September 24, 2020

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Fargo takes stock after riot in wake of George Floyd killing

Robb Walvatne holds rocks thrown at police officers Saturday evening. He was part of dozens of volunteers who helped clean up downtown Fargo early Sunday. C.S. Hagen / Fargo Forum</p>

Robb Walvatne holds rocks thrown at police officers Saturday evening. He was part of dozens of volunteers who helped clean up downtown Fargo early Sunday. C.S. Hagen / Fargo Forum

FARGO, N.D. — The smell of pepper spray still hung in the air Sunday as volunteers, police and city workers began cleaning the mess in downtown Fargo after Saturday night’s rioting.

Some volunteers coughed because of the lingering chemical agents and many others cried as they swept up broken glass and collected spent rubber bullets and empty tear gas canisters.

The Exchange building, JL Beers, Vinyl Taco, Gate City Bank, Hotel Donaldson, the Forum and River City Church were damaged by rocks or spray paint.

"Don’t do this to your city, man," said longtime Fargo resident Robb Walvatne as he helped pick up debris. "There were sirens all night long. Listen to that man, we’re 200 miles away from Minneapolis. What is going on in Fargo? Fargo. This is the saddest thing I’ve seen, and I can’t understand what is going on."

"You don’t ruin your city," he said.

Chris Wooten, born and bred in Fargo, joined more than two dozen volunteers who cleaned up the damage mostly on First Avenue North, just east of Broadway.

What began as a peaceful protest in support of Minneapolis's protest against excessive police force Saturday, turned violent later in the day. Restaurant windows were smashed, dumpsters burned, rocks were thrown at police, and police used tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper bullets, and sandbags to disperse crowds in downtown Fargo. C.S. Hagen / Fargo Forum</p>

What began as a peaceful protest in support of Minneapolis's protest against excessive police force Saturday, turned violent later in the day. Restaurant windows were smashed, dumpsters burned, rocks were thrown at police, and police used tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper bullets, and sandbags to disperse crowds in downtown Fargo. C.S. Hagen / Fargo Forum

"This place has always been my home. I think this was a complete overreaction," Wooten said, expressing anger and sadness about the bedlam. He bent down in the street to pick up a pair of pinkish sunglasses. "See? The protesters were destroying themselves."

While shovelling broken glass outside of HoDo, Dan Farnsworth said watching the destruction broke his heart.

"I had trouble sleeping last night after all that happened," he said.

Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney said at a news conference Sunday it was time to rebuild, not retaliate.

"We know we are shocked and you are angry. Last night’s action doesn’t define (Fargo's) people," Mahoney said.

Moorhead Mayor Jonathan Judd also spoke with reporters at the news conference.

"The reason why we're here today is because of George Floyd, and this incident has set off a lot of emotions across the country. I would like to extend condolences," Judd said. "It's hard for me to find the words to express my feelings... this has been an emotional roller-coaster not only for myself, but for individuals I am close to."

A protester triggers a fire extinguisher toward police officer during Saturday night's riot in downtown Fargo. C.S. Hagen / Fargo Forum</p>

A protester triggers a fire extinguisher toward police officer during Saturday night's riot in downtown Fargo. C.S. Hagen / Fargo Forum

George Floyd's death and Saturday's unrest are a wake-up call for Americans, Judd added.

"We need to have a candid conversation about racism in this country... It's time folks," he said.

The violence in downtown Fargo came from about 40 to 50 outside agitators, said Fargo police chief David Todd, who thanked Mahoney and Judd for defusing potential violence earlier in the day on Saturday.

"You could see some hostility in that march, but you could see good people, too," Todd said. "There were a lot of good people. When they reached the police department, it was tense at times… but we had a really good reaction."

After demonstrators met police at the new Fargo police headquarters, the march continued on streets that were not part of the original route. The Fargo Police Department didn’t stop the march, which had about 2,000 people, because of the violence that is occurring in other cities across the United States, Todd said.

"We wanted to let people march and keep people safe," he said.

Police learned about plans to loot and burn downtown from social media, Todd continued. "We started to see more aggression toward our officers."

The protest march in Fargo Saturday, was peaceful, but a group of marchers became violent in the evening. C.S. Hagen / Fargo Forum</p>

The protest march in Fargo Saturday, was peaceful, but a group of marchers became violent in the evening. C.S. Hagen / Fargo Forum

Eighteen people were arrested with 10 were charged with inciting a riot. Four officers needed medical attention, with two police officers suffering concussions after getting hit by rocks, Todd said.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum walked through downtown and felt inspired by the volunteers cleaning up, he said.

"The important message that began (Saturday) morning about justice and humanity and important aspirations for us to come together … it’s lost when it moves from the peaceful protest to what I think can only be characterized as an organized riot," Burgum said.

"It’s clear that there were people that arrived last night not for dialogue, not for progress, but for violence and vandalism," the governor said.

Multiple police departments, the Cass County Sheriff’s Office, the North Dakota National Guard, undercover agents, and other agencies were deployed to the riot, Mahoney said.

Alan Kasin, a co-owner of Pounds, a bar and restaurant on First Avenue North, was filling a tin tub with ice and water bottles on the sidewalk as the cleanup progressed. Backhoes rumbled back and forth from glass, rock and dirt piles.

Fearing for the safety of his staff, he closed his restaurant early Saturday, during the earlier stages of the riot, he said.

Some protesters threw rocks at police, despite being urged to remain non-violent by other protesters. C. S. Hagen / Fargo Forum</p>

Some protesters threw rocks at police, despite being urged to remain non-violent by other protesters. C. S. Hagen / Fargo Forum

"We had to shut down pretty quickly — had to get staff out safely," Kasin said. "All of this stuff is replaceable."

He attended the rally, called Fargo Marches for George Floyd, earlier in the day, and called it inspiring.

"I thought it was pretty emotional. It was everything you would want to see as far as a peaceful assembly," Kasin said.

Before he left his business Saturday, he saw some people trying to calm down protesters.

"You could feel the crowd’s agitation, but at some point, there weren’t enough voices to keep it calm," he said.

"Is this what America is about?" One volunteer woman said out loud while pushing a broom.

Andrew Buck, a longtime Fargo resident, said he joined the protest early on Saturday, and also later when the riot began. He tried to keep people quiet, and at one point was taken into police custody, but released, he said. A tear gas canister flew past his head as well, he said.

Buck joined other volunteers to help clean up because Fargo is his home.

"We had 16 hours of protesting and it took 45 minutes to clean it up," he said.

Erika Kraft, a night nurse at Essentia Health, just got off her shift and headed to downtown to help clean up.

"Some of the money it will take to repair everything could have gone to people who need food and shelter," Kraft said.

— Fargo Forum

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