By Mike Kaszuba
Five days after the murder of George Floyd, a top Minnesota National Guard official sent an email to four adjoining states – Iowa, North Dakota, Wisconsin and South Dakota – asking them to send help as rioting in the aftermath of the killing continued in the Twin Cities.
The email, sent at 6:30 in the morning on May 30, 2020, would bring little in the way of reinforcements.
An accompanying note, made that same morning, stated that “ultimately, no support [came] from outside of MN.” A contingent of military police units from North Dakota, while on its way to Minnesota, would be ordered back to North Dakota after reports of civil unrest in Fargo. The National Guard Bureau, which administers National Guard units across the U.S., sent three people to Minnesota – the group included a public affairs officer – for an “observation and reporting mission.”
Public Record Media (PRM), a non-profit based in Saint Paul, reviewed previously-released – as well as new – documents regarding a little-examined aspect of the 2020 riots: How authorities in Minnesota, while facing unprecedented civil unrest, struggled to get meaningful help from officials in neighboring states.
Many of the details were contained in a report commissioned by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS), which was conducted by the Wilder Foundation, a Saint Paul non-profit, and released in March. The Wilder Foundation was paid $150,000 to produce the report. PRM also reviewed a supplemental timeline obtained from the state by Rich Neumeister, a long-time public data advocate in Minnesota.
The details showed that Minnesota officials tried to get help – in many cases unsuccessfully – by attempting to invoke the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC), a 50-state assistance program in which states can send personnel and equipment to other states facing governor-declared states of emergency.
The documents also revealed that some of the highest-ranking U.S. military officials had been closely monitoring the situation in Minnesota, and were briefed by top officials in the state, including DPS Commissioner John Harrington.
All of this activity came as Minnesota faced an extraordinary crisis: the killing of a black man by Minneapolis police, large protests across the Twin Cities in response to the murder, several subsequent nights of rioting and looting in Minneapolis and Saint Paul, the deployment of more than 2,000 Minnesota National Guard troops to quell the unrest, and the burning of a Minneapolis police precinct headquarters.
Floyd’s death also sparked protests and civil unrest around the country, which attracted the attention of the White House and the country’s national security establishment.
On Friday, May 29, four days after Floyd’s death, President Trump weighed in on the rioting in Minnesota.
“I can’t stand back & watch this happen to a great American City, Minneapolis. A total lack of leadership,” the president tweeted.
“These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen. Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz [of Minnesota] and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!” Trump added.
U.S. military monitored situation in Minnesota
Later that same day, other top U.S. officials would get more involved in the civil unrest in Minnesota.
At 4:30 p.m. on May 29, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – two of the country’s top military officials – were briefed by phone by officials in Minnesota. According to the event timeline, Esper and Milley “asked a series of detailed questions and were satisfied with [the] plan.”
But less than three hours later, with nightfall approaching, things in Minnesota were unraveling again as they had on several previous nights.
The timeline provided an update on the rioting on Lake Street, a major thoroughfare near the Third Precinct. According to the timeline, state police and 151 National Guard soldiers had been patrolling the area for most of the day, but the report added that by 7:30 that evening “State Patrol says that they are receiving gun fire, says that they are moving away from Lake Street.”
The previous night, the Minneapolis Police Third Precinct headquarters, on the city’s near south side, had been abandoned by officers, and had subsequently been set ablaze.
The next morning, Saturday, May 30, Esper and Milley were again on the phone.
According to the report, at 7:45 that morning, the Minnesota National Guard’s adjutant general, Jon Jensen, gave Esper and Milley the latest news on the ongoing civil unrest. But Esper and Milley – unlike President Trump – would have reservations about sending federal troops to Minnesota.
Esper would in fact face his own controversy the following week for publicly disagreeing with President Trump over the need to invoke the federal 1807 Insurrection Act. Trump had advocated invoking the act to send active-duty federal soldiers to address the rioting that had broken out in Minnesota and across the country in response to Floyd’s death.
“The option to use active-duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort, and only in the most urgent and dire of situations. We are not in one of those situations now,” Esper said.
In the days following the telephone calls with officials in Minnesota, Milley would also wrestle with the larger implications of what was happening. According to a new article in The New Yorker magazine, Milley drafted a letter of resignation dated June 8 – just a week after conferring with officials in Minnesota. The resignation letter was also dated after Milley joined Trump in a controversial walk through Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., where protesters – in the aftermath of Floyd’s death – had been cleared out of an area near the White House.
“The events of the last couple weeks have caused me to do deep soul-searching,” Milley wrote.
“You are using the military to create fear in the minds of the people – and we are trying to protect the American people,” Milley told the president. “I cannot stand idly by and participate in that attack, verbally or otherwise, on the American people.”
Milley, however, would later decide not to resign.
Generally, federal troops are barred from participating in law enforcement operations by the federal Posse Comitatus Act. However, another section of federal law – the Civil War-era Insurrection Act – permits the domestic deployment of the military to suppress insurrection – either at the invitation of a state’s governor, or at the president’s discretion, if conditions in a state have made enforcing the law there “impracticable.”
Documents obtained by PRM from the Minnesota governor’s office show that, on June 2, the governor’s “evening update” email included a note stating that President Trump had activated the District of Columbia National Guard, and had requested additional forces from other states, as part of a possible Insurrection Act deployment. The update noted that, “Typically, invoking the Insurrection Act is done via Presidential Executive Order. At this time, no Executive Order has been issued, but it is possible in the near future.”
On May 30, the Associated Press had reported that the Pentagon was ready to send military help to Minnesota, but that Walz had not asked for help. The Associated Press story said that the Pentagon had placed soldiers – likely military police units – on a four-hour alert status.
Minnesota requests military police units from neighboring states
Less than five hours after the second phone call with Esper and Milley, Minnesota officials instead formally asked five surrounding states – Iowa, North Dakota, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wisconsin – for military police units. “Wisconsin was the only state to formally respond,” according to the Wilder Foundation’s timeline of events. But the response from Wisconsin, which was facing its own instances of civil unrest, would be disappointing: the state was “unable” to help “due to the current situation in Wisconsin.”
In the end, according to the report, Wisconsin sent 15 state troopers to help provide security at the State Capitol in Saint Paul.
Meanwhile, less than two hours after Minnesota asked for the military police units, Iowa responded by sending chemical munitions. Later that same night, May 30, they said they could not send any military police units but offered to send National Guard infantry. Minnesota officials, according to the event timeline, declined.
Iowa’s offer to help came more than an hour after authorities in Minnesota estimated that as many as 3,000 protestors had gathered around Minneapolis’ Fifth Precinct police building. “Officers were shot at and had to deal with rioters using unmanned vehicles to assault officers,” according to the report’s timeline of events.
Events had continued to deteriorate during the day. Earlier that afternoon, according to the timeline, state officials said the DPS website and other state websites had been electronically attacked.
North Dakota calls back military police units headed to Minnesota
North Dakota’s pledge to help was also made that same day – Saturday, May 30 – but was then suddenly withdrawn just hours later.
After Minnesota asked the surrounding states for help, the event timeline report noted that North Dakota verbally responded saying that it had the “capability to support with [a military police] HQ [unit] and one [military police] company.”
But by 2:37 that afternoon, Minnesota officials were told that the North Dakota units that were headed to Minnesota “were halted in Fargo” because of instances of civil unrest in Fargo. North Dakota’s governor, according to the report, decided to “keep the [military police] units within ND for potential future civil disturbance operations.”
At 4:17 that same afternoon, the timeline noted that North Dakota had apologized for not sending the units.
Early the next morning, in one of the final entries to the timeline, the report stated that a C-130 military transport aircraft flew from Minnesota to Sioux Falls, S.D. to “retrieve 15,000 pounds of non-lethal munitions” and bring them back “to [the] Minneapolis/St. Paul area.”
As they tried to mobilize out-of-state resources, state officials tried to reach out to other entities – including those in Minnesota.
On Saturday, May 30, the chief of the Minnesota State Patrol called Bill Hutton, the executive director of the Minnesota Sheriff’s Association. According to the event timeline, Matt Langer, the chief of the state patrol, asked the sheriff’s association “what can they do, what resources do they have around the state?”
But the mid-afternoon phone call did not yield promising results. The report, summarizing the phone call, instead noted that “there was civil unrest all over the state, so it was not as easy to get resources to come.” Hutton also told Langer that he had just spoken by phone with Harrington, who had made a similar request.
(The problems with getting in-state help would arise again as officials later prepared for more unrest following the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis officer charged with Floyd’s killing. A 19-page state Department of Public Safety report released in January 2022 said the agency made “numerous requests” to sheriffs and chiefs of police throughout Minnesota.
“Many agencies voiced interest in helping, but Minneapolis’ mutual aid agreement does not offer liability coverage and securing a third-party insurance policy proved to be cost-prohibitive. This resulted in many agencies declining to provide assistance,” the report stated.)
After-action reports released
Nearly two years after Floyd’s death and the civil unrest in Minnesota, the Wilder Foundation released a 129-page external review in March that analyzed how state officials responded to the riots.
The Minnesota Department of Public Safety likewise released its own “lessons learned” report in March 2021 following the civil unrest.
The reports covered multiple aspects of the civil unrest of 2020, and included some details regarding the response from neighboring states.
The Wilder Foundation report stated that its goal was to “objectively evaluate what [Minnesota] did well and did not do well.” The report included an event timeline, as well as after-action recommendations and analysis. Among its findings, the Wilder report noted that the state’s Multi-Agency Command Center was established too late, thus hampering its ability to coordinate a response to metro-wide civil unrest. The report also included feedback acquired from interviews with local business owners and community members. The feedback included some criticism of the National Guard and state police response for the use of “escalating tactics” that made “a bad situation worse.”
PRM has filed a data request seeking more information related to the Wilder Foundation’s report, including the interviews that were used as a basis for the report. PRM is also asking for details of the conversations between state officials and Esper and Milley.
NOTE – This story was corrected at 11:11am on August 31, 2022 to reflect the order of events occurring on May 29 and 30, 2020.