After nearly a full day of protest in response to the death last week of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was pinned to the ground by a white Minneapolis police officer, local law enforcement took a knee with demonstrators in a show of support for their anger and heartache.
Owatonna Police Chief Keith Hiller said that law enforcement is dedicated to protecting the right to peacefully protest, and that he was proud of the way everyone involved conducted themselves.
“These are good kids and we’re going to be here for them,” Hiller said in reference to the younger crowd of demonstrators who protested outside of the Law Enforcement Center for about six hours Sunday. “While they are young, they are intelligent and they’ve got a message that needs to be heard. We need to treat them with all those values so that we can advance our relationships in the future.”
The protests largely took place along Hoffman Drive near downtown Owatonna, in Jaycee Park and around the Law Enforcement Center. The protest along Hoffman Drive swelled by noon to more than 200 participants, many who held signs and solicited honks of approval from drivers passing by while calling for justice for George Floyd. Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin and three other officers were fired following Floyd's death, Chauvin was later charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter.
While the protests were scheduled to begin at 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. that day, the Hoffman Drive protest organizer was out as early as 9 a.m. to start off the day.
“I was very nervous about the turnout,” said 16-year-old Percy Mayer, of Owatonna, adding that the next people to show up to the event were a group of young boys grilling hotdogs. “As more and more people started to come, though, all we really got inside the protest was positivity.”
Participants ranged from only a few months old to a 81-year-old man. Leaders in the local church and business leaders turned out in support, as well. Mayer admits that a few people driving by tried to antagonize protesters with obscene gestures and words, but the overall reception from the community was an abundance of support.
"It was truly loving place to be," he said.
The group in Jaycee Park was quite a bit smaller in size, starting with about 20 people for the first hour of the event, but it also received honks of encouragement throughout the peaceful protest.
Around 3 p.m., the Hoffman Drive protest moved to the Law Enforcement Center, with people giving testimonies of their personal experience with racism in the community. Around 5 p.m., the protesters began engaging with law enforcement alongside their back parking lot, where officers were suited in riot gear and had the entrance to the lot barricaded.
“Law enforcement always has contingency plans for activities that are going on across the country, and we have been seeing some pretty significant things happening,” Hiller said regarding the riot gear, a reference to the riots and clashes between the public and law enforcement that took place last week in Minneapolis and have since spread to larger cities across the country. “We walk this fine line where we have to plan to protect our community’s citizens and their properties while at the same time protect the first amendment rights of those who wish to protest peacefully.”
Officers from Rice, Waseca, and Olmsted counties, Faribault, Albert Lea, and the South Central Drug Task Force were also at the Law Enforcement Center Sunday to provide aid if needed to the Owatonna Police Department and Steele County Sheriff's Office.
Mayer say that the scene at the Law Enforcement Center became a bit chaotic during that time, but that he appreciated the people who did what they could to try to maintain the peace and keep the focus on the reason for their protest.
Though at one point law enforcement put on gas masks, but the masks were quickly removed when a protester asked the officers to take a knee with them for Floyd. Law enforcement then removed their masks and set down their riot shields and knelt with the protesters in silence for eight-and-a-half minutes, the time Floyd was on the ground with an officer’s knee pressed into his neck.
“I didn’t think it would end the way it would,” Mayer said. “This is a big step toward change.”
Hiller agreed that it was an important moment for Owatonna, adding that when people are hurting and voicing their pain that the police have a duty to listen.
“It was an opportunity for us to do a physical form of support and appreciation for what the group was trying to get across to not only the police, but the community at large,” Hiller said. “Our officers needed to be patient, have perseverance and be professional while at the same time listening to what the kids had to say. We’re always hoping for enlightening communication today, tomorrow, and in the future. A lot of times our actions yesterday dictate what our relationships are going to look like in the future, and at the end of yesterday we saw the value of that.”
After the protesters and officers knelt in silence together, members of the Owatonna Police Department came out from behind the parking lot barricade and engaged in calm conversations with the demonstrators. Mayer announced to the group that their mission had been accomplished, that they had been heard and remained peaceful, and encouraged everyone to go home and not partake in any form of violence or riot.
“This is my hometown, I don’t want terror or chaos, I just want what’s before for our community and for everybody in it,” Mayer said. “I am not black, but I see you. I am not black, but I hear you. I am not black, but I mourn with you.”
On Thursday, Mayer said he has a meeting with Hiller to discuss concerns as well as different ideas on how relationships between the community and OPD can improve. Hiller said that he is feeling confident about the future and how everyone can work together to move forward during a difficult time.
“I think we need to demonstrate through our daily actions that we are listening,” Hiller said. “There’s active listening and there’s listening, and the frustration comes when there is no action. We need to listen and then demonstrate through our daily actions that we are advancing our community in a very positive way.”