SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken said two people have been arrested in connection with violence and vandalism Sunday, May 31, committed in the city following a peaceful protest demanding justice for the death of George Floyd.
City and state officials said they would aggressively seek out those who threw rocks at police, businesses and broke into a number of establishments in Sioux Falls on Sunday night, using video footage and photos of the night.
"Those responsible for assaulting our offices, destroying our property, stealing our goods, they will be prosecuted," he said in a Monday, June 1, press conference.
TenHaken and Sioux Falls Police Chief Matt Burns were quick to separate the violence from an earlier peaceful protest in downtown Sioux Falls that was closely coordinated with city officials.
"I saw two events happen yesterday," TenHaken said.
A crowd numbering up to 3,000 took part in the protest in Van Eps Park and several other sites in downtown Sioux Falls Sunday afternoon to call for justice for Floyd, who died in Minneapolis on May 25 after a police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly eight minutes. The event, captured on video, has sparked protests across the nation.
After the downtown protest in Sioux Falls on Sunday, some of those at the protest marched down nearby Minnesota Avenue to 41st Street, both busy commercial corridors. The march ended at the Empire Mall.
The scene at the mall spiraled into violence and destruction, with some protesters throwing rocks at police officers and squad cars and through windows at some of the businesses in the area. Other protesters linked hands in front of the police, forming a human shield against further violence.
Shortly after the rock-throwing started, Gov. Kristi Noem quick-deployed a South Dakota National Guard unit to aid police and sheriff's deputies on the scene.
City officials issued a curfew for a large area around the mall starting at 10 p.m., then later extended it for the entire city through 7 a.m. Monday, and that seemed to limit further incidents, TenHaken said. One of the break-ins took place at Fleet Farm, six miles away from the mall on the north side of the city, where several firearms were stolen, said Sioux Falls Police Chief Matt Burns.
Police officers received only minor injuries from the rock-throwing, TenHaken said, although he held up rock he said weighed between five to seven pounds he said was like those thrown at officers.
'These were mostly kids'
State and city officials seemed to differ on their assessment of those involved in the violence. Many of those at the mall throwing rocks were children, including some recognized by their middle-school teacher, TenHaken said.
"These were mostly kids, and mostly that were raised here. I recognized kids on this video, I saw them wearing shirts of local sports league and local high schools," he said. "Our city has failed these kids, and these parents have failed their children. These kids should be ashamed, the rest of us should be embarrassed. It’s heart wrenching."
Burns discounted rumors that held an out-of-town group that had been in Fargo for protests was traveling via bus to Sioux Falls in time for the protests here. Burns said there was no sign of buses or an out-of-town group. "We had heard those rumors, too," he said. "We don’t know that that materialized."
Of the two people arrested, one was from Omaha, TenHaken said, and it's not uncommon for people to travel from around the region to take part in a well-publicized protest.
Noem traveled to Sioux Falls to visit with those whose businesses were damaged Sunday night. In a press conference Monday afternoon, clad in National Guard camouflage ball cap and a polo shirt with the Air National Guard logo, she had much harsher language for those involved in the violence and destruction.
“These aren’t protesters that did these actions last night, these are violent criminals," she said, "Do not call them protesters.”
More work to do
TenHaken said violence and destruction doesn't honor Floyd or advance a cause, but he noted the city has work to do on larger questions such as the racial makeup of the city's police force.
“Many are growing impatient with generations of marginalization, with racism, and in some cases, injustice," TenHaken said. "Sioux Falls is not immune to that, But like other places in the nation, we have work ahead of us here to do, to be more inclusive as a city."
Noem also joined TenHaken in expressing a willingness to re-examine state laws and policies regarding law enforcement.
"The questions before us is, what do we want for policies and policing for our cities in the future, what do we want it to look like?" Noem said. "Let’s be problem solvers here today and work together.”
The state needs a fundamental shift in priorities, said Heather Smith, executive director of ACLU of South Dakota. Smith said the ACLU supports the protesters' cause and called for "meaningful change" on behalf of those who have faced system and individual racism from police.
“We’re troubled by a continued and pervasive insistence that ‘these things don’t happen in South Dakota.’ South Dakota is not immune to systemic racism,” Smith said in a statement. “Invariably, people of color in South Dakota face systemic barriers to education, health care, employment and justice. In order to move from a place of outrage to a place of healing, we must see real accountability from police departments, the legal system and our elected officials — and that’s just the bare minimum."