Brooks: A year in the life of the city that killed George Floyd

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·5 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Once upon a time in Minneapolis, a police officer drove through a crowded downtown intersection, aimed a can of Mace out the window, and started spraying bystanders as if they were cockroaches.

Coughing, I tweeted out a brief video of the incident on Hennepin Avenue, then went back to covering the protest last May, under the watchful eye of the Bob Dylan mural. Just another bad moment in the city's worst year.

It has been viewed millions of times since then. A 22-second statement about the relationship between police and the policed, here in the city that killed George Floyd.

A year ago Tuesday, we watched George Floyd die. We watched the people rise up in protest. We watched police meet overwhelming grief with overwhelming force. We watched Lake Street burn.

"This last year has just been a barrage of trauma for all communities," Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said last week, just after a bullet killed 6-year-old Aniya Allen and just before a weekend mass shooting outside a downtown nightclub.

It is hard to move on when it feels like it is not over.

We remember the tears and the prayers, the smell of smoke and the crunch of glass underfoot. The first bright strokes of paint on the mural at the corner of 38th and Chicago. The thump-thump-thump of Blackhawk helicopters overhead. The helpers who spent weeks sweeping up broken glass and donating food to neighborhoods that had lost every grocery store within a 10-mile radius.

The deep bruises all over Terry Hempfling's body faded eventually. The memories have not.

Again and again that week, Hempfling joined the protests. She stood vigil in George Floyd Square and helped medics treating the injured near the Third Precinct police station. That Friday night, she found herself pinned against a chain-link fence near the Fifth Precinct with two other women, trying to unlock their bikes and comply with police orders to go home. There was so much tear gas in the air, she couldn't tell if the streetlights were on or off. Two police lines marched toward them, firing a hail of projectiles.

"I was in such a state of adrenaline, I didn't immediately realize we were being hit," said Hempfling, who has attended protests since she was a baby and had never experienced such violent retaliation. "We were sitting ducks right there, just trying to unlock our bikes. Me, my friend, and one other woman ... from both sides, there were lines of police coming towards us."

Hempfling and her friend vaulted over a fence to safety. The next morning, she woke to find her body covered in bruises from less-lethal projectiles — on her back, on her breast, on her leg, where one bruise spread from her knee to her hip.

We'd like to make sure this sort of violence never happens again, but we can't even get answers about why it happened last time.

The city still has not released the name of the officer who Maced a crowd of people out exercising their constitutional rights last May, or any reports from the incident. Frey said the officer went on unpaid leave a few months later and left the force for good last month.

"I saw the same video that everyone else did and I was angered by what looks like to be a totally unnecessary escalation of a situation that was already completely escalated," Frey said.

Information about that one small incident is tangled in a web of data practice requests and contract law and Minnesota's police arbitration process that undermine the mayor and police chief when they try to discipline their own police force.

A few years ago, the mayor and chief tried to fire the officers who decked out the Fourth Precinct Christmas tree with racist garbage. An arbitrator returned one of the officers to duty last year.

"That whole Macing incident maybe only took a few seconds, but the impact on the public consciousness will be there for years," Frey said. "That particular incident, I think, is ingrained in people's memory and does so much to prevent trust from forming."

There were at least 550 complaints lodged against Minneapolis police during the first two weeks of protest following Floyd's death. The ACLU of Minnesota filed two lawsuits against the city — one on behalf of protesters, including Hempfling; one on behalf of the press. The U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department's use of force.

"We don't know when the next time the police are going to kill another Black, Indigenous or person of color from our community. But we know that's going to happen," said Isabella Nascimento, staff attorney for the ACLU of Minnesota. "We bring these cases to [ensure] when that inevitably happens, the community, protesters and the press aren't inhibited from speaking out, from doing their jobs, from voicing their concerns."

People matter. If the past year taught us anything, you'd think it would have taught us that.

But when it came time for a verdict in the Derek Chauvin murder trial, the city that killed George Floyd wrapped itself in razor wire and stationed military vehicles in the streets to protect property.

And when Daunte Wright was killed at a traffic stop — shot to death by a Brooklyn Center police officer who apparently pulled her gun instead of her Taser — in the middle of the Chauvin trial, police unleashed a ferocious barrage of flashbangs, projectiles and chemical munitions against protesters. They broke bones with rubber bullets.

Late last year, Hempfling left Minneapolis to care for her terminally ill father, a longtime civil rights activist. She returned last month to find the city boarded up and patrolled by National Guard troops.

"I felt terrible being here," she said. "I was really feeling like this is not a place I want to live."

But recently, she's been feeling better. She joined the ACLU lawsuit, putting herself out there once again.

Minneapolis' worst year is almost over.

Whether the next is any better is up to us.

jennifer.brooks@startribune.com

612-673-4008