FARGO — Fearing a riot would erupt during what may have been the largest Fargo-Moorhead demonstration in a generation, the mayors of the two cities jumped into a crowd of thousands Saturday, May 30, trying to defuse escalation between Black Lives Matter protesters and Fargo police.
“I never want to lose control of my city. I think that is just terrible,” Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney said after protesters who were part of an event called “Fargo Marches for George Floyd” left Fargo police headquarters at 25th Street North and First Avenue North. Mahoney was referring to his reaction to watching the Minneapolis riots triggered by the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody Monday, May 25, after a white officer knelt on his neck for several minutes, as fellow officers stood by.
“The two mayors being here defused the situation,” Fargo Police Chief David Todd said Saturday.
“I was very, very nervous, but very happy about the result,” Mahoney said of Fargo’s peaceful demonstration. “What Judd and I did was put ourselves into the crowd, and that defused the crowd.”
Protesters of all races who joined the march said they wanted all people to be treated with equality. They wanted more black police officers, and to be able to send their children to the store for Skittles without fear of violence.
While Deputy Chief Todd Osmundson jumped up with protest organizers and held up a sign, Moorhead, Minn., Mayor Johnathan Judd, who is black, pressed the flesh, telling protesters they all needed to become more involved in the community.
“We have that community here,” Judd said. “A community that elected me as a mayor. We gotta get better and get out of the Upper Midwest way of communicating. Help me understand your reality so I can become someone who walks with you.”
Todd and Mahoney said they did not have an estimate of the protest crowd’s size, but it appeared to number roughly 2,000 people. The throng showed up at Island Park about 10 a.m. Before protesters began their march — which was supposed to be centered around downtown, but ended up 20 blocks away at Fargo police headquarters — organizers, pastors and a city leader gave impassioned speeches.
“We are not looked upon as human beings. We are looked at as people who were once property,” said organizer Ritchell Aboah, who’s also a candidate for Fargo City Commission. “But not everyone in the U.S. is racist. We are tired of injustice. We are tired of crying. Now it is our time, and we ask that everyone stand with us.”
Aboah pleaded with the white people in the crowd to use their white privilege to help people of color.
“I’m fed up. I can’t breathe anymore. I can’t walk in the streets and look at the police,” said organizer Angelina Zokego of Fargo.
“When you see me, what do you see?” Zokego asked the crowd. “What is it about my color that you fear?”
“No justice, no peace,” the crowd yelled.
Not far from the picnic table where organizers spoke, a man with an airsoft rifle helped protesters roll out a sheet of paper, where the words “I can’t breathe” were spray painted.
Behind him, Pete Tefft, a self-proclaimed white supremacist, held up a sign that said, “Police kill more whites.”
Tefft, who was the only known counter-protester, was later chased from the rally.
Fargo City Commissioner John Strand said he had “never seen a protest so large before in North Dakota.”
“I don’t know of anything more important than standing up for what you believe in,” Strand said. “Today, I join you with a full heart and I stand with you. For generations they said the next revolution will not be televised, but the next revolution — this revolution — is being documented by the people.”
“Good morning, America. I am a racist and I need help. This madness has to end. Admitting we have a problem is a good first step,” Strand added.
Pastor Gloria Shields of the Latter Rain Ministries stood up to say she has been quiet for too long because she didn’t want to incite violence and disunity.
“But I have come to the realization that we, as the church of God, have to stand up,” Shields said. “We all deserve to live. No other human has the right to take it away.”
As the crowd grew, some in the crowd heckled speakers, asking where the police were, and why didn’t officers put down their badges and join the protest.
The protesters began marching through downtown, taking up blocks at a time, before turning toward the Fargo Police Department headquarters.
Police officers were waiting in the yard when the protesters arrived. At least two carried pepperball guns. All wore face shields because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Mahoney said.
Most protesters also wore protective face masks, but social distancing was impossible among such large numbers.
“They made their own route,” Todd said. “But I’m glad that they got the chance to express their feelings. I’m glad that so far it’s been relatively peaceful.”
Jessica Schindeldecker, a police spokeswoman, reported no arrests by mid-afternoon.
Todd said he was worried about the size of the crowd as they took over 25th Street South, stopping traffic in all directions.
“It’s my job to worry,” the chief said. “I was expecting a lot of people — hoping for the best, preparing for the worst.”
After listening to complaints and posing for pictures with protesters, he said the Fargo Police Department has been hiring people of color and will continue to try to do so.
“It’s always good for a police department to reflect the community,” Todd said.
Mahoney said he learned a lesson from the protest.
“I’ve got a lot of frustrated people, and I will continue to look into their requests,” the mayor said.