Columbus

Mike Forcia, who is Anishanaabe, left, and another man fasten ropes around the neck of a statue of Christopher Columbus at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul on June 10, 2020. (Evan Frost/MPR News file)

Minnesota public safety officials have given the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office the names of three people who could be charged for their role in the June 10 toppling of a statue of Christopher Columbus on the grounds of the state Capitol.

That word came from Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington and Col. Matt Langer of the State Patrol as they faced hours of questioning Wednesday before a state Senate panel about the statue protest.

Protest leaders and other suspects could face felony charges for the incident, which caused more than $150,000 in damage. Harrington said it’s possible others identified as people of interest could also be charged.

“We present our slate of facts that we believe support a specific charge, but ultimately that decision rests with the county attorney,” Harrington told lawmakers.

Dennis Gerhardstein, a spokesperson for Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, said a charging decision would be made public “once we have had adequate time to review the entire case investigation.”

The Senate committee is holding a series of hearings to examine property damage and riots across the Twin Cities following the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. On Thursday, the committee will discuss how state agencies confronted the unrest in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault, said the statue’s destruction shouldn’t have been allowed to happen, given that there was plenty of advance warning.

“In the future, if there’s a threat like this we should have more than one set of eyes on the scene so that we could make multiple arrests, seeing who threw the rope, who climbed up, who yanked on it, all those things,.” Jasinski said. ”To have one officer out there is very, very disappointing to me.”

Jasinski and other lawmakers suggested that political higher-ups ordered law enforcement to back off. Harrington and Langer refuted that.

“There’s a belief that the state patrol received an order or direction from Gov. Walz or Lt. Gov. Flanagan to disregard the criminal behavior. And I can tell you that that’s not true,” Harrington said.

Demonstrators arrived sooner and in greater numbers than expected, he said, and everything unfolded quickly.

Thirty-five troopers had been mobilized but didn’t move in until after Columbus was on the ground. Harrington said he misjudged what it would take to pull a 10-foot bronze statue from its pedestal to the sidewalk.

“And I’ll tell you, having watched the video, it came down way faster than I had any reason to believe a statue could possibly come down,” he said.

Commanders on scene weighed whether an outnumbered patrol unit moving in to make arrests could have provoked a violent confrontation, Langer said.

“But at the end of the day, the troopers that came out as part of Plan B opted for discretion, opted to protect the statue from being further destroyed, opted to keep the crowd back and opted to hold those accountable after the fact through the investigative process,” he said.

Democrats on the panel fumed over the amount of time devoted to the statue removal compared with the Senate’s attention to Floyd’s killing by police a couple of weeks before.

Sen. Melissa Franzen, DFL-Edina said it comes off as “tone deaf.”

“Back on Memorial Day when someone was killed, it wasn’t a statue, it wasn’t breathing,” Franzen said. “Let’s spend that much time that we spent today on talking about that incident and why it happened.”

Lawmakers are expected to be back in special session next week after partisan differences resulted in no progress on changes to policing during a similar overtime session last month, which was just weeks after Floyd’s death. The special sessions are required because Gov. Tim Walz is extending his emergency declaration to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

An after-action report on the statue incident and the other civil disturbances in late May and early June is in the works. In the meantime, Republicans say they want Columbus restored to the Capitol grounds to send a message that unlawful removal of that monument or others won’t be permitted.

Senate Republicans tried to avoid having Wednesday’s hearing be a debate over Columbus, an explorer whose mistreatment of Native Americans has long inflamed tensions about markers in his honor. Sen. Dave Osmek, R-Mound, said criminal behavior shouldn’t be tolerated.

“This can’t continue,” he said. “And I would be here saying the same questions to you if somebody went, grabbed a couple of ropes and threw it around Hubert H. Humphrey’s statue on the mall and drug that down.”

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