In cities across the Iron Range, hundreds of people took to the streets on Sunday to join a nationwide display of outrage over the death of George Floyd.
Several dozen people met outside Hibbing High School and held signs that read, “I can’t breathe” and “No justice, no peace” as they cheered as passerbys honked horns in support of the peaceful event. There were young and old white, black and Hispanic members of the community. The protestors made their way to city hall and at one point marched a loop onto Howard Street to 1st Avenue before heading back to the government building.
In Virginia, an estimated crowd of about 200 gathered at the St. Louis County Courthouse parking lot and marched past the city’s police department and around the nearby block. The protestors kneeled down for 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence to signify how long it took for Floyd to be killed in police custody.
Despite widespread fear from citizens, both of the protests ended peacefully and there were no official reports of rioting, looting or vandalism. There were also no official cases of people violating curfews.
Hibbing Mayor Rick Cannata acknowledged that the cities on the Iron Range are unique in the sense that they are vastly smaller in population than most of the cities implementing curfews across the country due to riots.
“As a city, it’s better to be prepared for anything and hope for the best,” Cannata said on Monday evening. “I wanted to keep the citizens and the city safe, because you never know what’s going to happen. I would do it again.”
He added, “I appreciate the protesters. Everyone has a right to protest and they did it very peacefully. It went off without a hitch.”
“It was all very peaceful,” Hibbing Police Chief Steven Estey echoed on Monday. “The group that was protesting yesterday was very respectful to everyone. Some of my officers engaged in conversation with them. It was good for officers and the protesters.”
Estey had received “intel” on Saturday of the “possibility of unruly protesting that could occur like in other cities, including Bemidji.” He met with Cannata, the city administrator and the fire and public works departments to create a game plan.
Virginia Mayor Larry Cuffe Jr. said his city was prepared for “vans of people” to show up during the protests or after nightfall to cause problems and so he coordinated a response with his staff, the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office and the Duluth Police Department.
The information proved moot, local officials said, for the benefit of the communities.
“That’s what protesting is supposed to be like,” the mayor said, reiterating the peacefulness of the events.
Officials further chalked up the successful protests to area mayors and law enforcement that set a tolerant, yet strict tone early on as protestors carried out their events in a peaceful manner, even ending before curfews in both cities to show their communities that they had no intention of becoming violent.
Cuffe said that Virginia had a few unrelated incidents Sunday, despite receiving numerous phone calls from worried residents that protests would turn into rioting as seen in other regional locations across the state. Estey echoed the outcome on behalf of Hibbing.
“Our city was very proactive and took the correct approach,” Estey said. “We had a large number of law enforcement personnel out Sunday to be safe and make sure everyone in the community was safe.” The police department was also assisted by the sheriff’s deputies from St. Louis and Aikin counties.
“Overall, in the 24-hour-cycle, there were very little to no issues,” Estey said. “The little issues we did have were nothing bad. A couple noise complaints, but nothing over the top.”
He added, “There’s a lot of stuff on social media that we took seriously, but in the end had no validity to it. We always air on the side of caution, but a lot of it wasn’t true.”
The protesters in Hibbing and Virginia were proud that their peaceful events were not followed up with any sort of chaos after curfew.
“Everyone had a lot of doubts about the protest going south, but that’s not why we were here,” said Mariah Maki, a Hibbing resident who helped organize the local protest that wrapped up about 45 minutes before the 9 p.m. curfew. “We wanted to show that if there’s people here with an alternative motive then they’re not here with us protests. If anything happens, it’s not one of us.”
Christopher Horoshak, who spoke at the Virginia protest, explained that the demonstration dispersed nearly five hours before curfew. “We all came together and wanted to show Minnesota that a peaceful protest could be done and that’s all we wanted to do, nobody their wanted a riot,” said Horoshak, who just filed candidacy to run as a DFLers for the State Senate District 6 against longtime incumbent David Tomassoni to represent the Iron Range.
The announcement of the protests earlier that week ignited fear among citizens across the Iron Range, as business owners and residents continued to watch the destructive riots about 200 miles south in Minneapolis spread across dozens of cities throughout America.
Area mayors imposed curfews Sunday and police officers maintained a visible presence throughout the day and well into the night. Big Box stores like Target and Walmart closed their doors. Small businesses, restaurants and gas stations closed up shop as well.
The precautionary closure of the Target location in Virginia was part of a wider response by the corporation, which closed or reduced hours at about 200 stores and indefinitely shuttered six, including two in Minneapolis, where the Lake Street store was heavily looted and destroyed late last week.
“We are heartbroken by the death of George Floyd and the pain it is causing communities across the country,” said Target CEO Brian Cornell in a press statement. “We have made the decision to close a number of our stores...Our focus will remain on our team members’ safety and helping our community heal.”
Meanwhile, there was a storm of social media rumors that claimed rioters who would take to looting and vandalizing the local communities. Many users locally shared pages noted the popularity of gun-ownership among citizens and commented — some aggressively — on their intent to protect themselves with firearms against people seeking to bring harm into their neighborhoods.
“Was just notified that Hibbing is targeted for a big riot…,” Erik Lietz, the owner of the BoomTown restaurant posted onto Facebook, a message widely circulated across the region. He reported seeing plateless vehicles and “suspicious people” behind the brewery. “The city is clearing the streets and we’ve been advised to remove everything that could cause damage from the patio. I’ll be there armed and ready to protect my building if these s**theads show up. Feel free to join and protect Hibbing.”
When asked about Lietz’s comment on being armed in front of BoomTown, Estey said that “there was nothing suspicious or illegal or unlawful that our agencies responded to at all.”
Jessica and Erik Lietz, who co-own BoomTown, wrote in a statement Monday evening, saying they were readying their restaurant to service customers beginning on June 1 when they heard about the possibility of a riot in the city. “You just don’t expect those kinds of problems here on the Range,” they wrote.
The Lietzs wanted to clarify Erik’s post by explaining that “anyone who watched the Floyd video, no matter where you are from, was horrified and demanded justice. What unfolded in Minneapolis was far beyond a peaceful protest and it left the city in ashes.”
They added, “We immediately planned on protecting our building and livelihood from the potential threat. Things are different on the Range, we have always had to fight for our jobs up here and we don’t take kindly to threats.”
Many people in Hibbing volunteered to stand guard in front of BoomTown on Sunday, though not everyone agreed with how the owners responded on social media. “...But not everyone has had their way of life ripped away from them over the past months,” they wrote, in regards to suffering an economic toll due to the statewide restrictions on businesses amid the spread of the coronavirus.
The threat of a riot was eventually called off, and the Lietzs say that “the only action we saw all day was the group of young people peacefully protesting around town.”
There were also rumors of buses carrying out-of-town rioters.
“Not that we can say for sure,” Estey said. “Again, social media.”
Nevertheless, business owners stayed outside after curfew to guard their storefronts on dimly-lit, empty main streets. Several of them also expressed overall support for the protestors, but noted their anxieties heightened due to rumors on social media and considering the possibilities of outsiders turning their properties into ruins, as has occurred in The Cities and numerous cities across the country.
Mike Egan and several of his friends stood outside his bar on Howard Street in Hibbing after curfew to keep an eye on his business.
“I think it’s ridiculous that we have to worry because a group might want to destroy where we work,” said Egan, the owner of Mike’s Pub. “I’m not worried about the protesters. I have a problem with those anarchists that do what they want. You have to protect what you have whether the riots come or not.”
Nearby, Ray Davidson, who owns property across the street that once held Bar 412, agreed with those sentiments, saying “you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
“Looters are criminals and protesters are protesters,” Davidson continued. “There’s a difference.”
The four men on the sidewalk, all white, took turns blaming the media for hyping up much of the current unprecedented happenings in the world and in the U.S., including COVID-19 and the free-flowing riots in numerous states that politicians say has nothing to do with the peaceful protests in the name of Floyd.
“The media almost glamorizes the bulls**t that’s going on,” Davidson said. “Because the media makes it look cool to be out there and burn some storefront people want to join up.”
Egan clarified with a nod of approval, offering, “People want to watch people break things.” He added, “Being here on the Range, everyone thinks we’re away from that, but it’s right in our backyard.”
The men, all having lived in Hibbing, were asked their opinions on the Floyd case.
“If the gentleman that was killed was a white man killed by a black man would you see the same thing?” Egan said.
They were asked about the racial division on the Iron Range, following the anecdotes of protesters of color having long dealt with racism in white public schools and in the community and the St. Louis County Commission refusing to greenlight the refugee resettlement program. In a recent county meeting, the commission received three hours worth of comments from people in the region voicing strong opinions against refugees coming into the county despite there being only one placed here since 2011. Several of those opposed to resettlement made unrelated notes in the commission meeting that many refugees were Muslim, not Christian or Lutheran like most people who historically moved into the region.
“There’s racism everywhere, in Hibbing and Minneapolis,” Egan said.
The men here talked about the various divisions of cities in America, including Hibbing, where there has “long been tension” among Polish and Slavic families, or between the Catholics and Protestants, just like many other communities.
Egan and Davidson, who both grew up in Minneapolis, recalled the old regional adage: “Don’t expect to be an Iron Ranger because you’re from Minnesota.”
During the conversations, several African-American men drove by in a vehicle while calling out their windows, “Black Lives Matter,” before driving down the street.
Those on Howard Street looked at one another in silence for several moments.
“That makes me nervous,” said Josh Thronson, of Hibbing, who was then standing beside his young white daughter.
His friends nodded in agreement.
Despite the build-up to the protests, the mayors and police chiefs on the Iron Range had nothing but good things to say about the protestors.
Early into the protest in Hibbing, Mayor Cannata announced that he signed an “emergency order” to implement a curfew from 9 p.m. Sunday until 6 a.m. Monday, June 1.
“The curfew will help ensure the safety of our citizens and businesses, and it will help to ensure the safety of our public safety employees,” Cannata said in the statement posted on the Hibbing Police Department’s Facebook page. “Our job as a city is to keep our community safe, and we need the citizens help by having them abide by this curfew.”
The city of Virginia issued a similar curfew from 10 p.m. Sunday to 6 a.m. Tuesday, June 2, unless cancelled by Cuffe or the council. Exemptions included media, medical personnel, those traveling to and from work or seeking medical attention, falling in line with curfews set in at least 25 cities across 16 states.
Cuffe said the curfew narrowed down nighttime activity for police, law enforcement and fire/EMS crews to monitor within the city.
He noted Virginia has a small police staff and does not own tear gas or rubber bullets used in other violent protests to deter and disperse people. The equipment is expensive and is not likely to be needed on a regular basis in the city of about 8,000 people, so it is handled through a regional approach and managed by the county.
“We don’t have that,” Cuffe said. “We don’t store that.”
Standing outside the Hibbing High School on Sunday, Chelsea Robinson, a daughter of an African American man and white mother who grew up in a city with a predominantly white population of 16,000 residents, said she had made a Facebook post earlier this week about her interest in organizing a protest.
“I wanted to send a message that black lives matter,” said Robinson, 26, who shared that she was one of the only black kids in school here and was often called racial epithets by her classmates.
As an adult, Robinson said she “is safe in the good community” among her neighbors, but there are often times when she feels unwelcome due to passive aggressive — or sometimes, not so passive — comments throughout the city.
Her friend, Maki, a white woman raising a biracial son in the city, helped organize the protest by co-creating a Facebook event page on Friday with several other women.
“George Floyd’s death hits hard when I’m a mother of a black son,” said Maki, 26. “I don’t want to raise him where we have no rights and no protection from the cops.”
The protest was borne out of a Facebook event page last Thursday that sparked the interest of several dozen in Hibbing. The local police department took to social media on Saturday to post a news release on the protest planned for Sunday outside the high school and a separate one set for Monday before city hall.
“The Hibbing Police Department respects a peaceful protest and asks the public to use safety during the protest if it occurs,” Estey said in the statement.
The chief warned potential protestors that they could not hold their event on private property without permission and they could not block streets and throughways without city permits. Estey noted that the officers take “great pride in protecting and serving all members of our community.
He added, “Our police department’s biggest strength is our community members and we ask for your support in respecting all community members' viewpoints during these difficult times in our state.
He asked citizens and business owners to contact the police department if anyone observes “suspicious or illegal activity” at the events.
The Sunday protests in Hibbing and Virginia came several days after Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man, died on Monday after being handcuffed and pinned to the ground by Minneapolis police. Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, used his knee to pin down Floyd. Bystanders took a cell phone video of the scene and captured Floyd repeatedly saying, “I can’t breathe,” while other police officers stood by and did not intervene.
The video shared on social media showed that the official statement from the Minneapolis Police Department of the arrest did not match what had happened.
The Minneapolis police chief, Medaria Arradondo, has since fired all four officers involved in the arrest of Floyd. The Hennepin County attorney’s office announced charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter against Chauvin, who remains at the Ramsey County Jail.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced Sunday that he asked Attorney General Keith Ellison to lead the prosecution on the case. Ellison accepted and on Monday told the media that he expected to file charges on the three officers on scene by Friday. Arradondo had called them “complicit” for their inaction.
While many people have held peaceful protests in Minneapolis, a diverse city of 423,403 residents, many rioters have taken to burning down businesses, looting and vandalism on a large scale. Walz activated the National Guard and authorities have been firing rubber bullets into crowds and using tear gas on people from both in-and-out of state, including journalists.
The protests in the Twin Cities led to demonstrations in other states and the National Guard being sent to at least 23 states and Washington, D.C., as of Monday.
Amid the turmoil, Minneapolis Mayor Frey implemented a curfew and called on people to stay home, saying that there were white supremacists and members of organized crimes preying on the city. But many people continue to break the curfew and tension remains palpable between them and an aggressive police force.
The city of Minneapolis remains on fire.
Cuffe, a retired St. Louis County deputy, watched the video of Floyd’s death. He said officers have a tough job and have to take in the whole situation when making an arrest.
The mayor pointed to the wide condemnation of Chauvin as a sign of how far the scales of public opinion have tipped against his actions.
“If it shakes the conscience of your community, it’s probably the wrong thing to do,” Cuffe said. “It was a devastating and very tragic event.”
Protesters in smaller cities across Minnesota have been holding their own events albeit not nearly as chaotic.
At least seven adults and four juveniles were arrested on Saturday night in Duluth, by police officers from Duluth and Superior and the St. Louis County sheriff’s deputies. What began as a peaceful event in downtown Duluth, a city of 85,884 residents, ended with the blocking Interstate 35, burned vehicles, allegations of officers being assaulted and authorities using tear gas on citizens late in the night.
Nonetheless, the protests in Hibbing and Virginia were peaceful, yet those involved noted tension regarding decisions from local officials and law enforcement and the reaction from citizens who they felt confused them with outsiders seeking to riot.
About 50 people initially expressed their sorrow over Floyd's death in front of the high school before Hibbing police officers — working in conjunction with St. Louis County sheriff’s deputies — moved to close off nearby streets, citing safety reasons. Staff at the Hibbing Public Works Departments drove onto the scene and placed down barricades which prompted the protestors to walk down 21st Avenue and onto the lawn of city hall, where they continued to peacefully hold their signs and welcome the horns of passersby.
Several drivers yelled expletives and threats from their vehicles, a physical manifestation of some of Iron Range residents who have expressed anti-protest and violent remarks on social media in the past few days.
In front of city hall, Tom Steinke, a 64-year-old white man who moved to Hibbing more than three decades ago from Michigan, recalled growing up at the time of the 1967 Detroit Riot which turned into one of the most violent race riots in American history.
Steinke considered the makeup of the Iron Range. “It has a history of immigrants, but a history of white immigrants,” he said. “There’s a lack of exposure to racial diversity. It’s not anyone’s fault. That’s just how it is and I think supporting “Black Lives Matter” opens the doors for all ethnicities.”
That afternoon, he looked forward to visiting with his biracial grandson in Eveleth. The boy is one of the reasons he took part in the event. “I don't want this to be the kind of world that’s left to him,” he said. “Change has to come. It impacts everyone across the country, even little communities like Hibbing.”