Chantaveia Burnett, a Minneapolis resident, told looters, “We’re not protesting to go in the store and get cigarettes! Y’all are stupid! This is about the police!” Photograph by Nina Robinson for The New Yorker
On Thursday, in Minneapolis, crowds protesting the killing of George Floyd overran the Third Precinct police station, where Derek Chauvin, the officer now charged with murdering him, had been assigned. By midnight, the building was ablaze and hundreds of looters were emptying out the surrounding stores, restaurants, and businesses. People in a celebratory mood gathered around two burning vehicles in the intersection outside the station. Nearly all of them looked to be in their early twenties, and at least half of them were white. Alcohol circulated from a liquor store that had been broken into.
Jay Carter, a twenty-six-year-old African-American studying copywriting at Augsburg University, a mile and a half to the north, gazed at the scene with an air of saddened disbelief. Before I could pose any questions of my own, he asked me, “Do you think it’s worth it?” As Carter watched flames pour out of the precinct-house windows, and a car filled with teen-agers spinning donuts nearby, he said that he was disturbed by the turn the protests had taken. “It doesn’t feel right,” he told me. “I’m not judging anybody here, but I don’t agree with all this.”
By the time the police returned to the area, at around 4:30 a.m., large fires were threatening to spread into residential neighborhoods. Enough of the protesters had gone home for the police to retake control; when I returned, later that morning, state troopers in riot gear and Minnesota National Guard soldiers with armored Humvees had cordoned off the area. The show of force didn’t last. By Friday evening, thousands of protesters were back at the Third Precinct station, and there were no soldiers or law enforcement in sight. (Carter wasn’t there, either; when I texted him, he responded, “I had enough.”) At around eight-thirty, everyone began marching west on Lake Street, a main commercial boulevard, toward another police station, in the Fifth Precinct. They chanted, “Say his name! George Floyd!” and “No Justice, no peace! Prosecute the police!” At some point, vehicles in a parking lot were set on fire, and several exploded, but otherwise the protest felt tenuously restrained.
Police lining a street
|Riot police outside the Fifth Precinct station |
in Minneapolis on the fourth day of protests.
Photograph by Nicholas Pfosi / Reuters
Officials in the Fifth Precinct had erected two perimeters around the station, made of concrete barriers topped with tall fencing. Officers in helmets and bulletproof vests took up positions on the roof. Protesters pressed against the fence, chanting and listening to local organizers, who spoke through megaphones. Nobody attempted to breach the perimeters or attack the station house, and none of the speakers encouraged violence. They talked of George Floyd, justice, and the urgent need for systemic reform. At a gas station across the street, however, something else was happening. People with crowbars had pried free sheets of plywood that had been nailed over the front door and the windows of the station’s convenience store, and they were filing in and out with goods. A young woman in Doc Martens, jeans, and a hoodie passionately chastised the looters. “This is not why we’re protesting!” she yelled, her voice hoarse with emotion. “We’re not protesting to go in the store and get cigarettes! Y’all are stupid! This is about the police!” Pointing at the protesters and the speakers gathered in front of the precinct station, she said, “That’s where we should be!”
The woman’s name is Chantaveia Burnett; she is eighteen years old and lives with her parents, a few blocks away. After giving up on trying to discourage the looters, she told me that she was not necessarily advocating nondestructive action - she just felt that any destruction should be purposeful. “It’s potentially the only way we’re gonna get heard,” she allowed. “Peaceful protests can only go so far. Rioting - that’s when they’re going to say, ‘Oh, shit, we should actually be doing something.’ I feel like rioting is the only way.” But, Burnett insisted, “I don’t think we should be going into the store getting cigarettes and snacks.”
In front of the Fifth Precinct station, another young woman, Nupol Kiazolu, was addressing the protesters. I had met her earlier in the day, at Thirty-eighth Street and Chicago Avenue, where Floyd had been killed. The intersection had become the site of a communal vigil, attracting hundreds of people, including families with young children, who placed flowers, signs, and mementos along the sidewalk where bystanders had witnessed and filmed Floyd’s death. Kiazolu, who is nineteen, is the president of Black Lives Matter for greater New York; she had just arrived in Minneapolis. She had gone directly from the airport to the vigil site, where, with dozens of mourners circled around her, she had led them, with raised fists, in a recitation of the famous chant created by the Black Liberation Army member Assata Shakur: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. / It is our duty to win. / We must love and protect each other. / We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
Now, at the Fifth Precinct, the protesters squeezed around Kiazolu, cheering and shouting as she told them, “These police officers will no longer kill us with impunity!” Suddenly, she was interrupted by a man with a megaphone, who announced, “The gas station is on fire - we need you all to move this way.” To the extent that I can identify a moment when the night started to shift into something more anarchic and dangerous, it was then. The peaceful, coherent, and focussed protesting by Kiazolu and others in front of the station house was soon surpassed by a different kind of mobilization across the street. In a strip mall behind the gas station, looters swarmed an Office Depot, a Kmart, and even a Subway. People streamed out of the smashed glass doors of a Dollar Tree with armloads of merchandise; the store’s interior was opaque with smoke. I spotted Burnett on the sidewalk, looking on helplessly. She was collecting loose bottles of water that were strewn about and stacking them in a neat pile. “People are probably going to need water,” she explained.
At some point, the rioters shifted their attention to a U.S. Post Office building and a Wells Fargo, kitty-corner to the precinct house. People broke into both buildings and lit them on fire. As a helicopter hovered overhead, I watched a group that was taking cover behind a car wash at the gas station shoot large fireworks in such a way that they exploded directly among the police officers on the roof of the precinct house. Other protesters lobbed bottles and chunks of concrete at the officers. Many of these individuals were white and quite young.
Around midnight, the police, reinforced by National Guard units, began to push out from the precinct house, deploying tear gas, stun grenades, and rubber bullets. The protesters withdrew into the strip mall, and, at this point, the rioting became organized around confronting the officers and the soldiers. A line of people moved fencing, signs, large drainage pipes, and other material from a nearby construction site in order to improvise barricades. Everything was still chaotic and dark, but I had the sense that a core element of the remaining protesters - again, most of whom seemed to be young and white - were directing the effort, shouting out such orders as “Pull back!” and “Hold here!” and “Regroup!” These tactics reminded me of actions I had seen during the gilet jaune protests in Paris, in 2018.
After a few hours of pitched confrontation, many protesters, either from fear or fatigue, had left, and those who remained were forced to pull back several blocks. At around two in the morning, I found Burnett again. She was sitting on a curb with one of her Doc Martens off, holding her foot. A rubber bullet had struck her toe, and blood oozed through her sock. A friend sat beside her - his head had been grazed and his left eye was swollen shut. Burnett had trouble walking, but the police were steadily advancing toward us, with a heavy barrage of rubber bullets and tear gas. Eventually, she got up and began to limp away. We walked together for a while, toward the neighborhood where she lives. Toward three in the morning, one of Burnett’s high-school teachers picked her up and gave her a ride home. Burnett said that she didn’t regret coming out and predicted, “It’ll continue. People will be back tomorrow.”
Luke Mogelson, a contributor to The New Yorker since 2013, is the author of the short-story collection “These Heroic, Happy Dead.”