Lakes area lawmakers give their takes on protests and riots
The lakes area's five members of the state Legislature universally condemned riots and looting down in Minneapolis, while also taking Gov. Tim Walz to task for his response to unrest.
In a matter of days, the death of George Floyd turned Minneapolis upside down and prompted an international wave of protests and riots — seismic events that garnered both sympathy and condemnation from local GOP lawmakers in central Minnesota.
In a phone interview Thursday, June 4, Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, confirmed he reached out to the White House Friday, May 29, in an attempt to enlist President Donald Trump’s intervention in Minnesota. He said his decision came after rioters burned the Minneapolis Police Department’s Third Precinct and more than 170 buildings were destroyed throughout the Twin Cities metro in a matter of days.
“If the governor is not going to do anything, I want to reach out to the White House,” said Gazelka, who noted Gov. Tim Walz also reached out to federal authorities for aid. “It easily could be because the governor reached them as well, I don’t know how it played out. But by Saturday we did have federal help, as well as massive numbers of National Guard and frankly that's what we needed.”
“If the governor hadn't acted Saturday, I would have wanted the president to step in because they were literally burning our cities down,” Gazelka said later. “The way it turned out, he called up the National Guard, we had a massive number of forces in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and we had coordination with the federal government. We enforced the curfew. Prior to that time, they just did not enforce anything. And they let people do the looting.”
Like his Republican peers, Gazelka said he was horrified by the circumstances of Floyd’s death, but took aim at subsequent looting and property destruction throughout the state’s urban center, describing it as a disservice to Floyd’s memory, destructive to communities of color in the area, and a critical breakdown of social order exacerbated by failure on the part of Walz and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey.
On a substantive level, Gazelka said Floyd’s death represented the decisions of four officers and the possibility for systematic corruption in the Minneapolis Police Department. At the same time, he noted he was not in favor of exploring possible reforms to how law enforcement is conducted as a whole.
In turn, Gazelka widely criticized those who advocated for slashing law enforcement funding or opposing local police departments.
Alongside Gazelka, the Dispatch spoke with fellow state Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, as well as state Reps. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin; Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa; and John Poston, R-Lake Shore. Heintzeman has repeatedly declined to comment other than by email, citing a discomfort with face-to-face or phone interviews and expressed sensitivity with how prior statements were presented in the Dispatch.
Poston described Floyd’s death as a tragedy — on a personal level, for the Minneapolis community, as well as Minnesota as a whole.
“When you watch the video, what they did was not necessary,” Poston said. “And it's awful, it's a tragedy.”
Poston was more willing to give Walz the benefit of the doubt in the middle of a rapidly escalating situation, but he was adamant rioting overshadowed Floyd’s death and peaceful protests that took place in the Twin Cities in that time. Stronger actions by police on the scene were necessary, he said.
While he expressed support for law enforcement across the state, he also called for an investigation of the Minneapolis Police Department and noted some changes may be necessary in how law enforcement handles these situations.
“If we can do something to shift the culture to improve, we should,” Poston said. “I don't know if it's all over the state, or all over the country.”
Heintzeman echoed these sentiments, but noted the state’s leaders — Republicans and DFLers, the executive and legislative branches — should work in conjunction to explore the issue and rectify procedures so this doesn't happen again.
“Going forward I would like to see the governor and Legislature work together to form a task force to further investigate how law enforcement agencies, training programs, as well as Minnesota law could improve to guard against this happening ever again,” Heintzeman’s email stated. “It’s also an important time for all of us to listen and I encourage folks to share their thoughts with me and other elected officials, so that we can bring a full and complete understanding of our community’s perspective about the path forward as we consider these issues at the Legislature.”
Lueck also condemned Floyd’s death and said Walz’s inaction led to the desolation of hundreds of lives down in Minneapolis. While the issue is a flashpoint for strong emotions and fervent action, he said people have to allow justice to take its course — even if it’s slower than many people would like — because the alternative is far worse.
“You don't get the right things in 20 seconds,” he said. “It's not that simple. Then, right from the beginning, because these four individuals weren't handcuffed and given a 20 minute trial, there's something wrong with the system? That is a recipe to dismantle our entire justice system.”
Ruud said Walz could be forgiven after the first night of riots, but his relative inaction in the days that followed — despite the rapid escalation and widespread destruction — pointed to inept leadership on his part. She condemned looters, but also took a moment to praise peaceful protests and efforts to establish a memorial to Floyd in the city.\
“I think the state's response was pretty pathetic, to be honest with you,” Ruud said. “I think the response was slow to happen, and I feel sorry for all of the businesses and the neighborhoods that were burned out. I don't condone that kind of violence at all. I think the last few nights we've seen some peaceful protesters. That's been really great.”
GABRIEL LAGARDE may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 218-855-5859. Follow at www.twitter.com/glbrddispatch .