FARGO — The choking smell of pepper spray still hung heavy in the air early Sunday, May 31, as volunteers, police and city workers began cleaning up downtown Fargo after Saturday night’s rioting.
Some volunteers coughed because of the lingering chemical agents and many others cried as they swept up broken glass and collected spent rubber bullets and empty tear gas canisters.
The Exchange building, JL Beers, Vinyl Taco, Gate City Bank, Hotel Donaldson, The Forum and River City Church all were damaged with rocks or by spray paint.
“Don’t do this to your city, man,” said longtime Fargo resident Robb Walvatne as he helped pick up debris. “There were sirens all night long. Listen to that man, we’re 200 miles away from Minneapolis. What is going on in Fargo? Fargo. This is the saddest thing I’ve seen, and I can’t understand what is going on."
“You don’t ruin your city,” Walvatne said.
Chris Wooten, born and bred in Fargo, joined more than two dozen volunteers in helping clean up the damage mostly on First Avenue North, just east of Broadway.
“This place has always been my home. I think this was a complete overreaction,” Wooten said, expressing anger and sadness about what happened the night before. He bent down in the street to pick up a pair of pinkish sunglasses. “See? The protesters were destroying themselves.”
While shoveling broken glass outside of HoDo, Dan Farnsworth said watching the destruction broke his heart.
"I had trouble sleeping last night after all that happened,” he said.
Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney said during a news conference Sunday, May 31, it was time not for retaliation, but for rebuilding.
“We know we are shocked and you are angry. Last night’s action doesn’t define (Fargo's) people,” Mahoney said.
Moorhead Mayor Jonathan Judd also spoke with reporters at the news conference.
"The reason why we're here today is because of George Floyd, and this incident has set off a lot of emotions across the country. I would like to extend condolences," Judd said. "It's hard for me to find the words to express my feelings ... this has been an emotional roller coaster not only for myself, but for individuals I am close to."
George Floyd's death and Saturday's unrest are a wake-up call for Americans, Judd added.
"We need to have a candid conversation about racism in this country ... It's time folks," he said.
The violence in downtown Fargo came from about 40 to 50 outside agitators, said Fargo Police Chief David Todd, who thanked Mahoney and Judd for defusing potential violence earlier in the day on Saturday.
“You could see some hostility in that march, but you could see good people, too," Todd said. "There were a lot of good people. When they reached the police department, it was tense at times … but we had a really good reaction.”
But after demonstrators met police at the new Fargo police headquarters on 25th Street North, the march continued on streets that were not part of the original route. The Fargo Police Department didn’t stop the march, which had about 2,000 people, because of the violence that is occurring in other cities across the United States, Todd said.
“We wanted to let people march and keep people safe," he said.
Police learned of plans to loot and burn downtown from social media, Todd continued. “We started to see more aggression toward our officers.”
In total, 18 people were arrested with 10 people charged with Class A misdemeanor inciting a riot. Four officers needed medical attention, with two police officers suffering concussions after getting hit by rocks, Todd said.
“We’re Fargo strong, we’re going to bounce back," Todd said. "I am still interested in having a dialogue with the good people of that march and affecting positive change.”
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum walked through downtown and felt inspired by the volunteers cleaning up, he said during the press conference.
“The important message that began yesterday morning about justice and humanity and important aspirations for us to come together … it’s lost when it moves from the peaceful protest to what I think can only be characterized as an organized riot,” Burgum said.
“It’s clear that there were people that arrived last night not for dialogue, not for progress, but for violence and vandalism,” the governor added. “As we saw from the two mayors yesterday walking into the crowd … if you want to have a dialogue in North Dakota all you have to do is ask. We stand ready to meet with anyone.”
Multiple police departments, the Cass County Sheriff’s Office, the North Dakota National Guard, undercover agents, and other agencies were deployed to the riot, Mahoney said.
Alan Kasin, a co-owner of Pounds, a bar and restaurant on First Avenue North, was filling a tin tub with ice and water bottles on the sidewalk as the cleanup progressed. Backhoes rumbled back and forth from glass, rock and dirt piles.
Fearing for the safety of his staff, he closed his restaurant early Saturday, during the earlier stages of the riot, he said.
“We had to shut down pretty quickly — had to get staff out safely,” Kasin said. “All of this stuff is replaceable.”
He attended the rally, called Fargo Marches for George Floyd, earlier in the day, and called it inspiring.
“I thought it was pretty emotional. It was everything you would want to see as far as a peaceful assembly,” Kasin said.
Before he left his business Saturday, May 30, he saw some people trying to calm protesters down.
“You could feel the crowd’s agitation, but at some point, there weren’t enough voices to keep it calm,” he said.
“Is this what America is about?” One volunteer woman said out loud while pushing a broom.
Andrew Buck, a longtime Fargo resident, said he joined the protest early on Saturday, and also later when the riot began. He tried to keep people quiet, and at one point was taken into police custody, but released, he said. A tear gas canister flew past his head as well, he said.
Buck joined other volunteers to help clean up because Fargo is his home.
“We had 16 hours of protesting and it took 45 minutes to clean it up,” he said.
Erika Kraft, a night nurse at Essentia Health, just got off her shift and headed to downtown to help clean up.
“Part of me is saddened. Some of the money it will take to repair everything could have gone to people who need food and shelter,” Kraft said.
Earlier Sunday, Mahoney stopped by the cleanup process, saying he was headed to City Hall to work on assessing the damage.
“It was crazy last night, I was very upset,” Mahoney said. “But I’m also just overwhelmed right now as the citizens are already cleaning up the streets. I couldn’t be happier or prouder of the citizens. They want their city back.”