FARGO — Three days after the June 5 OneFargo event in Island Park, Black Lives Matter organizers walked into the mayor’s office and read him and the chief of police their Miranda rights.
That’s when Mayor Tim Mahoney knew that communications had broken down between the city and Black Lives Matter, the civil rights movement whose protests have swept the nation after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“Whatever we said could be used against us, I guess,” Mahoney said during an interview after days of silence about ongoing issues with local activists, who have two marches planned in Fargo this week.
“At that meeting they made it very clear they didn’t want dialogue anymore — they were going to protest. Commissioner (John) Strand said 'Would you like to have a seat at the table?' " Mahoney said. "And they said: ‘No, we’ll protest our way through this.' "
Fargo Police Chief David Todd also sat for questions and said he has not been speaking to the press lately because he was part of an internal investigation into former deputy police chief Todd Osmundson's conduct during Fargo's May 30 protests.
Since the meeting last week, Mahoney has been able to communicate with some OneFargo organizers including Wess Philome, Ritchell Aboah and others.
“We’d be more than happy to meet with them at any time," he said. "I feel disappointed because we had a letter of intent and talked about signing at the Fargo event celebration.”
The letter of intent was a rough draft of an agreement between the mayors of Fargo, West Fargo, Moorhead and OneFargo to begin addressing racial disparities in the community. City leaders drew up the document and sent it to OneFargo representatives for edits, Mahoney said. One condition in the letter was to set aside weekly meetings to discuss police and social reforms.
Other mayors never received the letter of intent because a final document has not been agreed upon, Mahoney said.
“I know Wess (Philome) has circulated that we’re going to sign something on Friday," he said. "I can’t sign anything until I run it through the (city) commission.”
Philome declined to comment on Wednesday.
The breakdown in communication has Mahoney concerned about the upcoming protests on Friday and Saturday. As of Wednesday, protesters had not applied for a permit required to march in roadways, according to city of Fargo spokesman Gregg Schildberger.
"City departments stand ready and willing to work with any group submitting a permit application," he added.
Mahoney said the last-minute planning has him unsure of how the weekend's marches will turn out.
“I’m hoping we’re going to have a fantastic event this Friday, but I don’t know,” he said.
As of Wednesday, the mayor said he was not considering asking the North Dakota National Guard for help over the upcoming weekend.
ACLU weighs in
The American Civil Liberties Union of North Dakota on Wednesday condemned Mahoney's statement in an interview with a local radio station that protest organizers "will be liable for any damage that occurs downtown in the city of Fargo."
Additionally, Mahoney's focus on whether the protest obtains a permit or not is misguided, said Dane DeKrey, the advocacy director for the ACLU of North Dakota.
"The right to peacefully assemble and protest are not without limits, of course, but Mayor Mahoney's words seem designed to intimidate and dissuade people from protesting at all," DeKrey said in a press release. "If Mayor Mahoney is serious about mending years and years of racial injustice, he needs to stop making statements that chill free speech and start showing that he's not only listening but is also dedicated to taking action."
In response to the ACLU's comments, Mahoney said he and the city "fully respect" the right to free speech and encourage citizens to exercise it.
"These processes are not in place to impede First Amendment rights; rather, they are in place to protect every member of the march, parades, pedestrians, residents and private property," he said in a statement.
Mahoney said he wants dialogue to continue, but needs to know what activists hope to accomplish for that to happen. Police reform and social reform are all topics on the table, he said, but changes require people and a budget.
OneFargo and Black Lives Matter organizers said in a press release on June 16 that they’ll keep marching and protesting until certain demands are met. One demand is for more people of color on the police force and on oversight boards. They also want a voice in selecting the new city police chief after Todd retires.
Protest organizers learned from police department emails acquired through an open records request that Todd referred to people involved in downtown unrest on May 30 as "thugs" and "domestic terrorists."
Todd said he regretted his choice of words and was only referring to violent demonstrators, not peaceful protesters.
Still, OneFargo organizers accused the Fargo Police Department for having an “us versus them” mentality, which helped inflame the rioting.
“We didn’t think it was we versus them, but they really didn’t work with us well,” Mahoney said of the first Fargo Marches for George Floyd protest on May 30.
“We had a route that they gave us, and we staffed to facilitate that route. When it went off route considerably and came out to the police department and then to other places, we just continuously adjusted to that,” Todd said.
It was only after dialogue with protesters began that the tension dissipated, Mahoney said.
“Come and talk to us and we’ll help you set up a meeting,” Mahoney said. “I think it’s a great time for dialogue ... but you can’t come at us with a list of demands.”