MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Cheering protesters torched a Minneapolis police station that the department was forced to abandon as three days of violent protests spread to St. Paul and angry demonstrations flared across the nation over the death of George Floyd, a handcuffed black man who pleaded for air as a white police officer kneeled on his neck.
A police spokesman confirmed late Thursday that staff had evacuated the Third Precinct station, the focus of many of the protests, "in the interest of the safety of our personnel" shortly after 10 p.m. Thursday. Livestream video showed protesters entering the building, where fire alarms blared and sprinklers ran as blazes were set.
Protesters set fire to a Minneapolis Police Department jacket.
Late Thursday, President Trump blasted the "total lack of leadership" in Minneapolis. "Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz 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," he said on Twitter.
A visibly tired and frustrated Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey made his first public appearance of the night at City Hall near 2 a.m. Friday and took responsibility for evacuating the precinct, saying it had become too dangerous for officers there. As Frey continued, a reporter cut across loudly with a question: "What's the plan here?"
"With regard to?" Frey responded. Then he added: "There is a lot of pain and anger right now in our city. I understand that. ... What we have seen over the past several hours and past couple of nights here in terms of looting is unacceptable."
He defended the city's lack of engagement with looters — only a handful of arrests during the first two nights of violence — and said, "We are doing absolutely everything that we can to keep the peace." He said National Guard members were being stationed in locations to help stem looting, including banks, grocery stores and pharmacies.
Protests erupted Tuesday, a day after Floyd's death in a confrontation with police captured on widely seen citizen video. On the video, Floyd can be seen pleading as Officer Derek Chauvin presses his knee against him. As minutes pass, Floyd slowly stops talking and moving. The Third Precinct covers the portion of south Minneapolis where Floyd was arrested.
Governor Tim Walz on Thursday activated the National Guard at the Minneapolis mayor's request, but it was not immediately clear when and where the Guard was being deployed, and none could be seen during protests in Minneapolis or St. Paul. The Guard tweeted minutes after the precinct burned that it had activated more than 500 soldiers across the metro area.
The Guard said a "key objective" was to make sure fire departments could respond to calls, and said in a follow-up tweet it was "here with the Minneapolis Fire Department" to assist. But no move was made to put out the Third Precinct fire. Assistant Fire Chief Bryan Tyner said fire crews could not respond safely to fires at the precinct station and some surrounding buildings.
Earlier Thursday, dozens of businesses across the Twin Cities boarded up their windows and doors to prevent looting, with Minneapolis-based Target announcing it was temporarily closing two dozen area stores. Minneapolis shut down nearly its entire light-rail system and all bus service through Sunday due to safety concerns.
In St. Paul, clouds of smoke hung in the air as police armed with batons and wearing gas masks and body armor kept a watchful eye on protesters along one of the city's main commercial corridors, where firefighters sprayed water onto a series of small fires. At one point, officers stood in line in front of a Target, trying to keep out looters, who were smashing windows of other businesses.