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A protest, a riot, and the clean up: Fargoans share their experiences

by John Showalter | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) | News | June 10th, 2020

photo by Jason Siebels

By the time this article is published, all the major new outlets in the area will have reported on the May 30th protest in Fargo demanding change and justice after the needless killing of George Floyd, as well as its aftermath. Stories from the thousands of people who were there will have already been shared in these local publications broadcasts as well as across social media. Passionate opinions have been shared back and forth running the gamut from saying that the protesters got what was coming to them to saying that the police unnecessarily escalated the situation. New information and new stories have come to light every minute of every day and continue to do so as a nation expresses outrage in the wake of George Floyd’s death and discusses the subjects of race relations and police accountability and brutality that it has brought under stark review. By the point this article is published there has already been another peaceful protest and the chief deputy of the Fargo Police Department has resigned, and that is just in local news

Here are a few interviews I was able to conduct with one of the organizers of the march, Angelina Sam Teewon, local professional photographer Jason Siebels, local AM radio host JJ Gordon, and the organizers of the cleanup effort the next morning, Dalton Luther and Krissee Grosso. I have tried to reproduce them as close to verbatim as possible.

An Organizer: Angelina Sam Teewon
“I felt like it was such a huge wakeup call for the Fargo-Moorhead area and North Dakota in general. I don’t think anyone expected that many people to come out.”

High Plains Reader: Tell me a little about yourself.
Angelina Sam Teewon
: I grew up in Fargo, North Dakota. I moved here from a very small town in Wisconsin. Fargo is my home. I went to middle school, high school, and did some of my college careers here in Fargo. I’m currently studying political science and sociology in order to go into law. I’m a huge advocate for speaking out for what’s right, and I’m very vocal about it.

HPR: Is this the first march you’ve organized?
Angelina Sam Teewon
: This is the first march that I have organized. The other organizers were Anyiwei Maciek (we went to middle and elementary school together) and Morgan Duncan. I’m glad it was so successful.

photo by Jason SiebelsHPR: It went off the rails toward the end, but it’s my understanding those were not the same people there that afternoon?
Angelina Sam Teewon: I have gotten a lot of words from community members and people who were there that they were people from out of town there to cause chaos. I believe it may have been white supremacists. I believe their motive was to paint an ugly picture of the protests.

HPR: Overall though, the protest as a whole went positively?
Angelina Sam Teewon: I was there the entire day. The protest ended around 5:30. I was not there for the rioting. That started afterwards. It was an absolutely beautiful experience. I did not expect to see that many people there. There were thousands of people. Everyone was very cooperative.

HPR: How did the day take place?
Angelina Sam Teewon: We started the march at Island Park around 10 AM. We stopped at the police station, we stopped at all the busy intersections. We got down on one knee and had a moment of silence. It was a peaceful protest. We wanted to pay respect to George’s death.

HPR: I understand you had speakers as well?
Angelina Sam Teewon: We had speakers at Island Park. I was one of the speakers. Yarimson Turay was a speaker as well, and helped organize chants. There was Rochelle, who was running for city commissioner. There was also John Strand from the city commission. There were multiple speakers, I can’t think of all of them off the top of my head.

HPR: I understand that the chief of police spoke as well?
Angelina Sam Teewon: Yes, the chief officer spoke with some of our protesters and the police chief took some pictures with us as well.

HPR: Throughout the course of the day, did you face much hostility?
Angelina Sam Teewon: There were several people who threw out some hateful slurs. I did leave room for disappointment for stuff like that. I look at it as they have their own problems if they look at a peaceful protest and say hateful things like that.

HPR: People like that were outliers, though?
Angelina Sam Teewon: Correct. Overall, it was a major success. I felt like it was such a huge wakeup call for the Fargo-Moorhead area and North Dakota in general. I don’t think anyone expected that many people to come out. I think it opened the eyes of a lot of our leaders and I’m glad it was able to make such an impact on our community.

HPR: When did things start wrapping up?
Angelina Sam Teewon: Around 5:30. We thought the march would originally take around two or three hours. I had only expected about 20 to 50 people to show up. So many people had to speak and the whole event went on around seven hours. Around that time we started heading back to the park to wrap things up but some people stuck around downtown to continue to protest. I noticed increased police presence around where the protesters who stayed behind were at.

I just want to wrap up by saying that we committed to a peaceful protest. As organizers, we cannot control people’s actions. I want to thank the community for coming out to support a great cause. We want to use peaceful protest to encourage local leaders to help create a better community for people of all colors.

A photographer: Jason Siebels
“If you were to ask me what lessons could be learned from this, I honestly don't know if there is one. Ultimately you're dealing with an unstoppable force versus an unmovable object.”

HPR: Tell me a little bit about yourself.
Jason Siebels: I'm a professional photographer who has been a lifelong native of Fargo, with the exception of a little bit of traveling in my 20s. Fargo has been my home for over 40 years and honestly, I'm terrible when it comes to talking about myself, so we'll leave it at that.

HPR: Was this the first major protest you had photographed at?
Jason Siebels: Yes. Fargo hasn't exactly been a hotspot of unrest. The only other protest/march I believe I've been involved with was the Kebob House fire, although I don't remember any details of what the gathering after that was, I just remember going to some sort of community rally for the owners when I was in high school. Otherwise I've led a fairly quiet life.

However this protest I felt it was important to document, given both my proximity to the march itself, I currently live in the Hawthorne Neighborhood, and to be able to try and accurately document something historic in a time when there are so many people who will use events like this for propaganda for both sides of the political spectrum.

HPR: What was your experience like throughout the course of the day?
Jason Siebels: During the morning, the protests were very much a peaceful event, although the leadership did appear to constantly attempt to change the plans of the gathering. The parade route changed, and initially I thought it was due to the train gates (arms) on main being down when the march started. However the head of the march seemed to be either confused with how Fargo was laid out-- they split off at one point between Broadway and NP ave, only to shortly reform afterwards, and then instead of continuing down Broadway as originally planned, snaked through downtown from First to Roberts, to Fourth Ave North--I believe it was Fourth, before ending at the Civic center-- not Island Park as was originally planned on their Facebook page. Then, instead of dispersing, one of (whom I assume) the leaders announced that they would be marching to the Fargo Police Department. This was confusing to me, as FPD had moved from downtown to 25th St. and 1St. Ave last year, and would be a four mile round trip to get back to Island Park.

HPR: Was there a point where things seemed to take a turn?
Jason Siebels: From my perspective, it is difficult to say if there was a singular event that caused a turning point. There was certainly an element present during the protest that became more vocal and more aggressive in the afternoon. I wasn't able to personally witness the event where police cars were attacked, however I was able to view video from two different angles when it happened. I cannot say that something happened before then to provoke the attack on the police, but there were certainly escalations happening from individuals in the crowd that continued to escalate tensions.

HPR: Did it seem like a particular person or group of people were trying to escalate the situation?
Jason Siebels: During the march, yes, there was a very small number within the crowd that appeared to be attempting to raise tensions. But this was an extremely small group within a gathering of a couple of thousand people, there were a very small number of people (perhaps a dozen or more) who were attempting to raise tensions between the protesters and police. It would have been more than one individual, as I heard it a few times as the protest went by. As the crowd dispersed in the evening, there were clearly individuals who were not interested in going home, and stayed downtown and became more vocal towards police officers on duty.

HPR: Were there people that seemed to be condemning those instigators or trying to stop them?
Jason Siebels: Yes. There were people within the crowd Saturday evening who were attempting to de-escalate the tensions and to disperse peacefully.

HPR: Did it seem like a specific event or events set off the rioting or did it just seem to evolve out of the state of tension there?
Jason Siebels: It's a hard question to answer. From my perspective, there were individuals who were actively attempting to escalate things to provoke a police action, without themselves making the first move...that's the best way I can describe it. As police presence was ramped up, those assembled in the crowd provoked harder, while making certain not to make any contact that would actually provoke the police. It was like watching a big game of chicken. But these things do not happen in a vacuum, one event leads to another, which cascades into what we witnessed on Saturday night. The police are stuck needing to disperse the crowd before things turn violent, the crowd sees the police presence and then starts yelling and taunting the police, and refuses to leave. A rational mind would say "Alright, this has gone far enough, we can continue with other protests, we can continue to have our voices heard in a lawful manner", especially after the police announce that after 10 minutes, tear gas will be used, and arrests will be made. That would be the rational mind, but what I was witnessing was clearly either irrational, or willfully wanting such a police action as an excuse to commit violence.

HPR: What happened after the police started dispersing people?
Jason Siebels: People refused to disperse. I'm sure that sounds far too simple and perhaps as bland an answer as possible, but that feels like it's pretty well documented. The people who were there after the tear gas chose not to disperse and then proceeded to damage property, break windows, and attempt to light fires. It seemed very clear to me that once FPD made their move to begin arresting people,that was the impetus to begin the riot. Even the act of dispersing tear gas wasn't enough to "spark it". The rioters-- and I want to be very clear, these were rioters that showed up, not protesters from earlier in the day, they waited to begin destroying property AFTER FPD moved to make arrests, which was a few minutes after tear gas was fired into the crowd.

HPR: How did you think the situation was handled?
Jason Siebels: From the police, as professional as I believe it could have been. I have no other experience firsthand of riots or protests, but at numerous points though the day, the police could have taken action to step up and attempt to show force to prevent the protest from continuing to the police offices. No doubt, that would have been seen by some as an escalation by the police force, and perhaps would have caused the violence to break out earlier. The police could possibly have attempted crowd control earlier as soon as the more aggressive elements started forming up downtown in the afternoon, but again, from my perspective, they appeared to be erring on the side of caution in an attempt to de-escalate tensions. I think for the most part FPD was placed in a no-win situation, and the question becomes... what can you do to stop someone who has every intention of committing violence, of provocation action in order to give themselves cover to do so? I really don't have an answer for that, especially in today's age where misinformation spreads like wildfire. I myself had to spend days afterwards attempting to provide context in my own Facebook page against both sides. Some were blaming the protesters in the morning for being violent and causing destruction (prior to the riots). Some were blaming the police for attacking demonstrators and "retaliating" against the protest. Some were accusing the police of haphazardly firing tear gas into the crowd. Misinformation is an endemic problem, and one that I believe some of the rioters were actually hoping to capitalize on. I had to report a post that a friend had shared that claimed police were firing rubber bullets into a protesters who were attempting to provide medical aid to another protester who was injured when a tear gas canister hit them in the head, which was a completely falsified event. Even the photo that was provided was mis-contextualized The protester had their hands up, but this wasn't to show he was surrendering to police, he (and others during that time) were actually taunting police with the "hands up - don't shoot" chant prior to, and during the rioting.

HPR: What was your takeaway from the events of the day?
Jason Siebels: I don't know if I even have a takeaway. If you were to ask me what lessons could be learned from this, I honestly don't know if there is one. Ultimately you're dealing with an unstoppable force versus an unmovable object. One side wants violence, the other side wants to avoid it, but no matter what action they take to try and ensure peace will provoke it. What can you do in that situation, especially in the moment when you don't have the benefit of hindsight to guide you. Given the situation, I think the police did the best with the situation they were presented with.

The radio host: JJ Gordon
“When the first tear gas was fired into the crowd was a major turning point from protest to riot. It was a trigger moment for the crowd.”

HPR: Tell me a little about yourself.
JJ Gordon: I am JJ Gordon, born and raised in Fargo, ND. My passion is improv comedy. After studying at The Second City and IO in Chicago, I took over The LineBenders Comedy Troupe in Fargo and have been the Artistic Director for over a decade. My day job is hosting “It Takes Two with Amy & JJ on KFGO-AM” where I get the opportunity to highlight local accomplishments, businesses, news and more. You can also hear me on “JJ Meets World,” a podcast created by Tucker Lucas and myself and features the art of conversation through interviews with people from morticians to Hollywood special effects pioneers.

HPR: Was this the first major protest you had been present at?
JJ Gordon: I lived in Chicago and have seen protests involving several hundred people (the hotel workers protest comes to mind) but nothing to the scale of what took place in Fargo on May 30th.

HPR: What was your experience with the protest throughout the course of the day?
JJ Gordon: I listened to news coverage of the protest on KFGO as well as watched a lot of streaming video on social media streams. So, mostly from afar during the morning and afternoon. A little after 6pm, I received a phone call from the head of the KFGO news department, Paul Jurgens, asking if I could be another set of eyes and ears in downtown Fargo. I agreed and headed downtown. I parked on Broadway south of main ave - which was blocked with squad cars and numerous officers. I assumed that the demonstration was so large this was needed. I was very surprised to see that the entire group of protesters and police were virtually all contained between Roberts and Broadway on 1st ave north. A block away in any direction, you could see people riding their bikes, dining on a patio and completely oblivious something was taking place. I spoke with people in the crowd, took some photos and video, met up with the KFGO news team that had been covering the event all day. From the time I arrived until just after midnight, I never left a two square block section of downtown Fargo.

HPR: When would you say things started taking a turn?
JJ Gordon: There was certainly a great deal of antagonizing of the police. Lots of yelling in their faces, throwing water bottles. I watched a man in a t-shirt advertising a local college grab an old metal coffee can that was being used as an ashtray from an alley, walk it into the crowd and hurl it into the police. The change from protest to riot wasn't a light switch, it was gradual - starting slow and gaining momentum as time went on. The first major action used by the police to disperse the crowd were these firework-like explosions that were fired overhead. A large BANG, I assume was meant to startle the crowd and get them to thin out. A few of these didn't seem to damper the resolve of those chanting. The numbers started to grow, mainly because of onlookers. A few people I spoke with told me that they saw what was happening on social media and wanted to come see for themselves. When the first tear gas was fired into the crowd was a major turning point from protest to riot.

HPR: Did it seem like there was a particular incident that set things off or a culmination of things?
JJ Gordon: When the first tear gas was fired into the crowd was a major turning point from protest to riot. It was a trigger moment for the crowd. Water bottles weren't being thrown at the police, it was rocks. Full riot gear was at the front line of the police force and it was shortly after that the destruction of public property began.

HPR: Did it seem like a particular person or group of people were goading things on?
JJ Gordon: I didn't witness a particular person or group who was organizing the violence, there were some people who seemed to take the lead when it came to the chants. If there was some sort of organization to the chaos, it certainly didn't show in the minute to minute. That being said, I would like to spotlight the protesters who wanted a peaceful demonstration. I witnessed individuals who took rocks out of the hands of others and asked people to stop violence/destruction. These people did not want the riot. There were plenty of good intentioned people who wanted peace, even as windows were being smashed and businesses looted.

HPR: What happened next?
JJ Gordon: The group split. The bulk of the protesters were pushed East on 1st and some headed south on Broadway. From there, the police made it clear through their actions that people should not approach them. If someone walked into the intersection of Broadway and 1st or halfway up the block on Broadway, pepper bullets were shot and tear gas opened. The goal was clearly to take more ground and push the people, who were not rioting, back. The moment the streetlights came on, it seemed to get more destructive. Once dark settled in, I saw more people damaging property off of 1st ave north. That is when the windows at the Alerus drive up and Merrill Lynch were destroyed. The amount of vehicle traffic picked up as well. LOTS of cars coming down the streets. Sometimes within 20 feet of the police barricades. A few pop-up triage groups also started administering first aid to those who had been gassed.

HPR: What was it like after tear gas was deployed?
JJ Gordon: The crowd would move back and then inch their way back to the spot they started. It was like a small child who snuck out of bed and got caught only to sneak out of bed again. The gas keeps you from breathing and takes away your sight. Your eyes well up, like when cutting an onion - but you are also running to get to fresh air. When tear gas was shot into a crowded area, you definitely bumped into people and buildings. I noticed part of the way the gas is shooting into the front of the crowd, into the middle and just beyond. So they push you back, you still can't get clear air in the middle and you just keep backing up. Obviously there was a planned and well orchestrated training for riots that the FPD followed.

HPR: When did the destruction start?
JJ Gordon: It was after the groups had been pushed back and the police took the western side of the Broadway and 1st intersection. Once a single window was smashed, it snowballed. An even odder thing to witness. If a window was smashed, someone would come up and continue smashing it. As if the break wasn't good enough. There was one window on the Merrill Lynch building that was smashed, another person walked up to further smash it, then another person grabbed the blinds from inside to twist them and someone then smashed it even more. From my perspective, in this particular instance, it was 4 different people who damaged that single piece of property - I would find it hard to assign blame to a single agitator.

HPR: Do you think the situation could have been handled better, or at least differently?
JJ Gordon: From the time I arrived shortly after 6 the energy was clear, the protest no longer seemed peaceful. The vibe I felt was "I am just waiting for someone to start...and then I am jumping in." I won't say that the rioting was inevitable, but it would have taken some drastic steps to prevent the agitators in that crowd to keep from starting up the riot.

I don't know if anything could have been handled better. On either side. If the organizers of the peaceful protest could have done something different or the police or the onlookers. I do think that we should all take stock in the fact that no one was seriously injured. In a situation that was escalating so quickly and involved so many people reacting with raw emotion - Fargo ended up bruised, but not beaten. I went downtown the next morning and by noon (with the exception of some plywood) you could hardly tell that anything happened a mere 12 hours before. That is amazing to me. The situation went from a beautiful rally where demonstrators and police were able to speak openly to a march that grabbed the attention of the region to a riot unlike anything I have ever witnessed in person to a clean up effort that was reminiscent of the aftermath of a storm. Unimaginable.

HPR: What was your takeaway from this event?
JJ Gordon: I will never forget those few hours in downtown Fargo. How a mere block or two away seemed like a calm, sleepy night in downtown and then a short walk later you are in a cloud of tear gas seeing looters run out of businesses. To be honest, I didn't think a riot could happen in Fargo. In fact, in true Midwest fashion, there were looters/rioters who said "Excuse me" as they passed by on the sidewalk carrying large hunks of concrete. Utterly bizarre. I will remember the night watching people who were sick of yelling to be heard and a police force that acted in a stoic fashion that seemed to be about coordinated control and not force. I will also take this away - the situation was definitely fueled by outside agitators who came to our town looking to start a fight. Even though locals got swept up in the chanting and rioting, the next morning we cleaned up...while enjoying coffee and donuts with strangers.

The Cleanup: Dalton Luther and Krissee Grosso
“The mood of the cleanup at first in the morning was pretty somber, however as the cleanup continued everyone's morale began to lift. It was almost like a mass community healing process.”

photo by Jason Siebels

HPR: Tell me a little about yourselves.
Dalton Luther
: I'm an audio engineer by trade and I've lived in the Fargo-Moorhead area since 2013, so about 7 years.

Krissee Grosso: I'm a server in downtown Fargo, as well as a writer in my spare time. I moved here from California two years ago to experience a wholesome, small-town way of life.

HPR: Were you involved in the protest the day before?
Dalton Luther: I marched with the protesters from 10:00AM until around 2:30PM.

Krissee Grosso: I joined the march around noon until 2:30 pm.

HPR: What motivated you to put together a cleanup event? How did you manage it?
Dalton Luther: While we were watching the riots downtown on Facebook live streams, Krissee had the great idea to go down the next day and help clean up whatever we could. I thought we wouldn't be the only ones that wanted to help so I created the Facebook event "Downtown Fargo Cleanup", invited some friends to join the group, and the next thing we knew there were close to 1,000 people responding on the page saying they were going to be there to help clean up.

Krissee Grosso: While witnessing a group of individuals vandalize and destroy businesses downtown on a facebook live stream, it broke my heart. It was devastating to see businesses we often eat and shop at be destroyed in a blink of an eye. While watching these events take place, I felt completely helpless and wanted to do something- anything to help restore our community back to the beauty it once was. So I decided to plan on bringing trash bags and cleaning supplies downtown the following day to clean up the mess. Dalton agreed it was a great idea to which we put it into fruition by creating the Facebook event.

HPR: What was your experience like during the cleanup?
Dalton Luther: The mood of the cleanup at first in the morning was pretty somber, however as the cleanup continued everyone's morale began to lift. It was almost like a mass community healing process. People from all races, creeds, political affiliations, and economic backgrounds rallied around this community to restore it to its former glory. It was incredibly powerful.

Krissee Grosso: Everyone was so eager and so willing to help in any way they could. The mood was cheerful and upbeat as the destruction would be of no defeat to our community.

HPR: Was there a good turnout?
Dalton Luther: The turnout was immense. We actually had to start turning away volunteers because there were so many people showing up and not enough work to be done.

Krissee Grosso: The turnout was very unpredictable and beyond amazing. There was a vast collective of folks from multiple generations working hand in hand with determination to remove the ruins that were left to restore our community and our businesses to the glory it once was.

HPR: Was there an overall spirit of cooperation or goodwill?
Dalton Luther: There definitely was. Everyone really just wanted to help to restore downtown to normal.

Krissee Grosso: Absolutely. It was clearly evident that everyone was more than willing to help and cooperate in any way they could.

HPR: What was your takeaway from the events of the weekend, both the protest and the cleanup?
Dalton Luther: Both the peaceful protest and the cleanup effort are proof that the people of the Fargo-Moorhead area really do care about this community. It's that communal spirit that makes Fargo truly unique.

Krissee Grosso: The peaceful protest and the cleanup effort proved that we value our community. We've proved to be valiant and resilient in that we will not allow the destruction that took place to defeat us. It proved that we are strong in heart, and in nature.

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