that, and circled around the main protest site to make my way to The Forum.
Upon arriving there, I started another Facebook live from the second floor newsroom, describing what was happening.
At some point, law enforcement formed a line along Broadway, across First Avenue, staying there for quite some time before moving slowly to the east.
Between the police line and The Forum, businesses were being vandalized and ransacked.
WDAY reporters Matt Henson and Andreas Haffar were right in the thick of it, but both said they were never really in fear for their safety.
“When you’re in it, the adrenaline is going — you’re doing your job,” Haffar said.
Protesters rolled large garbage bins into the street for shelter and set something on fire in the middle of the street.
Henson said protesters tried to use him and his photographer as human shields, so the two of them relocated.
At one point, protesters launched bottle rockets at police.
“They were flying over our heads while we were on live TV,” Henson said.
His biggest concern was the highly visible station vehicle, wrapped in the WDAY logo and parked outside the Hotel Donaldson. The car was not damaged, he said.
Haffar said multiple people approached him to point out that the evening rioters were not part of the earlier march.
Forum reporter C.S. Hagen covered the peaceful protest and was also in the crowd that evening.
“It felt more like a mob,” Hagen said of the nighttime event, noting that he was impressed with the “joyful” mood earlier in the day, when Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney and Moorhead Mayor Johnathan Judd jumped into the crowd and hugged people.
Both Hagen and Henson made note of the restraint exercised by law enforcement in the face of rocks, bricks, water bottles and chairs being thrown at them.
Police used pepper spray early to disperse the crowd, along with pepper balls and nonlethal sponge rounds later against the most violent rioters, they said.
Hagen said he did not see officers engage otherwise with protesters.
I had the same impression from my vantage point at The Forum — that law enforcement appeared to act in a calm, methodical manner.
I tried to describe what I was seeing as objectively as I could.
Protesters who held a peaceful march earlier in the day have legitimate, long-justified concerns, laid bare by the murder of George Floyd.
Some went home and weren’t part of the evening crowd, while others who stayed tried, in vain, to prevent others from acting in ways aimed at hijacking the cause.
Who knows, exactly, what was on the minds of those who perpetrated the violence?
I can’t pretend to know.
I’m sure people could hear me sighing with sadness during the livestream. I struggled with keeping my phone charged, and the livestream was interrupted multiple times when my kids called to see if I was okay. I admit to feeling a little panicky at one point, thinking I should just go home.
The next day, I received multiple messages from people thanking me for the reporting.
One person, concerned about a loved one in the law enforcement line, was grateful to be able to see what was happening.
I feel fortunate to have been able to give people a view of something that will surely be seared in our memories and in the history of our city for a long time to come.
My hope is that we keep open minds and open hearts to somehow come out of this better.