By Mike Kaszuba
The 911 phone call came at 2:22 in the morning –– nearly five hours after the Minneapolis police abandoned their nearby Third Precinct headquarters on what became the most intense night of protests last year following the death of George Floyd.
“This fire is out of control,” the caller told a police dispatcher. “It’s next to a Senior Citizen building, it’s, the Fire Department needs to get here, not the best, we need the Fire Department.”
“How soon will they be?” the caller added.
“I cannot tell you right now with everything going [on]. I’m sorry I cannot tell you,” the 911 operator replied.
“Oh my God, this is a fire out of control next to a building with Senior Citizens, ma’am!” the caller said.
New 911 call transcripts obtained by Public Record Media (PRM), a non-profit based in Saint Paul, show how ordinary citizens tried to overcome fear and panic in the Third Precinct on a pivotal night in May 2020 in Minneapolis’ south and southeast neighborhoods.
The calls detail how many everyday residents were caught in the middle of a suddenly chaotic scene as protesters, arsonists, police and then the National Guard occupied the surrounding streets.
The calls also lay bare the frustration residents felt as they realized they were on their own and that, with the violence spreading through their neighborhoods, the police were overwhelmed and not likely coming to assist them.
From 6 p.m. on Thursday, May 28, until 6 a.m. Friday, May 29 –– a span of 12 hours –– more than 200 emergency calls were made regarding homes, businesses and personal safety in the Third Precinct. The calls dealt with everything from assaults in progress, fights and reports of shots being fired to burglaries, auto theft, suspicious persons and property damage.
In a one-hour span starting at 11 p.m. on May 28 –– just after Gov. Tim Walz activated the National Guard –– there were 20 calls from the Third Precinct’s neighborhoods to police 911 phone lines. There was a report of a burglary in progress on Cedar Avenue, sounds of shots fired on W. River Parkway and a call on an auto theft on Chicago Avenue. Eight of the calls were business alarms, with locations on Lake Street, Portland Avenue, 34th Avenue S. and 28th Street E. Four more calls that hour reported burglaries of businesses in progress.
Thirty 911 calls in an hour
A short time later, a one-hour span in the early morning hours of May 29 was even more intense.
From 1 a.m. to 2 a.m. on Friday, May 29, there were 30 calls from Third Precinct addresses to police 911 lines. Of those calls, four were reports of shots being fired on Lake Street (two calls), 16th Avenue S. and Minnehaha Avenue. One person reported being robbed on 14th Avenue S., and police were called to help firefighters on Lake Street.
From 2 a.m. to 3 a.m. on that early Friday morning, there were 28 more calls from Third Precinct addresses to police 911 lines.
The unrest in the Third Precinct and across the Twin Cities would lead to government-imposed curfews over the next several nights.
The calls on the night of May 28 included one from a person on 34th Avenue S., who called police at 11:30 p.m.
“There’s multiple cars in front of the house,” reported the caller. “[They’re] threatening my neighbor.
“My neighbor is out in front of his house with a gun,” the caller added. “You [need] to be here now!”
Two minutes later, a person from the same address called 911 back.
The police operator responded: “The city is under a riot sir. We’re trying our hardest.”
“I’m in the middle of the riot,” the caller said.
“We do not have enough resources right now,” the 911 operator stated.
“How is that possible?” the Third Precinct caller said. “It’s been going on for three days!”
A third 911 call from the same address came less than an hour later. “I just want to know if we’re going to have police officers around the city, South Minneapolis,” the caller asked.
“I’m just worried because we have kids and all this craziness is taking us out, breaking out all my family here,” the caller added.
By the time of that 911 call, it had been three days since Floyd had died while being arrested by police at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue –– a seminal event that would ignite large protests against police brutality not only in Minneapolis but around the world. The Third Precinct, which includes the location where Floyd died, stretches through a large swath of south and southeast Minneapolis, and is bordered by the Mississippi River on the east.
Emails and texts obtained by PRM also laid out another development. After Floyd’s death on Monday, May 25, city officials began worrying that the protests that immediately followed his death would not be the worst of it –– and that the rioting and looting would intensify.
“Really crazy and escalating”
On Wednesday evening, May 27, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey’s communications director said that Police Chief Medaria Arradondo was pressing for more help for the Third Precinct’s police headquarters. “Word on the ground is it’s really crazy and escalating,” one city official said.
By mid-morning the next day –– May 28 –– texts and e-mails detailed that city officials were also discussing closing City Hall early in downtown Minneapolis. “People could remain inside to finish business, no public in after 3:00,” one text message stated.
As ordinary citizens in the Third Precinct tried to cope with the unfolding chaos on the night of May 28 and early hours of May 29, the police precinct headquarters near Lake Street – the main center for any police presence in the surrounding neighborhoods – took the spotlight.
At 9:36 p.m. on Thursday, May 28, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey texted that he was “Calling the governor re 3rd precinct now.”
“Copy that mayor,” an unidentified official texted back. “Precinct being evacuated now. Protesters breaching the precinct now. All officers evacuated.
“Protesters have the precinct,” the unidentified official added. “Precinct is on fire now.”
The next day, May 29, City Coordinator Mark Ruff sent an email to all city employees. “I know the last several days and previous two nights have been extremely difficult,” he wrote. “We are all sad to have lost the 3rd Precinct.”
And as officials tabulated the damage after the sun rose on May 29, city firefighters reported battling 19 building fires –– including the Third Precinct police headquarters –– the previous night. Fire department “crews were unable to respond to the 3rd Precinct fire and several others until the scenes were secured by the National Guard,” a city fire department memo stated.
On Saturday, May 30, Frey’s communications director helped draft a message that was even more blunt. “In the last few days, both our city and state law enforcement capacities have been overwhelmed by simple math –– an overwhelming ratio of rioters that even our unified effort has been unable to push back,” the message that Mychal Vlatkovich helped write stated. “We are now confronting white supremacists, members of organized crime, out of state instigators, and possibly even foreign actors to destroy and destabilize our city and our region.”
But not everyone was sympathetic to the city’s top officials, who became targets of citizen anger.
“Your city is burning”
“Your city is burning,” an unidentified person said in an e-mail on May 29 to city officials.
“Perhaps the rioters will burn, you, too[.] You should be sued into oblivion by everyone you didn’t protect, you useless Shithead.”
A woman emailed the mayor shortly after noon on May 29 with a simpler message. “The world is watching. Do better,” she wrote.
In the Third Precinct, other 911 calls provided more examples of the desperation citizens faced. During one 911 call, at 7 in the morning on May 29, police had to first get a language interpreter to understand the caller. The interpreter told police the caller wanted to report that “people is going into store, taking out everything.”
A woman called police at nearly 3:30 in the morning on May 29, telling them that more than one car had just pulled up to a boarded-up gas station on the corner of 44th Avenue across the street from where she was watching.
“Do you think there is anyone [police officers] coming?” she asked the 911 operator. “I know last night when it was all happening, no one was coming.
“It’s not, it’s not good,” she added. “I just hope they’re not burning something down.”
Forty-five minutes before that call, a property management company security officer called 911 regarding a Lake Street building.
“[There’s] shots fired into my building, they’re breeching my building and I need help,” the caller told police.
“They fired a couple shots at me towards the building and then they breeched the door. I managed to get the door secured but they’re still surrounding the front of the building, attempting to light the building on fire, and attempting to get inside,” the caller reported.
When the 911 operator asked whether he could see what was happening outside, the caller responded: “I can’t step outside anymore!”
And at 2 in the morning on May 29, a woman in the Third Precinct called 911 to say there was a fire in a shopping center across the street from her. She asked police whether she should evacuate.
“We don’t know whether or not we should evacuate,” she said.
“It’s up to you for your safety,” the 911 operator responded. “If you feel like you need to, then yes. Go ahead and evacuate but if not then don’t but we don’t have that information right now. We only have so many resources. This is going on all over the city, okay?”
One person called 911 at 2:38 in the morning on May 29, saying there were lights on in the East Lake Library and also people in the building. “All the lights are on and they’re never on at night [and] there’s somebody in there,” the caller reported.
“I want you to stay inside okay?” the 911 operator said.
“Oh, I am, I’m not going nowhere,” the caller replied.
Another caller spoke to a 911 operator at nearly 4 in the morning on May 29, telling police he watched as vandals broke into a post office in the Third Precinct. “This guy took a postal van and ran over like five people,” the caller told police.
“They like took a whole bunch [of] vans, they’re like street dragging,” the caller said.
“I left. It got too violent,” the caller added.
Even before night fell on May 28, text messages from city officials obtained by PRM show that the city was taking its first steps toward one of the riot’s most controversial moves: withdrawing police from the Third Precinct headquarters near Lake Street.
“DC Waite, we’re getting questions about police being pulled from 3rd precinct. Can you confirm one way or the other?” one text message asked at 5:12 p.m.
“We did a staff reduction and the Mayor has been briefed,” Deputy Chief Kathy Waite replied.
Afterward, text messages being exchanged by city officials showed that Frey was being criticized for his decisions regarding the Third Precinct.
“Mayor is feeling a little heat from the PD here,” one city official texted. “He came in earlier and said he feels bad for disappointing them with 3rd precinct but still feels he made the right decision.”
Meanwhile, at 1:28 in the morning on May 29, another person called 911 from the Third Precinct to tell them about a nearby fire. The police operator advised her to leave. “Seeing all that happen right now, I would leave. I wouldn’t, I would have [left] a long time ago if that was me living there. Just to be quite frank,” the police operator said.
Replied the caller: “I understand but [by staying] this is the only way we can protect our buildings.”
By Mike Kaszuba