George Floyd, a black man, died May 25 after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for about eight minutes. Three days later, the Minneapolis Police Department’s Third Precinct building was abandoned and then burned.
Minke and Joel Sundseth’s family live halfway between where the two incidents occurred. They and other members of Faith Mennonite Church recall two chaotic weeks that created opportunities to work for peace and justice, both in the moment and for the long haul.
“It happened on a Monday, and the next day there was a huge march from the site of the murder down a street, and we’re just a block from that, to the Third Precinct,” Minke Sundseth said. “And there they met a really hostile reaction from the police, which escalated things.
“My husband was there right before the station burned down [Thursday night] just to witness the situation. It was a very intense but peaceful march until they got to the precinct. They made space for that grief and anger.”
In the weeks that followed, federal authorities announced at least one white man had been arrested and charged with arson, and several other men and women were sought, based on videos of them setting fires inside and outside the police station. The Sundseths and others from Faith Mennonite organized neighborhood watch groups to patrol their neighborhoods over a span of roughly 10 days when police officers were not seen in the area.
Bob Mack, who lives a block from Faith, was part of a group that rotated shifts over five nights for an area that included the church.
Demonstrations, arson and looting took place throughout the wider Twin Cities metropolitan area, but the four residential blocks he patrolled were relatively quiet, likely because of organized watches that technically broke curfew rules.
Mack and others identified white supremacist symbols, untagged vehicles stealing license plates, and white men using explosive devices.
“It really has become apparent to people close to the scene that it is white supremacists and gun-rights activists behind the unrest,” Mack wrote in an email, noting that by May 29 “it became completely clear that the riots, burning and looting were not related to demonstrations relating to Mr. Floyd, but attempts to sow discontent.”
Former Faith moderator Rudy Okerlund lives a block from the church and was part of a similar neighborhood watch group (see sidebar). At one point he and others nonviolently surrounded a white man with a backpack. The man surrendered the bag, which was filled with explosives and fuel.
John Ratigan, whose family also lives near the church, saw ash from burning buildings falling on his lawn. Buildings around the bus stop he uses every day were burned to the ground. People in the neighborhood reported finding containers of gas hidden on their property or receiving notes threatening to burn down homes if Black Lives Matter signs were not removed.
Defending with bodies
“Just being a peaceful observer is not nothing,” Sundseth said. “Being able to talk about the truth is important now.”
Her husband, Joel, went beyond neighborhood watches to defend businesses with his body, breaking curfew to do so.
“He didn’t think people were breaking windows when people stood in front of them,” she said. “There were also white men with handguns with a very different philosophy, and his presence of a peacemaking approach just needed to be there. . . .
“He just mostly listened and stated why he was there, which didn’t include a weapon. He didn’t get into any debates about it, just amicable conversations.”
Phil Stoltzfus and Candace Lautt of Faith Mennonite conducted a similar witness. The couple has participated in a Fellowship of Reconciliation nonviolence delegation in the Middle East. During the Iraq War they were scheduled to go on a Christian Peacemaker Teams delegation to Iraq until they learned there was only room for one more person. The group that ultimately went was taken hostage and one member — Tom Fox — was killed in 2006, a few weeks before the other three members were rescued.
Stoltzfus said Anabaptist ideals such as peacemaking can be pursued in real, concrete ways just as dramatically right in a local neighborhood.
“We have friends here, so this is not something overseas,” he said. “This is not something you’re going on a mission trip to learn about. This is our life.”
The night the police station burned, Stoltzfus and Lautt were in the area, praying and observing. Then a post office and postal vans caught fire. As they watched the crumbling walls of a burning Arby’s, someone yelled “free bikes!” People were walking away with bikes from a nonprofit bike cooperative.
“There were some black residents arguing with people taking bikes, and we stood with them in solidarity,” Stoltzfus said. After about 10 minutes of conversation, several would-be looters walked away and the co-op was secured.
“That was a case where we felt we were there as allies supporting local people to protect a local asset, being a CPT-like presence to support local partners,” Stoltzfus said.
“We found that space to do a little bit of work while literally a couple of blocks of buildings and the police precinct were burning to the ground right next to us.
“We believe we need to move toward conflict to where the messy things are happening to model a responsible kind of solidarity to support the George Floyd movement to protect people and keep people safe. It’s a long-term struggle. It’s not just one night. And I think it will have a long-term effect on our church.”
Another church member who moved toward messy situations was Josh Miller. Since Michael Brown’s death in 2014 in Ferguson, Mo., Miller has been an ally in the Black Lives Matter movement and Communities United Against Police Brutality.
He said the first day of protests was peaceful, but tensions heightened as days rolled by without officer Derek Chauvin being arrested for Floyd’s death.
On May 26, Miller was about to leave one demonstration when windows started being hit. Rocks started being thrown.
“There were definitely also agitators not aligned with the rest of the crowd, so I said ‘Hands up, don’t shoot, no rocks,’ ” he said. “Because with COVID-19 we don’t want tear gas. It’s banned even in war and is bad for COVID-19.”
As part of an effort to restore order, the governor established a curfew, but people experiencing homelessness in the area had nowhere to go after police shut down an encampment in a local park. A local hotel was abandoned by employees, so a group of activists organized themselves to house hundreds of people in the commandeered building.
Miller volunteered to process guests and donations over multiple days.
“They had a medic station, a kitchen area, then hygiene and supplies area. I helped with that,” he said. “Basically the idea was that people needed housing. You can’t obey curfew if you don’t have a house.”
The hotel’s owner eventually decided to close the facility, and the people went back to parks. Miller is also working to build greater coordination among Anabaptists in the wider metropolitan region to be more intentional about networking resources and people.
He senses there is greater interest now in talking about whiteness and racism. He hopes white Mennonites and others will see how white supremacist systems are at work in their communities and will work against those systems.
The conversation can start on the streets, at a church or in a home.
Minke Sundseth’s 15-year-old twin sons have been processing Floyd’s death and subsequent conversations in different ways. At first, one brother spoke a lot and the other mostly listened, until “the dam broke.”
“My son wanted to know why people are racist and why does this happen. It was a complex conversation, and I was glad we had it,” she said. “We talked about the foundations of this country and just the last few generations. Racism has a function. It’s not an arbitrary thing. It props up this whole system, and that points us to what needs to happen.”