Something I honestly did not know before this past week is how deeply confusing living through a crisis like this is. Speculation gets turned into rumor gets turned into “I know this for a fact!” more quickly than I would have thought possible.
But there are hundreds of eyewitness reports from around Minneapolis that arsons were being committed by small groups of white men, apparently outsiders, moving rapidly around the city mostly in vehicles without license plates; watching that get endlessly dismissed on Twitter as “what the authorities always say” from people outside the state has been enraging.
First, I just want to note: all of this is happening because a group of Minneapolis police officers murdered a non-resisting Black man who’d been accused of the pettiest of all possible minor offenses. They murdered him in cold blood, in front of witnesses, with a camera running, because they felt completely immune from consequences. This is happening because in murder after murder like this, the cops are immune from consequences. There have been endless peaceful demonstrations, from marches to letters to the editor to sports teams “taking a knee” and police officers still assume that they can murder Black men with no consequences, and when they discover they might possibly be faced with consequences, they are enraged and take out their anger on the entire community.
That’s how things started here.
(Cutting here because this is going to run long.)
I’m going to start by talking about what the early protests/looting looked like, because that, in fact, was local, and looked very different.
If I recall correctly, there was a Tuesday night protest where protesters were really angry and the police were really confrontational and injured a bunch of protesters by firing rubber bullets and tear gas indiscriminately. Then the police escalated from there on Wednesday, and that’s when the Target got looted and the Autozone burned down and also the police forced protesters east along Lake Street and there was some additional looting along East Lake; there was also a bunch of looting in Uptown that night. And then on Thursday night, the police precinct was taken over and burned and a lot more stuff on that corner burned.
So: I think the Target looting was overwhelmingly local. I don’t think it was motivated by any particular animosity towards Target, though there might have been some. I think probably it started because people urgently needed stuff, and Target has a lot of stuff you might be needing. (They had closed up early Wednesday afternoon because they wanted their employees to be able to get home safe before the police violence escalated again, which was an excellent decision — seriously, you saw those videos, can you imagine getting off work and having to figure out how the fuck to find your bus home as cops are launching tear gas? But that meant the store was closed, unavailable to sell things people might be needing.) And once looting gets going, I think a lot of people figure fuck it, they might as well, and that seems likely to be exacerbated if they’re struggling to get through a pandemic.
Probably everyone’s seen the video of that white guy smashing the AutoZone windows and getting aggressive towards the Black guy who tried to stop him. (ETA: here it is on YouTube, if you haven’t seen it.) I don’t know if he was local or not. (St. Paul cop? Certainly possible but not really proven. As far as I’ve seen, no reporter has found the “ex” who allegedly ID’d him, and I’m sure they’ve been trying.) He was clearly different from the rest of the protesters, and fit the profile of the groups that later showed up committing mass arson in a number of ways. So while the protests and mayhem were mostly locally sourced, there may have already been some outsiders showing up to pour gasoline on the flames, and I started that sentence thinking metaphorically but possibly they literally did that.
I also think the looting that progressed down East Lake was local and people who’d been at the protest. This was a mix of targeted and random. US Bank was probably a mix of “fuck these guys” and “I bet there’s money in that ATM,” a pawnshop is going to be a mix of “fuck these guys” and “I see some good stuff in there,” but Town Talk restaurant got absolutely wrecked, a florist had their windows smashed, riots are always going to include damage that makes no particular sense, which is part of why it would be nice if your police force did not set out to provoke a riot.
Smarter people than me have written about how when the police endlessly escalate with tear gas and rubber bullets and other weapons designed to hurt or even maim, the people who would normally work to keep the peace for you either leave, or stop trying, and you’re left with a bunch of really angry people. The police absolutely wanted a riot. They absolutely wanted looting. Minneapolis Council Rep Steve Fletcher wrote today about how the police will literally delay responses to calls in order to blackmail City Council reps into signing off on budget increases. Their goal was — probably not seeing their own precinct house burn? — but they wanted to punish the politicians and citizens demanding police accountability, both the ones standing outside their precinct (who they could shoot rubber bullets at and tear gas at) and the ones staying home (who voted for Frey, Fletcher, etc.) They also wanted to change the headlines from “Minneapolis police officers murder unarmed man for no reason” to “rioting sweeps through city.”
That same night, there was also looting in Uptown. I think this was local, opportunistic, and related to the protests only in the sense that everyone in the area paying attention to developing events knew that the police were not responding to calls. The Uptown looting was three miles from the protest.
The next night (Thursday), police evacuated and protesters burned down the precinct. It’s possible some outsiders had shown up (I think we actually know for sure there was at least one, that brain genius from Illinois who livestreamed himself handing out fireworks and trying to get other people to throw them) but I can tell you that relatively few Minneapolis residents would need much encouragement to burn down that police station, and most of those who would balk at the idea, it would be on the purely pragmatic grounds that they’ll just rebuild the fucking thing anyway so why waste that money on construction. The hostility between the Minneapolis police and the community they swagger around runs deep.
A number of buildings near the police station burned that night as well (like the restaurant Gandhi Mahal, which was a beloved neighborhood institution, and what was left of Town Talk). Those fires might have been set by protesters because riots are unpredictable. But fire also spreads. And the police were using flash-bangs, which can start fires, and there were protesters using fireworks, which can start fires.
Thursday was also a day with a lot of looting in St. Paul, mostly along University Avenue between Fairview and Lexington. I’m still not clear on how that got started, but I think that was mostly locals. (ETA: my friends who live in Midway think there was definitely some outsider-arson happening in St. Paul as well — again, more on Friday.) (ETA: they also mostly agree that there was definitely some locally-sourced looting.)
(ETA: This Tweet from Pioneer Press reporter Frederick Melo includes some good analysis from a local business owner, Nneka Constantino, who says that the looting was local, the fires were not. My favorite line from her: “Most young black kids in my family don’t even know how to start a bonfire or an old school charcoal grill.”)
It was Friday night that things changed.
Friday night, there were suddenly fires everywhere.
And this is what I started seeing from people all over Minneapolis: that they were seeing vehicles full of small groups of white men starting these fires. They were masked, organized, working quickly. Their vehicles had no plates, or covered plates, or out-of-state plates. They had tools, and they were smashing their way in, starting fires, and moving to the next location. They were spreading the fires out, using a deliberate strategy to make it impossible for the fire department to have any chance of keeping up. And far from avoiding Black-owned businesses, they were targeting them. Along with Black neighborhoods and diverse multiracial neighborhoods generally.
It has been absolutely surreal this week seeing people on Twitter rolling their eyes and telling us we’re imagining things, and I realized today that it’s a literal vintage horror movie trope. “But Mayor Smith! I saw the monster. It’s real.” “Aw, sure you did, Jimmy. You run along home to your mom, now, tell her you need to go to bed early.” “But Mayor Smith –” “Don’t make me tell you again, Jimmy! I told you there’s nothing in that swamp you need to worry about!”
Fortunately, our local officials believed these reports immediately and organized Saturday meetings to discuss community defense. Across Minneapolis and St. Paul, people organized neighborhood watches, set up their garden hoses, filled buckets, drove out to the suburbs to buy carloads of fire extinguishers to distribute around their block, and basically prepared to be their own fire department. And stood watch, collectively, through Saturday night, watching car after car full of white men driving by at high speeds and in some cases being violently assaulted by law enforcement for being on their own porches as they kept watch.
Sunday in the late afternoon, word went around that people were finding incendiary materials that appeared to have been cached around town, and we were urged to go check our alleys and yards. People found jars and bottles that had been filled with gasoline or kerosene; wood and mattresses and trash that had been soaked with gasoline.
Let me just note that these cars without license plates were everywhere; at least half my friends have seen them. “In 10 minutes saw 4 cars with no plates going north on Hiawatha. All white males,” reported one of my college friends on Twitter. Other friends found cars without plates parked on their block on Saturday. (The cars themselves may be local, at least in some cases: in a thread discussing this, someone noted that her car was stolen and found several days later with the plates removed. It had also been set on fire.)
So yeah — these groups of arsonists absolutely exist. What I don’t think we know with certainty is their ideology. I checked out the articles about that guy from Illinois, and his social media, and his ideology seems to be “WHO HAS TWO THUMBS AND WANTS TO RIOT? THIS GUY!!!” The right wing, of course, thinks it was “antifa.” Here’s my “right-wing or left-wing” analysis, for what it’s worth.
- Regardless of their espoused ideology, if someone is deliberately targeting Black-owned businesses for destruction, they are a white supremacist. If you consider Black lives expendable, and Black pain to be a tool that you can use to your own ends, that is white supremacy, right there. I don’t care if you consider yourself a leftist, you can fucking go to hell, and I hope you get the shit kicked out of you on your way there.
- Everyone agrees that the people in these cars are white men. I would expect groups of leftists to include women and people of color.
- We know there are Boogaloo message boards where people were discussing coming to Minneapolis as early as Tuesday night. (Robert Evans, @iwriteok on Twitter, was monitoring those boards on Tuesday night and Tweeting about it.) (The Boogaloo movement is a group mostly made up of white racists who want to start a second civil war. They are “accelerationists,” which means they wish to make things worse as quickly as possible to speed up this process.)
- If it were leftists you’d really think they’d have hit some of the more upscale areas, wouldn’t you? Not just attack poor and working-class people? Don’t you think “antifa” might have gone after the Calhoun Yacht Club or maybe even gone and looted Edina, instead of Powderhorn and Northside?
And here’s why I think they are mostly outsiders, even if some of the early reports (“every single arrest last night was a person from out of state”) were seriously exaggerated.
- The many reports of missing license plates. There were also some covered plates that when uncovered were out-of-state people.
- Friends in Powderhorn reported a lot of cars having to back out of those weird dead-end streets around the park, as well as a lot of people driving the wrong way on Park Ave and Portland Ave (two very well-known one-way streets running north and south through South Minneapolis).
- If you look at maps of the damage, even while going all over town they mostly stuck to the parts of Minneapolis that are a grid. The non-grid stuff can be very confusing if you’re not used to it, and they mostly avoided the non-grid areas.
- Another piece of local knowledge they didn’t have — there are some business districts in the area where the street running through looks like a highway on Google Maps. There were a handful of “looted, property damage” businesses on those corridors that might have been hit by locals but avoided by the arsonists because they assumed they’d have to find a freeway exit to get to them. (I’ll note, related to this, while there’s a lot of local knowledge suburbanites don’t have they do know which roads through the city are actually highways even if it’s not clear from Google Maps.)
So why aren’t the cops catching more of them? I think it’s because they don’t want to. Because they would much rather terrorize the residents of Minneapolis than catch white supremacists. This is a group that has repeatedly elected Bob fucking Kroll as their union rep and uses mafia-style tactics in selective policing to intimidating City Council reps into not cutting their budget. There is a reason that Minneapolis citizens burned down that police station.
I need to wrap this up and go to bed, so I’ll add, in researching this I found this MPR article that does some similar analysis but with actual interviews and someone who specifically studies extremist groups.
In summary: the protests are not remotely the result of outside agitators. The Minneapolis police are terrible and there’s years of fury built up at their ability to just abuse people for no reason and with no consequences. The arsons, on the other hand: Minneapolis residents are furiously angry about the murder of George Floyd, but they are not burning down Black neighborhoods in response. That’s being done by outsiders.