MINNEAPOLIS — William Howell was awestruck by the destruction and passion and blazes he saw in the Twin Cities this past week.
The 38-year-old African-American Racine native felt impassioned to hear the messages of anti-police brutality and anti-mass incarceration being heard on an international stage.
He also hopes the destruction doesn’t reach his beloved hometown of Racine.
“I don’t want to see my city burn,” Howell said during a phone conversation Sunday morning, less than 24 hours after he got back home.
What he witnessed
The first thing he saw upon arriving in Minneapolis at about 7 p.m. Thursday night was a CVS Pharmacy on fire being looted. He saw CNN broadcasting from in front of a pawn shop engulfed in flames. That night, the Minneapolis Police Department’s Third Precinct building would be set on fire. On Friday, a fast-food restaurant that was intact in the evening was seen burning to the ground after dark.
“As soon as you come into the city bro: smoke, chaos,” Howell said. “These buildings were just exploding … When I say chaos, I mean chaos!”
He isn’t afraid to admit that “I was afraid” of potential violence, even while chanting “No justice! No peace!” along with thousands of others. Still, he said that, somehow, “It was the most peaceful demonstration of destruction.”
Although some looted stores for personal gain, others redistributed stolen water bottles and granola bars and hand sanitizer among the crowd.
Howell characterized it like this: “You take the supplies and give them to the people who need it. That’s a message of peace …
“If you weren’t there, you can’t understand it.”
During Milwaukee’s protest on Saturday, where some damage was reported one night after more than a dozen businesses reported damage, protest organizers passed out free water and juice (and, in at least one instance, pizza) to those marching through the streets.
Diverse crowds, diverse destruction
“Every color. Every creed. Everyone was represented. And not one argument between them,” Howell said, a contrast to the slices of violence that have led news broadcasts and newspaper front pages. “It was the people for the people … When someone would bump into you, they would apologize.”
In a Facebook post, Corey Prince — a Racine man who is also the chairman of the Wisconsin NAACP Criminal Justice Committee and has been in the Twin Cities for the protests — said “People across the country are demonstrating not just for Mr. George Floyd — but because THIS WEEK-GEORGE FLOYD IS THE FINAL STRAW!!”
The reason these demonstrations have risen to the severity of riots, according to Howell and others, is the unending nationwide frustration with the rate at which unarmed black men like George Floyd are killed by police. According to data analyzed by The Washington Post, unarmed black men are almost five times more likely per capita to be killed by police while than unarmed white men.
That statistic, and corporate America’s general lack of action about it, have driven some to the acts of vandalism and property destruction to make sure they are heard. When quiet protests appear to fall on deaf ears, others “are learning that violence is the key,” according to Howell. “The chaos is just the message to the higher power.”
Howell, along with Milwaukee-based videographer Laura Kezman, are making a documentary about racial inequality based around the death of Ty’Rese West, the 18-year-old who was shot and killed after running from a Mount Pleasant police officer on June 15 of last year. Kezman and Howell drove up together and united with Prince on Friday.
When Howell and Kezman got out of their car at the CVS Thursday night, a van full of people appeared next to them, posing for Kezman’s camera and yelling “Burn the city! Burn it!” Howell thinks that part of that posturizing is comes from people who “wanted to be heard” after their complaints have long felt unheard. “They wanted to be seen.”
The pain of lost jobs for low-wage workers and insurance premiums for businesses “are just small losses compared to George Floyd dying with a knee in his neck,” Howell said.
“We lose lives. Y’all lose property … Y’all don’t care, so we won’t care,” Howell said of the thinking for a lot of the most aggressive protesters.
In an opinion article published Saturday in the Los Angeles Times, NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote “Don’t understand the protests? What you’re seeing is people pushed to the edge.”
Howell heard gunshots a few times, but no one has been reported as shot from the days he was in the Twin Cities; on Wednesday, one person died in a shooting leading to an arrest in Minneapolis. Early Saturday morning, a Milwaukee police officer suffered a gunshot wound.
Minnesota’s governor and attorney general have blamed outsiders for inciting violence there. Prince said he witnessed a white man start a fire at a Walgreen’s on Saturday in Minnesota, and Howell said, “When people just think it’s black people getting crazy — No.”
In a statement issued Friday, Target Corporation Chairman and CEO Brian Cornell even voiced support for the protests while one of his stores on Lake Street in Minneapolis — which employs some 200 people — was being ransacked; Target’s headquarters are in Minneapolis.
“The murder of George Floyd has unleashed the pent-up pain of years, as have the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor,” Cornell wrote. “We say their names and hold a too-long list of others in our hearts. As a Target team, we’ve huddled, we’ve consoled, we’ve witnessed horrific scenes similar to what’s playing out now and wept that not enough is changing. And as a team we’ve vowed to face pain with purpose.”
But Howell asked, "Where’s all these corporations when innocent people are being killed and these police officers are walking away?”
Calling for peace through a loudspeaker
Standing in the back of a box truck Saturday morning, wielding a microphone and channeling Martin Luther King Jr.-like public speaking skills, Prince spoke to a crowd gathered in the Twin Cities.
“A Target that does not employ any black people in the upper-level management is not part of my community. It’s not; it’s not a part of my community. Your pharmacy that gives billions of dollars to pharmaceutical companies, although my grandmother does get her drugs from there, you don’t give anything back to her. All you do is take. The drug store that burned down; where is the investment in the community?” Prince said. “Let me put a disclaimer on it. I’m not advocating for violence. I’m not advocating for looting. I’m advocating for white people to do the right thing. You want it stop burning? Stop treating us like we need to burn it!”
Milwaukee Police Chief Alfonso Morales condemned this kind of thinking. “These businesses are from our community. These are businesses that grandma goes to get her medication. These are businesses that grandma walks to get her food,” he said Saturday during a press conference cut short by yelling protesters.
As the days went on, Howell said he was “scared” to stick around, even if “the world was finally listening.” There have been too many incidents of violence — committed by protesters against police, police against protesters, protesters against counter-protesters and counter-protesters against protesters — for Howell to feel safe and feel like he could keep Kezman safe. One night, they saw young people stealing, driving and crashing U.S. Postal Service trucks. “Mail trucks, really?” Howell wondered. That was one of the signs for that some people were going too far and lost sight of the original protest.
During his box-truck speech on Saturday, Prince said: “You want to talk about 400 years of systemic oppression to slavery to Jim Crow to prison convict leasing to mass incarceration to everything that black folks continue (to face); to Eric Garner to Tamia Rice to Orlando Castillo to George Floyd to everything we’ve endured ... It’s why Maya Angelou said ‘And Still I Rise.’ But still we rise. But still we rise! The United States of America has the phoenix on the dollar bill. We, the black people, are the phoenix. And still we will rise.”
Clarification: The story has been updated from an earlier form.