Law enforcement, local businesses look back on Fargo riots one year later

Updated: May. 30, 2021 at 7:56 PM CDT
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FARGO, N.D. (Valley News Live) - May 30, 2020 is a day many in the community say they will never forget.

What started as a peaceful protest with hundreds gathering in downtown Fargo in the morning and early afternoon to honor the life of George Floyd, ended with a city-wide curfew and police deploying tears gas on rioters and looters that evening.

“When this thing started to turn into a situation where we started to have businesses being vandalized and people being hurt it was like, ‘What is going on?’” Cass County Sheriff Jesse Jahner said.

“It was a difficult time. There were a lot of emotions, and emotions and crowds are sometimes a dangerous combination,” Lt. Derik Zimmel with Grand Forks Police said.

Law enforcement from across the valley came to assist the Fargo Police Department that day, which included several officers from Grand Forks. The department had lost a fellow brother in blue, 29-year-old Cody Holte, just three days earlier when Holte was shot to death in the line of duty.

“It was a difficult time to say the least. We had people who were mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted. But as Cody did that day, when another agency calls for help we’re going to respond,” Zimmel said.

And Sheriff Jahner says 47 extra officers ended up being called in from his agency. Many of them coming with experience under their belt from their previous work at the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in western North Dakota, Jahner said.

“I was very happy with how our staff responded that day. Our goal was to make sure that we could maintain public safety,” Jahner said. “I think if we hadn’t responded the way we had more people may have been hurt and more businesses may have been vandalized.”

Businesses like JL Beers and Vinyl Taco were hit with tens of thousands of dollars worth of damage within just a few hours.

“It was a surreal day because we never expected something like this to happen in our town. I mean it turned into a warzone,” co-owner Lance Thorson said.

Thorson says as tensions grew throughout the day on May 30, he and his staff decided to close early for safety purposes. Thorson says he later watched the destruction and looting of his restaurants on his phone via the security cameras.

“The front windows were broken, barstools thrown out in the streets damaged, thrown through the HoDo’s windows. Pretty much everything that was up here as far as beer was taken except there was one can left at the bottom of the cooler,” Thorson said. That last-standing can of Michelob Ultra is now displayed on the top shelf at at the downtown burger joint, jokingly deemed ‘The Riot Can.’

Thorson says thankfully, cleaning up the destruction wouldn’t be left up to just him and his staff, as hundreds organized clean-up efforts the following morning.

“It’s pretty remarkable. People were scrubbing off graffiti, sweeping up glass and garbage. There were even officers out there helping clean up after wearing their riot gear all night,” he said.

Members of Black Lives Matter did not want to be interviewed by Valley News Live for this piece.

“I can tell you for sure what’s going on right now, I have no idea. This morning, we came together in good-faith as Black Lives Matter protesters and we peacefully organized our protest this morning. We had full support and cooperation of the police to organize our protest. The Black Lives Matter protests this morning ended at six o’clock p.m. So what’s going on right now, no. That’s not us. 95% of people I’ve seen here, they don’t belong to Black Lives Matter,” Joseph Lewis, a member of the local BLM chapter said in a live television interview with Valley News Live on the evening of the May 30 riots.

Fargo Police Chief David Zibolski says within the last year there’s been a lot of growth in the community. Zibolski says his department has been upping their outreach efforts among various groups in the metro to try to strengthen relationships with those who don’t trust the police or who’ve had negative experiences with officers.

“I think we’ve been very successful in the last several months improving those types of interactions. We recognize some things we’d like to do differently while still keeping the community safe and allowing for peaceful protests,” Zibolski said.

Both Zibolski and Jahner say they wouldn’t characterize anything done by officers on May 30, 2020 as wrong or done poorly, but say there have been many discussions both locally and nationally on how to better plan, prepare and take action in the event something like this happens again. Both added they’re more than hopeful for the future in the metro.

More than 20 people were arrested and charged for their part in last year’s riots. Police, court documents and Thorson say many of the suspects were identified from the surveillance cameras both in and outside of JL Beers. Thorson says their camera systems were only upgraded about a month before the protests, and says he’s glad he could help bring justice for the community.

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