Minnesota Senate holds first hearing about civil unrest in Minneapolis.

By: Sheila Regan, Freelance Community Journalist

Senator Scott Newman (R, Hutchinson) called a joint Transportation and Judiciary Committee hearing on July 1 on the subject of businesses damaged or destroyed in recent riots. Lasting six hours, the hearing was the first of five or six hearings Newman said the joint committee would hold, taking on the topic of the unrest following George Floyd’s death by police. 

“These hearings that we are going to have—there are going to be 5-6 of them total,” Newman said at the start of the hearing. “These are not about police reform, and they are not about defunding the police department.” He went on to say the hearings would be about learning what happened during the unrest between May 26 and June 10. “I think it’s important that we listen very hard to what our testifiers are going to say,” he said.

The DFL members, meanwhile, questioned the motives of the meeting. “I do want to express on behalf of my colleagues and my constituents that I hope that we’re here with open minds and open hearts, to find out that truth of a very, very complex set of dynamics that led to the civil unrest,” said Senator Scott Dibble (DFL, Minneapolis.) “And I hope we’re not here on a curated, non-objective, one sided effort to create a pre-determined political narrative that assigns blame and has as its focus the elections in November. But I’m skeptical.” 

The hearing included testimony and question/answer sessions with representatives of different businesses (as well as one friend of a business owner). Before that, the hearing began with a lengthy video reel of news clips highlighting rioting, looting, and fires during the unrest. The video, which contained an “R” at the bottom right corner, put there by the Republican communications staff that created the video, evoked critique by DFL lawmakers. 

“That ‘R’ just bothers me,” said Senator Melisa Franzen (DFL, Edina) later in the hearing. “Never have I seen it come from a caucus to lay a foundation of what we want the public to see.” 

Senator Matt Klein, (DFL, Mendota Heights) had similar concern about the video. “I felt the video was inflammatory,” he said, adding that clips in the video of Governor Walz reacting to the unrest were taken out of context. “I think it was a disservice to this subject as a whole,” he said. 

Newman said that in future hearings, he would engage the minority caucus about the content of the videos. 

The business testifiers spoke of damage done to their businesses, frustration with how authorities responded during the unrest, and ongoing issues with the city as they try to rebuild. 

Among the testifiers was Quenton Scherer, who works for Metro Equity LLC, a property management firm that oversees property at 2510 Lake Street and one other location impacted by the unrest. Scherer expressed frustration with the police response during the unrest. “When I saw the officers leave their precinct, we knew we were abandoned,” he said. “I feel like the police department was under direction to give up, let the riots go and everyone will have to clean up afterwards.”

Scherer said he called the 5th precinct for help about securing the building at 2510 Lake Street, and was told to try to get a hold of the mayor’s office or the police chief.

Robert Awaijane, whose parents own the Stop-n-Shop at 1700 E. Lake St., said he and his parents were attacked by police during the unrest. “The police came with rubber bullets, and maced our property,” he said. “We weren’t making any noise… I got maced twice. While I was on the ground, I said, ‘This is my family’s business.’ She said, ‘Get down.’ I got maced in the face. My dad got hit with a rubber bullet. It got bad.”

Other business owners, including Lonnie John McQuirter, owner of Lyn Refuel Station at 36th and Chicago, and Jim Stage, owner of Lloyd’s Pharmacy on Snelling Ave. in Saint Paul, spoke of staying up all night during the unrest protecting their property. “We were in front of the business for 10 days,” McQuirter said. “Sleeping during the daytime for an hour to an hour and a half each day.” 

Both DFL and Republican lawmakers expressed sympathy with the business representatives, but conflicted with each other about the way the hearing was structured, and who was allowed to speak, and why it was even taking place. 

Among the points of contention from the minority DFL, was why Senator Torres Ray (DFL, St. Paul), whose district is where the unrest took place, was not allowed to speak at the hearing (she eventually was allowed to speak at the end.) 

“I have been serving in this committee in this Senate for 14 years, and let me tell you this— every single time we have a tragic incident in our state, the people from those districts actually lead the conversation,” she said. “When we have a tornado, when we have a flood, those people are the people who are invited to lead this conversation.” 

In his closing comments, Newman reiterated that he wanted to continue investigating what happened during the unrest. “The issue that I am trying to shine a light on is the rioting and the violence and criminal activity that you folks have had to live through,” he said.

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