People board up a business on Nicollet Avenue in downtown Minneapolis the day after unrest on August 26. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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From the 53rd floor of the Capella Tower in downtown Minneapolis, Daniela Cisneros could see that something was wrong. An unusual number of police cars were headed downtown, mustering just a few blocks away from the skyscraper where she works as a janitor.

Cisneros stayed focused on cleaning, until she got a notification on her phone around 10:45 p.m. on Wednesday night: A citywide curfew had already been in effect for 45 minutes. Suddenly she had to figure out how to get back to her home in north Minneapolis. But the bus system had shut down. Cisneros’s mother offered to come pick her up. But the entrances to downtown Minneapolis were blocked off. 

“I was really scared,” she said.

After about an hour, her mother found a way into downtown, picking up Cisneros and a co-worker. Cisneros said her supervisors allowed her to leave. But she doesn’t know if she’s going to be paid for the hours she missed, or for Thursday’s canceled shift. 

“I’m worried what’s going to happen, because I just came back to work,” Cisneros said. Her mother and sister have also lost work during the pandemic, and family finances are tight. “I don’t know if I’m going to go back or what’s going to happen right now,” she said.

Rumors flew on social media Wednesday night: The Minneapolis police had allegedly killed another Black man. That account turned out to be false. (It appears instead that a man suspected in a homicide shot himself on Nicollet Avenue.) The incident came days after police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shot Jacob Blake in the back seven times—and allowed a 17-year-old white vigilante to walk away after allegedly killing two protesters. 

The convergence provided a spark for community rage. And deep distrust of the police, at a simmer since Minneapolis police killed George Floyd three months ago, boiled over again.

This time the looting was focused downtown, home to many of Minnesota’s biggest companies. It came at a time when many people, especially in communities of color, have been economically stretched to their breaking point, less than a month after the Trump administration and Republicans in the Senate rejected the renewal of federal unemployment benefits.

But immigrants who work and own businesses downtown got caught in the middle of last night’s looting, too. They support the movement for Black lives, they said. But they need the government to step in and address problems with public safety and failed policing.

‘I want to go home, but I don’t know what to do’

Just three miles east from where Cisneros worked, Alejandra Ruiz was roughly one hour into her night shift cleaning the North Star Professional Building, near the University of Minnesota. That’s when she got a text message from a friend.

The City of Minneapolis had just announced an emergency curfew, her friend texted her, and everybody had to be inside their homes by 10 p.m. 

Ruiz, who usually works weeknights from 9 p.m. until 2 a.m., said she immediately felt fearful. She’d been out of town when the property destruction and looting hit Minneapolis and St. Paul in late May and early June, after police officers killed George Floyd. And her workplace is just a five-minute drive from downtown. 

“I was so nervous,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘I want to go home, but I don’t know what to do.’”

Worried that walking off the job would result in her firing, Ruiz called her supervisor for direction. But she couldn’t get a hold of him. She also couldn’t reach any of her coworkers. At a loss, she called Antonia Alvarez, a friend known in the community for her local advocacy work with Latino immigrants. Like Ruiz, Alvarez came to Minnesota from Mexico several years ago. 

Alvarez told Luiz to go home, right away. Ruiz promptly hopped into her truck and drove to her home in Blaine. As she drove north, she watched several police cars descending into  downtown. 

“I was scared and didn’t feel safe,” Ruiz said. “I thought that something was going to happen to me.” 

She arrived home around 10:45 p.m., around the time that Minneapolis residents got an emergency alert on their cell phones. For the first time since June, Minneapolis was under a curfew again.

Ruiz is one of around 10 night cleaners whom Alvarez advised to leave their jobs Wednesday night. Crowds nearby broke into several dozen businesses in downtown Minneapolis, stole property and clashed with police, before scattering to other parts of the Twin Cities. 

In this fraught situation, some workers, Alvarez said, left their jobs and got on buses without necessarily knowing where they were heading.

Alvarez said she made a point to try to tell as many downtown workers as she could to leave their shift. Alvarez worried that white supremacists might target undocumented immigrants. 

“We support Black Lives Matter,” Alvarez said. “But we don’t support criminal issues against the Latino community.” 

Two hours after she arrived home, Ruiz said she finally got a call back from her supervisor. “He told me, ‘It’s OK, you did your best,’” she said. 

Ruiz was scheduled to work her normal hours Thursday, but she wasn’t sure what she’d do. Governor Tim Walz activated the National Guard Wednesday night. And Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey ordered another curfew for Thursday, this time starting at 8 p.m. 

Ruiz said she planned to call her supervisor before her shift to ask for direction. 

‘Please, start police reform’

Most of Wednesday night’s unrest took place along the Nicollet Avenue corridor downtown. That’s also the location of Sushi Train, a restaurant owned by three Asian investors. 

Nona Chan, the restaurant’s general manager, wasn’t in the building when it got damaged last night. But she received a phone call around 9:15 p.m. from an employee telling her that someone had just broken a window near where the customers were dining. Next, they’d entered the restaurant carrying baseball bats. 

A man rides a scooter in front of line of police during the civil unrest on the night of August 26, in downtown Minneapolis. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

An employee escorted everyone else who was inside, including the diners, to a nearby garage. Shortly after, one of the restaurant employees cleaned up the shattered glass and left. No one stayed overnight to guard the building, said Chan, who is originally from Laos. 

On Thursday, Chan closed shop and gave her employees the day off. She came to the building late in the morning to continue cleaning. The broken window is now boarded up, and she plans on reopening the restaurant Friday. 

Chan said she was disheartened to get the call about the damage Wednesday night, saying it just adds to the tough year Sushi Train has been experiencing—with the impact of COVID-19 and stay-at-home orders.

“As restaurants, we’re dealing with so many issues and just struggling to survive right now,” she said. “The employee morale is pretty low, and to get shaken up again—it’s been a difficult run.” 

At the same time, Chan described what her restaurant lost Wednesday night as “just one window.” She said staff and management at Sushi Train support the movement against racist police violence. 

“We hope the government steps in and helps Black Lives Matter,” Chan said. “Please, start police reform. Hear the cries of the people. They’re not really asking for anything insane. It’s just, stop killing Black people.” 

Recovery is about more than fixing the door and the cash register

Farther down Nicollet Avenue just south of downtown lies Flavor Bee’s, a Somali-owned restaurant that specializes in classic American cuisine, as well as African specialities. The restaurant closed Wednesday evening at 9 p.m. About half an hour later, the owner received a call from a 911 dispatcher. 

In that short time period, someone damaged two entry doors, mirrors, a cash register and a laptop. They also stole money from the cash register and fresh produce.

All day Thursday, the restaurant talked to insurers, trying to figure out low-cost ways to rebuild, said L. Musa, the owner’s sister. (She preferred not to share her full name due to safety concerns.) It’s especially challenging since business has already been lower than usual due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Our entrance is broken now,” Musa said. “We don’t have a cash register. So how do we replenish those things that have been destroyed during that 30-minute interval?”

City Council member Lisa Goodman, who represents parts of downtown where the disturbance occurred, expressed disgust for the unrest, during a Thursday afternoon press conference. She shared stories of destruction at a Vietnamese restaurant and an LGBT store, both in Loring Park.

“Downtown is not just about tall towers and Fortune 500 companies,” she said. “Downtown has affordable housing. It has shelter, it has services, a hospital, and all the things that make a community great. Our diverse downtown was treated as a victim last night.”

As a small, Black immigrant–owned business, Musa said, they understand the pain and sorrow, rooted in centuries of racial injustice. Recovering from that will require the whole community—businesses, renters, homeowners, philanthropic donors and government—addressing those root causes, she said.

“We understand it, we recognize it, we see it, we live it,” she said. “We have to figure out ways to develop solutions where we don’t have to hurt each other.”

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

Joey Peters

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. His work has appeared in Reuters, Public Radio International, Columbia Journalism Review, KFAI Radio, the Pioneer Press, City Pages, MinnPost and more. He previously...