The moment the convoy of police cars crashed through the locked gates out of Minneapolis’s 3rd precinct station and made a dash for safety, the crowd knew that the area was theirs.
Young men climbed on to barriers police had erected in a futile attempt to protect the station, and chanted the name of the African American man whose death at the hands of a white officer from the precinct had set in motion furious protests across Minneapolis and in cities across the country.
The chant swept the crowd as protesters piled up debris inside the station and set it on fire. Before long, flames licked up the front of the building. A huge cheer went up. Someone let off fireworks.
“No justice, no peace,” came the cry. “Fuck the police.”
But there were no police in sight. A large area around the 3rd precinct, including the Minnehaha shopping mall and streets of businesses, was effectively under the control of the protesters without challenge overnight on Thursday.
By the time the empty police station went up in flames, a handful of other buildings around it were already well ablaze. Others were comprehensively looted as outrage over Floyd’s death drew a widespread peaceful protest to demand justice – in particular the arrest of the officers involved – and an outpouring of anger that turned to destruction.
“Damn right I’m angry,” said Brian Long, an African American man who worked as a mechanic until the coronavirus cut his job. “That cop suffocated George Floyd right there on camera for everyone to see. It was like strangling him with his bare hands. He knew people were watching. He knew he was being filmed.
“He carried on because he had that mindset that the police can kill us and there ain’t nothing we can do about it. Fuck the police.”
Melvin Carter, the mayor of St Paul, which neighbours Minneapolis and saw its own unrest, tweeted an appeal to end the violence and to “keep the focus on George Floyd … and on preventing this from ever happening again”. But many of the protesters were not in the mood.
Buildings burned across Minneapolis and St Paul late into the night, but the area around the 3rd precinct station felt different. Highly unusually, the police retreated entirely and left it to the protesters.
Jacob Frey, the Minneapolis mayor, had said property wasn’t worth dying for, and sought to avoid the kind of face-off between police and protesters that escalated confrontations and deaths during similar protests, such as in Ferguson six years ago, following the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer.
It was a different story 15 minutes’ drive away in St Paul, where the police fired rubber bullets and teargas to disperse a crowd of several hundred people attempting to break into another Target store. But that did not work either.
As the mood worsened, groups broke away to attack other buildings, including a health clinic, restaurants and a phone store, which were set on fire.
As word spread that the 3rd precinct was now a police-free zone, thousands more people poured in from across the city to protest, to loot, just to watch. Groups of young white people dressed in black spray-painted slogans denouncing the police, capitalism and corporate power.
The warnings about social distancing because of coronavirus fell apart as the crowd swelled, but many discovered that their Covid-19 masks were also useful for shielding their identities.
A few hours earlier, hundreds of people set off for downtown on a peaceful protest march, chanting demands for justice, and carrying signs that read “I can’t breathe!!” and “Fuck Donald Trump”. The marchers were accompanied by a large skull on a bike wearing a police hat.
Other protesters stayed behind to hold a rally outside the police station. After several speeches about continuing racial injustice in America, and how the lessons from police killings of African American men rarely seem to be applied, a tussle broke out over whether attacks on buildings were a legitimate form of protest.
An older generation of speakers said it would distract from the demands for justice for Floyd. That racists would use it to justify police violence.
Kim Edwards, an African American man, appealed to people to stop the looting. He said the lesson of the past was to use economic boycotts to bring about change, because the political system responds to money. Destroying the shops people need only hurts the community, he said.
As the mood worsened, groups attacked other buildings, including a health clinic, restaurants and a phone store
“Our power is in our pocketbook, not burning down the buildings we need,” he said.
Others disagreed. To them, Floyd’s death was symptomatic of the whole range of injustices that minorities and poor Americans live with. And corporate America is part of that, too.
A young African American woman said people should look to the Los Angeles riots after the Rodney King verdict nearly 30 years ago.
“Burn this bitch down,” she shouted.
A man snatched the microphone back and admonished her.
“We ain’t going to burn nothing down. We don’t need no foolishness at the microphone,” he said.
But another young woman immediately stepped up.
“When we were protesting peacefully, nothing gets done,” she said.
The crowd was with her.
Others used spray-paint to make their point. Graffiti covered the area.
“Police murdered George.”
“I can’t breathe!!!”
“Everything for everybody.”
Some of the burned buildings appeared to be the kind to draw resentment. A pawn shop was completely gutted. Others had what people wanted. A liquor store. A tobacco shop.
The stripping of the Target store went on into the early hours of Friday morning. A steady stream of people waded through inches of water from the sprinklers set off by fires. By dawn, it had been plundered of everything from clothes to furniture and medicine. Water, soft drinks and snacks taken from the shelves were distributed free to protesters at a pop-up market in the car park.
Wade Chen spent the night defending his family’s laundry business next door to a looted convenience store and two badly damaged schools, although that did not stop a woman from smashing a window.
“Doing this hurts our community. People have to wash their clothes, they have to shop. Where are they going to go when they don’t have transportation?”
Some owners painted “minority owned” on to the windows in the hopes of discouraging attacks, and that appeared to be enough in many cases. A man stood outside a store near the Target, telling anyone who came near that the business was owned by Somalis. People nodded and moved on.
Every now and again, word swept through parts of the crowd that the national guard had arrived, and a stampede would begin before quickly fizzling out. But the military did not appear, and the few police officers who showed their faces were there to accompany firefighters working around the edges to ensure fires did not spread to residential neighbourhoods.
As dawn broke on Friday morning, buildings still smouldered and burned, but the crowds were gone and the police were back. A few in riot gear blocked main roads into the area around the 3rd precinct. It did not look likely to deter another day and night of protest.