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Minneapolis braces for unrest as Derek Chauvin trial enters final phase

"When I see the police and when I see the military, I feel comfortable," said Mohamed Keynan, who owns a clothing business in the predominantly Somali American neighborhood of Cedar-Riverside.
"When I see the police and when I see the military, I feel comfortable," said Mohamed Keynan, who owns a clothing business in the predominantly Somali American neighborhood of Cedar-Riverside.Joshua Lott/The Washington Post

MINNEAPOLIS — Night after night, tear gas has hung like a cloud over the Sterling Square Apartments, just across the street from the Brooklyn Center Police Department, seeping through the walls and air vents like an invisible predator.

The two-story apartment complex has been ground zero for demonstrations over last week’s fatal shooting of 20-year-old Daunte Wright by a Brooklyn Center police officer. Residents have looked outside their windows as protesters clash with law enforcement officers who have used the chemical irritant, stun grenades, and other nonlethal munitions to control the demonstrators.

The law enforcement response to the protests over Wright's killing has elevated tensions in neighboring Minneapolis, a city already on edge as it braces for a verdict in the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, the former police officer accused of killing George Floyd.

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Two Minnesota National Guard members were injured when someone fired on a security team made up of troops and the Minneapolis Police Department in a drive-by shooting early Sunday. There were no serious injuries, according to Major General Shawn Manke, the adjutant general, but he said the shooting “highlights the volatility and tension in our communities right now.”

There were protests against police shootings in several US cities over the weekend, including in Chicago; Oakland, Calif.; Portland, Ore.; and the District of Columbia, where four people were arrested in clashes with police as a march was breaking up.

Closing arguments are scheduled for Monday in the landmark Chauvin case, and officials, business owners, and residents across the city fear that Minneapolis could see a repeat of the civil unrest that erupted after Floyd’s death in May.

The killing of Wright, a Black man who was shot by a police officer during a traffic stop April 11, has increased anxiety over the potential for violent protests and looting, and it has created confusion over who is in charge of efforts to keep the city safe. Minnesota Governor Tim Walz, a Democrat; Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, a Democrat; the city police chief; and the county sheriff share the role, but they appear to hold different views on how best to respond.

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Last week, thousands of Minnesota National Guard troops began deploying throughout the city, taking up armed positions along commercial corridors and in residential neighborhoods alongside police officers as part of what city and state officials describe as a deterrent to potential looting and violence in response to the Chauvin verdict.

The unprecedented level of security includes more than 3,000 National Guard troops and at least 1,100 officers from public safety agencies across the state. The massive show of force, officials say, is aimed at preventing a repeat of the violence that erupted across the city last summer, including the burning of a police station and an estimated $350 million in damage to buildings and businesses.

But the wartime posture has alarmed some residents and elected officials who have repeatedly complained in recent weeks that the heavily militarized approach ignores the community's trauma over the events of last summer, when mostly peaceful protesters were tear-gassed and injured by police action. Many elected officials say aggressive response resulted in the subsequent violence and destruction, lessons that some say were ignored in Brooklyn Center.

Last week, Brooklyn Center Mayor Mike Elliott and the City Council called on law enforcement to dial back their response, including their use of chemical irritants.

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"We have to approach policing in a different way, in a more humane way," Elliott said. He and others criticized the mass arrests of mostly peaceful protesters, including 136 people Friday night.

Others want more.

Mohamed Keynan, who owns a clothing business in the predominantly Somali American neighborhood of Cedar-Riverside, recalled how he tried to call 911 for help during last year's riots, only to be told that the city "had bigger problems to deal with," prompting him and other business owners to guard their properties round-the-clock.

Keynan was initially disheartened last week when he saw National Guard troops in predominantly white commercial districts. But his dismay turned to relief when soldiers arrived in Cedar-Riverside on Friday — a repositioning that came after a City Council member complained that the area had been overlooked. Armed troops walked the neighborhood, occasionally popping into stores to greet people who were fasting as part of the month-long observation of Ramadan. Other soldiers hung out in Humvees, with armored vehicles parked nearby.

"When I see the police and when I see the military, I feel comfortable," said Keynan, as two troops in combat fatigues walked past his store. "I at least feel like they will protect our neighborhood."

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But Keynan said local business owners are still terrified that the Chauvin verdict could trigger "the worst" violence yet in the Twin Cities region. He and others also are not convinced that troops will stick around, leaving them on their own again.

“If he gets off, everything will be upside down,” Keynan said, adding that the Somali American community also fears possible retaliation from far-right extremist groups, should Chauvin by convicted. “Everyone is very nervous, because we just don’t know what is going to be happening.”