MINNEAPOLIS — Abe Demaag drove through downtown, watching people break windows and loot businesses and felt the sear of anguish all over again. His own furniture business had been burned down during the unrest that exploded after George Floyd died in police custody.
Floyd’s death on May 25 sparked protests around the country and a national reckoning on racial inequality and police brutality, but the city where it all began remains a powder keg of tension as traumatized residents still reeling from this summer’s events look toward an uncertain future.
“It’s just going to keep going, people have a lot of anger with the police. People are frustrated with the system,” Demaag, 45, said standing outside the charred remains of his former furniture store. “The minute we have this anger, people are going to hijack it and do other stuff again, the same thing. It’s a very scary situation.”
That anger was reignited Wednesday when a murder suspect being pursued by police fatally shot himself outside Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis, sparking false rumors amid mistrust in police that the man had been gunned down by law enforcement.
Police released surveillance video of the man’s death within 90 minutes of the incident, but crowds gathered, leading to protests, looting and confrontations with police as some people began breaking into restaurants and retail stores surrounding the mall.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz declared an emergency in Minneapolis and sent in the National Guard and more than 100 state troopers. Officers used flash-bang grenades to dispel protesters who continued to gather late into the night. More than 130 people were arrested.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey ordered two days of curfews, though Thursday night was largely quiet with a few dozen arrests for curfew violations.
Demaag said the recent unrest felt like the initial lootings and that business owners once again were not getting enough protection.
“We don’t want to be seeing this more again, and if you don’t have control over your city, then who has it?” he asked.
He called on city and state officials to do more to address longstanding issues over injustice and policing that had been brought to a boiling point with Floyd’s killing.
“If that’s not going to be fixed, we’re going to keep suffering more and more of this trauma and things are going to be coming up again,” he said.
Demaag, an immigrant from Ethiopia, and his brother started the Chicago Furniture Warehouse almost 30 years ago, chasing their American dream of having their own business. But waves of mostly peaceful protests that swept Minneapolis after Floyd’s death were marred by several days of looting.
More than a dozen businesses near E. Lake Street and Chicago Avenue were destroyed, including Demaag’s store. Overall, nearly 150 buildings were targeted and set afire, with dozens burning to the ground in Minneapolis and neighboring St. Paul, according to the StarTribune.
Frey said Thursday in a news conference that the “killing of George Floyd has brought a torrent of pain and anguish to our entire city, to our entire nation, and has especially impacted our Black community.”
“It is righteous to vent that pain and anguish in the form of peaceful protest, but what happened last night was neither peaceful nor was it a form of protest that effectively moves us forward,” he said. “Our neighborhoods have endured an extraordinary amount of pain already this year.”
Minneapolis City Council Member Lisa Goodman, who represents the impacted area downtown, said the destruction did nothing to advance racial justice in the city.
“Small, minority-owned businesses were targeted,” she said. “There was no regard for the workers and the people who have put their lifeblood into these businesses.
Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said it was time to restore peace and order.
“Last night we experienced compounded trauma in our city,” he said. “It’s shameful that anyone would ever try to equate the actions last night with Mr. George Floyd. Because it is not. These individuals were not peacefully protesting or assembling.”
Demaag said looters initially broke into his store one evening during protests in late May and June and stole furniture. But they returned the next night, putting furniture outside and setting it on fire before burning down the whole store.
The business was already struggling after being forced to close by the coronavirus pandemic and was destroyed within a week or two of reopening, he said. He has been dealing with financial and insurance issues since and feels little hope of rebuilding what was once a source of pride for his family.
“You follow the American dream thinking you want to grow bigger, you want to serve your community and your people,” he said. “It’s just very distressful. Whoever hijacked the cause of the peaceful protest really did a huge damage, as you see it’s all crumbled and it’s just a very sad situation.”
Demaag said the entire neighborhood, where many of the businesses were Black- and immigrant-owned, was struggling from the damage.
“I think it’s been very traumatized because this is a neighborhood that was almost at zero and was growing fast for the better,” he said.
What remains is rubble and storefronts boarded up with plywood.
“Lake Street is a place for immigrants when they come and they could be accepted into this community,” he said. “This is the place you start your dream, and now that dream is gone, shattered.”
Demaag recently founded the African Immigrant Lake Council to advocate for his community.
Sean Johnson, a member of the group and a local resident, said watching the neighborhood and Black-owned businesses burn was distressing.
The city was traumatized “to the core,” said Johnson, 39. “It’s so unstable right now, we don’t know what’s going to happen. If something doesn’t change, it’s going to keep happening.”
Kristin Berg, a manager at Hen House Eatery, which was looted last week, said the past few months have been “a whirlwind from top to bottom.” The restaurant’s windows were smashed, the liquor was cleared out and several cash registers were stolen.
“In the last couple of weeks, there’s been another tension, it’s back to where we were,” Berg said. “I feel like there’s that second wave of unrest. You add emotion and true feeling to that tension, and it feels like any minute the wrong thing could set it off really bad.
“I’m not really surprised that something so close caused the powder keg to explode,” she continued. “Everyone is questioning everything, it’s very uncertain. Nobody really knows who is protecting who at this point.”
Berg said she knows what she would tell the people causing the damage.
“We’re struggling right along with you,” she said. “We’re working hard and we’re doing what we can, but everyone has been set back.”
She watched a livestream of the destruction and was encouraged when two men tried to stop people from breaking into her restaurant.
“It gave me so much hope sitting here on my couch feeling so hopeless,” she said.