In 2020, the Brainerd lakes area wasn’t excluded from the largest protest movement in American history — indeed, far from it, central Minnesota played an unexpectedly high profile role, much as Minneapolis was the epicenter of unrest that spread through more than 2,000 communities, all 50 states, and across the globe in more than 60 nations.

For good or ill, George Floyd’s death on May 25 was a watershed moment causing a cultural reckoning across America in terms of the past, present and future of racial injustice. Polls indicate between 15 million to 26 million American citizens turned out to protest racially charged police brutality in the wake of Floyd’s death. This made Black Lives Matter the largest mass protest in United States’ history.

RELATED: Lakes area demonstrators gather to commemorate George Floyd

In 2020, the lakes area witnessed a slew of passionate protests and counter-protests driven by Black Lives Matter. Local communities had to confront racial animus from the likes of school teachers and local elected officials. And, while unrest in Minneapolis may have been far too close for comfort, some local families learned the violence in the metro had roots still much closer to home.

Counterprotesters gather across the street from Black Lives Matter protesters Saturday, July 11 2020, on Washington Street in Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
Counterprotesters gather across the street from Black Lives Matter protesters Saturday, July 11 2020, on Washington Street in Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

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Generally speaking, the lakes area avoided the kind of unrest and damages many cities experienced this year, but it didn’t escape the vitriol-filled arguments that spilled into the streets, lit up social media and animated dinner tables across the nation. These divides were rarely so evident as in shouts of protesters and counter-protesters — often from one side of the street to the other, sometimes in each other’s faces. And never were the divides more clear than when hundreds turned out to condemn or defend Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, in front of his insurance office on Fairview Road, just Highway 210 in Baxter.

RELATED: Protesters face off over Gazelka’s stance on police accountability

“You don’t know how many people stand behind you and how many people care about the things you’re passionate about,” said Davonn Epps, a Brainerd resident and woman of color, during a protest on Washington Street on May 28. “It’s a breath of fresh air and relieving to know that so many people care about their neighbors and their fellow black people, or any person of color really. It warms my soul. It has to keep growing. We have to build up a resistance.”

“I subscribe to what Martin Luther King said to judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin,” said Paul Edwards, a Brainerd counter-protester, during a demonstration July 10 in Baxter. “But that raises the question — how do you determine the content of their character? By their actions. When someone picks up a brick and throws it through the storefront, that’s the content of their character. When the police officer killed George Floyd, the contents of his character were definitely revealed by the same token.”

RELATED: Black Lives Matter demonstration draws conflicting groups in Brainerd

Whether they were marked by signs stating “I Can’t Breathe” or fluttering American flags with the thin blue line, gatherings were a common sight for much of the summer — particularly along Washington Street, where groups of protesters and counter-protesters often clashed in heated confrontations that verged on, but never escalated to outright physical violence, in no small part because of cooler heads on each side.

A group of protesters remain at the corner of Sixth and Washington Monday, July 6, after the Brained Area Coalition for Peace Black Lives Matter vigil. The protesters were chanting anti-racist phrases. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
A group of protesters remain at the corner of Sixth and Washington Monday, July 6, after the Brained Area Coalition for Peace Black Lives Matter vigil. The protesters were chanting anti-racist phrases. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

These ugly arguments bled into social media, where the rhetoric was often divisive, sometimes becoming toxic and deeply unsettling. Such was the case of former Forestview Middle School teacher Kara Hall, who’s racially charged comments regarding “creepy, destructive, violent blacks” during the George Floyd protests sparked significant community backlash and her own resignation in early July.

“Are you seeing what the blacks people are doing during this ‘protest?’” Hall’s Facebook account posted in the days following May 25. “They are destroying properties and businesses,” and “Maybe you should be out there telling them to stop burning businesses if they are such good people? I know all I see are scary awful blacks people robbing businesses that don’t deserve this. They are making it worse for themselves.”

RELATED: Forestview teacher accused of racist comments resigns, apologizes

But, while these conflicts remained somewhat secondary to the chaos in Minneapolis — as well as a great deal more civil and peaceful in comparison — 2020 would go on to reveal the lakes area’s relationship to the protests were much more personal than one might assume. Dylan Robinson, a 22-year-old Brainerd man, and 26-year-old Bryce Michael Williams of Staples faced federal criminal charges of aiding and abetting an arson for their role in burning the Minneapolis Police Department’s 3rd precinct building during the May 28 George Floyd riots.

GABRIEL LAGARDE may be reached at gabe.lagarde@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5859. Follow at www.twitter.com/glbrddispatch.