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At epicenter of Minneapolis riots, a reckoning is underway

Adam Belz, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) on

Published in Business News

MINNEAPOLIS -- A liquor store was one of the first buildings touched by the rage of a crowd that had watched a white police officer press his knee into George Floyd's neck until he died.

Looters hit Minnehaha Lake Wine & Spirits twice the first night of protests as Steve Krause, the owner, watched by surveillance camera from his home across town.

Two nights later the store burned down. Flames flung the red marquee onto a pile of mangled metal in what used to be the basement.

Krause plans to rebuild what is now a third-generation business, but "there are bigger issues in society," he said from the sidewalk on E. Lake Street, a place still ringing with the echoes of Floyd's death and the public's furious response. He gestured at the hole in the ground that was his store.

"If this is a sacrifice to accomplish a greater good, so be it," Krause said.

At the epicenter of the riots that happened a month ago, a reckoning is underway. Dozens of buildings burned within a quarter-mile of the corner of Lake and Minnehaha, and people there are wrestling with whether the eruption of lawlessness served a purpose.

Starting the long journey to rebuild, they're veering from grief to hope and reconciling how the destruction of their businesses brought the world's attention to George Floyd's death and the cause of racial injustice.

The wreckage that started at the Third Police Precinct spread as far as north Minneapolis and South St. Paul, causing an estimated $500 million in damage.

Hundreds of business and property owners, many of them immigrants, remain angry the city and state did not protect them. A manufacturer whose plant burned near the Third Precinct station said he will not rebuild in Minneapolis.

'Where are the police?'

Bao Huang, owner of Hop Wong near the corner of Lake and Chicago, slept in the Chinese takeout restaurant with a gun through the four nights of riots, but he couldn't prevent a fire next door from damaging it. "Where's the police? Where's the city? Every year I pay taxes. Where are the police?" Huang said.

From south Minneapolis, protests spread across the world. Support for Black Lives Matter among white Americans grew to a majority overnight, polls show. Sweeping reform is on the agenda across the nation. Even the NFL apologized, indirectly, to Colin Kaepernick.

'The whole world is looking'

On May 28 -- the night the Third Precinct police station and the liquor store and many other buildings burned -- Ruhel Islam cooked food for protesters and offered bottled water in front of his restaurant, Gandhi Mahal, down the block and around a corner from the police station.

Medics set up a spot to treat injured protesters in a community space adjacent to the restaurant.

Later that night, someone set a fire that consumed Gandhi Mahal. The next morning, Islam's response went viral: "Let my building burn," he said. "Justice needs to be served."

Islam was a student demonstrator in Bangladesh in 1990 when a mass uprising toppled a military ruler. Those protests were not always peaceful. Dozens died, and students and other demonstrators clashed with police repeatedly before the president resigned.

It took Islam time after moving to Minneapolis to learn "what has happened with our black brothers and sisters," he said. Careful to emphasize that he does not condone violence, Islam said, "Our buildings have burned. Why should we blame the protesters for this? We should blame our decisionmakers for this. It's been hundreds of years. All these years, nobody has listened."

He drives from his home on the southeast side of town in his minivan to the site of the restaurant most days, checking on the community center and the cherry tree just down the street. He is trying to find a kitchen so he can resume cooking food for takeout, maybe a spot on Franklin Avenue.

Someone, Islam doesn't know who, put a sign up on the fence around the rubble of his restaurant that says "Special thanks to Gandhi Mahal." He plans to rebuild on the same block, though he estimates it will take three or four years.

"Minnesota is ground zero for change, for revolution, for the movement," Islam said. "The whole world is looking at Minneapolis. We have to lead by example."

'An opportunity to destroy'

Across the street from Gandhi Mahal, the bathroom in the Wilson Law Group building became the "port-a-potty" of the riot, said David Wilson, who owns the building.

Somebody smashed the glass door off of Minnehaha Avenue and spray-painted the word "RestRoom" on the wall in blue with an arrow down the hall. Eventually someone tore out the toilet, flooding the bathroom.

Wilson walked through after the riots to check circuit breakers and meet insurance adjusters, with whom he anticipated a fight. The carpet was scattered with broken glass. Someone had tried to remove computer servers from the basement.

As an immigration lawyer, Wilson battles the U.S. government in courtrooms and said he knows how "rights can slide off the table quickly."

 

But he watched the protests spin out of control and saw flames crawl along a power line between his building and the liquor store before it melted and fell. For him, the distinction between protesting and rioting is clear.

"Demonstrating your commitment to change and demanding it from leadership is important, and the First Amendment is sacred," Wilson said. "The moment though that people are just using it as an opportunity to destroy, no conscience, no regard for what they're doing? No. No, the First Amendment doesn't protect that."

'We will rebuild'

When people broke into the post office and drove postal vans around next door, Kelly Drummer and her daughter watched from a window.

"Then we saw gas cans, and after they smashed all the vans they drove some back in there and started them on fire," said Drummer, president of the American Indian nonprofit Migizi. "It just got scarier and scarier."

She left around 2 a.m. and returned at dawn to find the roof of Migizi on fire. She learned last week the building is a total loss, and the insurance coverage isn't enough to rebuild the structure and replace destroyed equipment. The next move is uncertain.

"We will rebuild, but we just don't know where or what that looks like yet," said Drummer, who said she was "paralyzed" for the first couple of weeks after the riots.

She doesn't think her building was targeted but was a random victim of the chaos that ensued when law enforcement vacated the area that Thursday night. And she said she understands the rage on the streets.

"When you have thousands of people feeling that same anger, I don't blame anyone for what happened," Drummer said. "I do think that sometimes it takes destruction in order to rebuild. I really do believe that."

Dozens of GoFundMe sites have been set up for businesses damaged in the riots, and hundreds of thousands of dollars have poured in for shops and restaurants near the Third Precinct station.

'I'm here for change'

Lamberto Vergara, a native of Mexico who grew up in Brooklyn and moved to the Twin Cities 18 years ago, owns LV's Barbershop, across the street from Gandhi Mahal.

His business didn't burn down, but rioters smashed one of his windows, and Islam said one of his employees pulled a flaming projectile from the barbershop before anything caught on fire.

Weeks after the riot, the place was stripped and Vergara showed two men with clipboards a room in the back.

"All of this was definitely necessary to make change," he said, and "seeing the whole community come together afterwards, seeing all the love from people," has been heartening. He plans to reopen and wants to eventually open a second shop, probably in northeast Minneapolis.

"I stand with the community," Vergara said. "If you don't shake the hornet's nest, everything will stay the same. I'm here for change."

Krause watched the looting in his store from his home in southwest Minneapolis through surveillance cameras until someone stole the cameras and DVR that first night.

"Even then I couldn't have anticipated what would occur two nights later," Krause said.

A former lawyer who took over the liquor store from his father when he got sick in the late 1980s, Krause now runs the business with his son. He plans to rebuild bigger than before, with a few units of affordable housing above it.

He said his insurance coverage will be adequate. Now he's waiting for a demolition permit from the city. He needs a survey of the property, which burned in the fire, and learned he has to pay property taxes for the year before he can get a permit to clear the rubble.

Once he gets the site cleared and filled, he'll plant grass, try to navigate the affordable housing regulatory landscape and come up with a building plan.

"I'm looking for energy to rebuild and turn a bad experience for our community, and for me personally, into something positive," Krause said. "I have to put my head down and get to work."

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