Abdishakur Elmi looked on in horror as flames raged and smoke billowed from the roof of the brick building next to his restaurant.
A single truck and a few fire fighters battled the blaze that had already consumed several neighboring businesses overnight in a gentrified section of East Lake Street. The police station had been set alight down the street, and protesters who had overrun it milled with the curious in the smokey morning light.
The neighborhood was under siege. The blaze threatened the Hamdi Restaurant that Elmi founded after immigrating from Somalia to the Twin Cities in 1996, a landmark for what would become the largest Somali American community in the country. The governor had deployed the National Guard overnight, but no troops had appeared at the restaurant.
“I don’t see the government. I don’t see the power,” said Elmi, 55, as he sat in his car trying to avoid the acrid air.
East Lake Street on the city’s south side had become a haven for minority-owned businesses, particularly African and Latino immigrant entrepreneurs who managed to thrive in this progressive Midwest city. Across the street from Elmi’s restaurant, the first floor of the historic Midtown Exchange built in 1928 was transformed over the past decade into Midtown Global Market, a modern bazaar featuring an organic produce market and craft brewery alongside African art and Scandinavian pastries.
That video, which like so many before it went viral, sent a shiver down East Lake Street. Demonstrators marched and swarmed; the mayor and police chief pleaded for calm. President Trump tweeted, suggesting protesters could be shot. But the rage widened and some shopkeepers — watching the looters gather — retreated in despair as police vanished from the 3rd Precinct and chaos took hold.
The street echoed with accents. But no one could make sense of it — how life had suddenly changed in an ill-fated instant. Everyone knew, but it was hard to put into words. Elmi said he and many of his neighbors were disturbed by the video of a police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck before he died. Elmi couldn’t even finish watching it.
Some tried to protect their businesses against looting by posting messages of solidarity in their windows, including, “African owned business” and “We support our small diverse and minority businesses.” But those windows were broken overnight, too, leaving security guards sweeping up the shattered glass Friday.
“We never expected this,” Elmi said.
Elmi and his restaurant supplier, Mohammoud Abdi said the damage reminded them of their youth in Somalia, where they watched militants roam and the government lose control of the country.
“We don’t have law and order,” said Abdi, 47. “This is not helpful to George’s family.”
Liban “Lee” Alin surveyed the damage with dismay. Alin, 30, who works at a local homeless shelter, grew up in the area before settling there with his wife. As a child, he prayed and studied the Koran at the makeshift mosque Elmi created at the back of Hamdi’s Restaurant. But as an adult, he had also been racially profiled by white police officers who live in the suburbs.
“I agree with why people are upset,” Alin said, “But don’t destroy the community. Who knows if there businesses are going to want to come back?”
Neighbor David Allen, 42, was among the first protesters to march to the police station Tuesday to demand police officers be charged in connection with Floyd’s death. He said looting had become a distraction. The pub where he works was closed and boarded up Friday.
“The message is getting lost,” Allen said as he filmed firefighters with his fiancée, who owns a clothing customization business.
Allen said he had lost confidence in police and most political leaders. He predicted neighbors would band together in the short term to rebuild businesses and police themselves.
“Enough is enough,” he said.