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The Events Surrounding the Arson

by Don Blyly

(Trigger warning: descriptions of lethal police violence, rioting, looting, arson, and books burning)


It all started with a counterfeit $20 bill. Cup Foods is a convenience store located on Chicago Ave., 9 blocks south of the Uncles. A man and woman that the clerk did not recognize walked in and tried to pass a counterfeit $20. The clerk recognized that it was counterfeit and refused to take it. They walked out and the clerk called 9-1-1.

About 10 minutes later George Floyd, a popular regular customer, walked in to make a purchase, with a counterfeit $20. We'll probably never know for sure, but it is quite possible that the man and woman encountered him on the sidewalk and asked if he could break their $20.

Four cops showed up in response to the 9-1-1 call. (Uncle Hugo's has been hit with counterfeit $20s twice in the last 46 years, and we never got more than 1 cop.) George Floyd was arrested, handcuffed, and did not resist. In spite of that, Derek Chauvin, the senior cop on the scene, threw him to the ground, and applied his knee to Floyd's neck for almost 9 minutes, continuing for minutes after Floyd was no longer moving. People watching from the sidewalk and one of the rookie cops (4th day on the job) tried to get Chauvin to take his knee off Floyd's neck, but he continued to apply pressure until Floyd was dead.

At least one of the bystanders taped the incident on a cell phone and put it on the internet. The next day, all 4 officers were fired, and a criminal investigation was begun. (It was originally thought that Chauvin and Floyd did not know each other, but CBS News has now reported that they both worked security at the same night club, with Chauvin working outside - and known for a quick temper and pepper-spraying people trying to get in - while Floyd worked inside and was known for his skill at defusing situations. But Chauvin and Floyd had "bumped heads" on occasion at work, which the other workers considered to be entirely the cop's fault.)

Thousands of people turned out to protest (mostly peacefully), and lots of out-of-state trouble-makers (almost all white males, many in vehicles with license plates removed) started pouring into Minneapolis. There were anarchists who wanted to bring down capitalism by destroying businesses; there were white supremacists who showed up hoping to start a race war; there were neo-Nazis who came to town specifically to target minority businesses; there were all kinds of flakes of all political persuasions with no common sense; there were criminal gangs (both local and from out-of-state) who came to loot.

Wednesday there was a lot of peaceful protesting, but Wednesday night things turned nasty. A huge crowd was gathered at the 3rd Precinct, from which the 4 cops had been dispatched. The leaders of the peaceful protests tried to keep things peaceful, but they lost control. An auto parts store was looted and burned (and it's hard to burn an auto parts store unless you really know what you are doing). The Target store across the street from the 3rd Precinct (which I go to once a week) was looted and they tried to set it on fire, but the sprinkler system put out the fires (destroying much of the stuff that had not been looted). The CVS pharmacy inside Target (which I use for my prescriptions) was looted. The nearby Cub food store (not to be confused with the Cup Foods store where this all started) was looted, as were the pharmacy and the TCF Bank inside the Cub. Attempts to torch it were defeated by the sprinklers (destroying much of the stuff that had not been looted). I used to go to that Cub store once a week. The Aldi grocery store across the street was looted and burned, along with several small businesses. There was a partially built new apartment complex, I think with 185 units of affordable housing, that was burnt down. There were also a lot of broken windows along miles of Lake St., the main commercial corridor south of downtown.

Thursday morning I drove to the Uncles around 6:30 am to see how things were. There was an O'Reilly's Auto Parts Store on Lake St. a block west of Chicago Ave. that had broken windows and had been looted, but not burned. There were a lot of other stores with broken windows in the area, but no burning in my area. The Uncles had not been touched. The broken windows started at Lake St. and came half way up the block, but stopped 3 buildings south of the Uncles. We opened for business on Thursday like normal. The peaceful demonstrations continued. I think it was mid-day on Thursday that the killer cop was charged with murder and manslaughter and was arrested. The protesters demanded that the other 3 cops be charged as accessories to murder.

Thursday night things got a lot worse. A lot of people again gathered around the 3rd Precinct, and a lot more buildings in that area were burned. The mayor ordered the cops to withdraw from the 3rd Precinct and let the rioters burn it. Once it was burned, the rioters spread over a larger area of Lake St, looting and burning.

Friday morning I drove over to the Uncles around 6:45 am. Some building was burning just west of I-35W and a fire crew was fighting the fire, but I couldn't see what building it was. There were more broken windows along Lake St. The O'Reilly's Auto Parts Store that had been looted the day before had been burned down, and no attempt had been made to fight the fire. When I got to Chicago Ave, I could see flames starting to leap out of the broken front windows of the tobacco store across from the liquor store. I called in the fire. 9-1-1 told me that I wasn't the first to call it in and they were trying to find somebody to respond. I told the operator that if it wasn't dealt with quickly it would spread to a whole series of other one and two story buildings and could wipe out over half a dozen other businesses. It took over an hour for the first fire truck to arrive. The fire spread to the Footlocker store next door and the apartments above both it and the tobacco store, but eventually enough fire trucks arrived to keep it from spreading any further. The Dollar Store a block away was also burnt to the ground, with no fire response until it was too late. But the Uncles were again untouched. Once again the broken windows stopped 3 stores south of The Uncles and we opened like normal.

But things were getting difficult for people in the neighborhood. Along about a 5-mile stretch of Lake Street, there was only one grocery store left open. (The owner and several friends stood armed guard on it every night, and it survived the riots.) Every pharmacy in the area had been looted, and several Walgreens outside the area had also been looted, and several had also been burned. Many of the banks and ATMs had been looted and destroyed, and after another night they would all be gone. And all mass transit had been shut down for days for the entire metro area, so you were in a fairly hopeless situation if you didn't own a car. After a group tried to loot a St. Paul Target in the middle of the day on Thursday, Target closed all 24 stores in the metro area, and a lot of other businesses far outside the Lake St. corridor also boarded up and closed for the duration.

We hadn't had mail service for a couple of days, and the post office a block from the 3rd Precinct had been looted and burned Thursday night, so I grabbed about 20 mail orders and one return and tried to find an open post office. I had to drive all the way to the downtown main post office to drop them off, but I'm glad I did. Later in the day I packed 4 more mail orders and they were still in the building when it burned, and I'm still trying to figure out which orders those were. Around noon on Friday I went looking for a place to get lunch for myself and Ken, and the first place I tried was the Subway in the strip mall across the street from the 5th Precinct. There was not a single broken window on the 5th Precinct, but they were starting to put up a double layer of chain link fence all around the 5th Precinct building and parking lot. At the strip mall, every store front was boarded up, and some business owners were hauling everything they could onto trucks to move to a safer location, in case the strip mall was burned. So I went elsewhere to buy lunch.

Friday night, things got much worse. Some National Guard troops had been mobilized the day before and some state police had come in the day before to help, but Minneapolis authorities were in charge of things Thursday night, and let's say that people were not favorably impressed with the job the city had done. On Friday the governor did a full mobilization of the National Guard, announced that the state would be handling the response from this point forward, and said they had plans in place to prevent a repeat of Thursday night, including an overnight curfew.

I turned on the local news a little before 10 pm, and I kept flipping from channel to channel to compare the coverage. At first the center of the action was at the 5th Precinct (which is about 4 blocks from my home), and it started as a peaceful demonstration, but after the curfew had passed, things started to change. There was a lot of live coverage by the four TV stations I kept flipping between. They each had multiple reporters and camera people in the crowd, and some had reporters and camera people on the nearby I-35W bridge to give wide shots and to quickly zoom in on action that the reporters in the crowd couldn't reach easily, and there was a bit of aerial coverage. There were 5 cops on the roof of the 5th Precinct building, watching and presumably reporting on events to a headquarters somewhere else, but there were no cops on the ground.

A little after 10 pm, some people pried a sheet of plywood part of the way off the door to a convenience store/gas station across the street from the 5th Precinct, crawled inside and grabbed some loot. There was no police response, so a few more people also crawled in and grabbed some loot. This continued for about half an hour while all of the TV stations asked "Where are the police?" Then the looting spread to some of the stores in the strip mall and some fires were started. The post office (which is for my home's zip code) was looted and burned. The Wells Fargo Bank across the street from the strip mall was looted and burned.

This sort of stuff went on for about two hours after the initial break-in at the convenience store, and for 2 hours all of the TV channels kept saying "Where are the police? Where are the troops? Where is the fire department? Where is the Plan?" and kept trying to get somebody in authority to talk to them. More than 2 hours after the looting had begun, 135 cops marched in and started dispersing the crowd, making no arrests, just dispersing them so they could continue their actions through the rest of south Minneapolis. By the time I gave up and went to bed, no fire engines had arrived to fight the fires.

About the looting: there were some amateur looters, probably locals. But there were also teams of real pros. A couple of guys would walk down the street looking for a good place to loot and then break in, sometimes using guns to shoot the lock or get through hardened plate glass. They would carry anything they thought was worth looting and dump it onto the sidewalk, and then walk down the street looking for the next place worth breaking into. Another couple of guys with a big truck would be following behind, stop to grab the pile of loot off the sidewalk, throw it into the truck, and then continue down the street to the next pile of loot.

Early Saturday morning, here is the message I sent to the staff and a few other people:

Hi Folks,

There was a call from the security company around 3:30 this morning that the motion detector was showing somebody in the building. I threw on clothes and headed over there. When I was 2 blocks away I received a call that the smoke detectors were showing smoke in the store. Every single building on both sides of Chicago was blazing and dozens of people dancing around. As I pulled into the dentist's lot I could see that flames were leaping out the front windows of the Uncles. It looked to me like they had broken every window on the front of the Uncles and then squirted accelerant through each broken window. It looked hopeless to me, but I went around to the back door to see if I could get to a fire extinguisher. As soon as I opened the back door a wave of very thick black smoke poured out, so I quickly closed the door again. The dentist's building was not showing any flames and the garage door was open, so I went in to see if I could save it. There is a door from the garage into a break room, and there was almost no smoke in the break room. There is a second door from the break room into the main clinic. When I opened that door I couldn't see a fire, but the smoke came pouring into the break room, so I quickly closed that door and headed back to the car. Some of the rioters were busy breaking every pane of glass in the transit hub. The former Sheraton did not seem to be on fire yet, and there were guests who were staying there. It looked like somebody may have broken a window on the first floor along Chicago and started a fire, but it could have just been a reflection of the flames from the Uncles. I didn't notice anything going on yet at the Global Marketplace, but the rioters were headed in that direction. There is no way a mere fire could bring that building down, but it could wipe out all of those businesses, and there are hundreds of people who live above the Global Marketplace who could be trapped by the smoke. Since Chicago Ave. was full of dancing rioters, broken glass, and flaming debris, I went down the alley and took Lake St. home. There were blocks of Lake St. where every building was blazing. No sign of any cops, National Guard troops, or any help.

I'm pretty sure the insurance policy excludes damage from a civil insurrection, so I suspect I won't get a cent for either the building or the contents.

Don Blyly

[Turns out that the Sheraton was not set on fire, and a group of people from the Global Marketplace and the apartments above prevented the arsonists from hitting their building, with assistance from other local residents. I will be getting a settlement from the insurance company, but I don't yet know how much.]

Saturday morning, I went back towards the building around 7 am. The National Guard had the entire area cordoned off and fire trucks were trying to fight fires in many of the buildings. I parked a block away and tried to walk to the store. I was stopped by a National Guard trooper, but after I explained the situation, he escorted me to the building to talk to the fire crew working on The Uncles building.

The front of the building, where Uncle Hugo's was located, was built around 1915 with a wooden floor over a basement (full of overstock used books) and a wooden roof, so I knew there was no hope for it. The back addition, where Uncle Edgar's was located, had no basement, a poured concrete slab for a floor, and a steel roof, so I was hoping that the back half of the building could be salvaged. The fire captain walked around the building with me and showed me where the air pressure in the back had built up so much from the fire in front that it had bowed out the concrete block walls until large cracks had developed to allow the air to escape, and the steel roof had collapsed into the building. It was clear that the building was a total loss. I told the fire captain, "Well, there goes 46 years of hard work!"

I came back around 3:30 in the afternoon to see if anything in the back room could be salvaged. There was a folding aluminum ladder that was about 6 foot tall when folded in half, which was stored a few inches from the back door. It was still next to the back door, but it was now only about 2.5 foot tall, and everything else was in worse shape. But dozens of neighborhood people had turned out with brooms, dustpans, and shovels to help with the clean-up of the block of burned buildings. Just before I left, a small fire re-ignited in the basement of Uncle Hugo's and a bucket brigade began of people using plastic trash cans to haul water out of the dental clinic basement (which had been flooded by their sprinkler system) and dump it onto the little fire in my basement.

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