A crowd of about 500 people looted and shattered windows of some 40 businesses, including Foot Locker and smaller bars and restaurants across downtown. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Another warm summer evening in Minneapolis. Another Black man dead with police in pursuit. Another outburst of anger and destruction.

This time, the Black man—a homicide suspect—took his own life, shooting himself on Nicollet Avenue on Wednesday night. So what to make of the crowds that looted and shattered windows of some 40 businesses, including Saks Off Fifth, Target, Foot Locker and smaller bars and restaurants across downtown?

During the unrest following the police killing of George Floyd, protestors spoke powerfully about police racism, economic inequality, injustice and a city that failed its communities of color. 

But the situation three months later seemed harder to categorize. Reporting late Wednesday night, the New York Times cautiously described the scene on Nicollet Avenue as “protests,” and later mentioned individuals “emerging with merchandise” from stores. On Twitter, meanwhile, reporters from the Star Tribune referred to the crowd as “rioters” and “looters.”

How did things spin out of control—and what did it all mean? 

One explanation comes from Anab Gulaid, a consultant and former deputy assistant commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Human Services. Anab has researched how marginalized groups deal with issues such as housing, mental health, education and criminal justice.

In the immediate aftermath of such events, when the facts still are not clear, traumatized and mistrustful communities “fill in the blanks” based on previous incidents, such as the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, Anab said.

Within three hours, KARE 11 reported a walk-through of the security footage from the Minneapolis Police Department that showed the man shooting himself.

And when the video was released, and the death of the man was confirmed a suicide, activists arrived on the scene to de-escalate violence.

But before that information emerged, Anab says the context was George Floyd, who died with a police officer’s knee on his neck. So too, it was Jacob Blake, shot seven times in the back by an officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin three days earlier, followed by the deaths of two more people on the streets of Kenosha who were shot by a white teenager. They came after the deaths of so many more, which launched the Black Lives Matter movement.

People in Minneapolis on Wednesday night didn’t have correct information, Anab said. When reports first started coming out, they came from a source many don’t trust—the police.

In order to understand what happens in these circumstances and why, Sahan Journal spoke in detail with Anab, who received her master’s in public affairs as a Bush fellow, where she studied the intersection between economic education and health. 

During times of distress, what role does the discussion of economic inequality play in how people protest, riot or loot?

That’s a really complex question and I don’t think we have a whole answer for that. The riots, the looting, burning things down, you have people with different motives all ending up in the same space and it undermines socioeconomic and racial issues. I do not agree or make excuses about looting or destruction of property. But I do understand the deeper roots of inequities and why they happen.

Strangely enough, what has been happening here this summer, people are showing up to riot after a planned event. It’s happening in neighborhoods that are distressed with populations who have dealt with inequality. In Portland, for example, you have people who have historically been there but are still economically marginalized. You see the trend of people who are getting killed, they generally come from areas that experience racism and have economic inequality.

The incident last night could seem random to some, but not surprising to others. On one hand, the shooting, police say, was self-inflicted and the police were not directly involved—but unrest ensued all the same. However, last night’s protests are part of a long line of protests happening across the country throughout the summer. How do you kind of explain that?

I was still processing what was happening in our neighboring state when this happened. In Minneapolis this time, I felt like the government response was more organized. Last night may have just been an unfortunate consequence of events that preceded it. But what I make of it is there’s already mistrust of the police from these populations. People will fill in the blanks, because they’re going by historical context—what happened with George Floyd? What has happened in our neighboring state—it’s very fresh in their minds.

Here, people didn’t have the correct information to know what was going on. And when the information is coming from people that you don’t trust, saying “we had nothing to do with it,” how can you trust the messenger? And who even is the messenger? 

It all comes down to, have you demonstrated enough for me to trust you, that you’re sharing a video with the right information? And is this happening to a population that has historically been mistreated and gunned down in the past? Those two things are intertwined in my head, and we haven’t done enough yet to even address those two things separately.

What might have led people to riot last night?

It would be presumptuous of me to assume all the reasons, because that’s something we would have to learn from the individuals protesting. But my assessment would be that there may be a sense of hopelessness. 

When the normalcy of everyday changes and there is confusion and you suddenly find a group of people on the street protesting at night, sometimes people join in because they’re passionate about the issue. And sometimes they come because they need an outlet to release their frustration. But almost always, you’ll also have people who are just looking for an opportunity to use that situation to engage in criminal activity. 

Sometimes people feel that there won’t be any consequences, because in the midst of chaos, anything is possible. You’re already poor, you don’t care, there are other people around you doing whatever—so why not loot?

Did you know anyone there who got caught in the mix?

Most of the people I know from last night were people who were trying to deescalate the situation and make sure things didn’t get out of control. It’s different from last time. Our response wasn’t great before.

Last time, you had a man down. The story got out. It got national attention. People gathered, and the burning didn’t happen until like the third night. So you had opportunities for people to get organized and bring in their leaders. But at the same time, there wasn’t enough coordinated effort in the state to predict that chaos could erupt.

Whereas now, chaos was at the forefront of everything. It started that way, things didn’t even have to simmer. There was a narrative, but it’s an unfortunate situation in every way because it didn’t help anybody.

Can you break down some examples of inequities that the Black community or the Black immigrant communities in Minnesota face and how that may lead a person to retaliate?

I’m an immigrant myself, a lot of times immigrants are coming to Minnesota for economic prosperity. Other transplants come from different states because they hear about only the good things. In academia, I immediately found out through research that there’s great disparity in Black populations in Minnesota in all the indicators: housing, healthcare, education, criminal justice. It’s very eye-opening because it seems that the prosperity is really not going to populations that live in north Minneapolis or other pockets with a high Black population. 

But I’m also trying to be conscious of the fact that there may be a correlation but it’s not a causation—that there’s more violence in communities where poverty is concentrated. Black communities have gone through many phases of oppression. For example, it’s not like a kid fails in school and then they riot. You have to factor in how police or people in positions of power are involved in that violence.

I can’t see the system as just one thing. A person goes through many layers within the system, and the system fails the Black population in so many ways then. They don’t have that protective layer.

Can you walk me through how a person might process a shooting by police in a neighboring state, white teenager militiamen shooting at protesters, and then a homicide and suicide happen all within one week during a summer of unrest?

I’m not a trauma specialist, per se. But I would say our ability to have a post-traumatic reaction to seeing these incidents will factor into how we process a new incident. Our brain likes to fill in the blanks. If you look at the situation last night, you have this mistrust in the police, so you have a narrative for why those things happened (why the man was shot, even if you don’t know by whom). They might come to the conclusion that this same thing might happen to me, and it may be a trigger point for people. 

And for other people, it was an opportunity to act in a way that’s not right.

Is there anything else that’s on your mind about the incident in Nicollet Mall last night?

It can happen again. If we’re going to put our bets on one thing, I would say let’s build trust. Trust takes time, especially with underserved communities. It takes a long time to build trust and it takes a split second to lose that trust. 

The police might be frustrated and saying “we didn’t do this.” I would say, earn the trust, invest in that trust, show how the system works in people’s lives, not just in relation to the police, but in relation to jobs, economic empowerment, representation in the workplace—show and demonstrate equality.

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.