As vehicles were overturned, police fired rubber bullets and tear gas, and a police precinct erupted in flames on Thursday night in Minneapolis, photographer David Guttenfelder heard someone shouting: “We’re hurting. We’re hurting.”
Those words seemed to bore through the chaos.
Protests in the city had been raging since Tuesday night, a day after an African American man named George Floyd died as a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. The protestors—across race, age, and socioeconomic status— gathered outside the precinct where the four officers who arrested Floyd had worked before they were fired for their roles in his death. Some were peaceful. Some were not. They were angry, sad, and most of all, hurting.
“There’s not one protestor, not one attitude—it’s all driven by grief,” Guttenfelder says. “Grief over this man, but also grief of a lifetime of this pain.”
Throughout the weekend, demonstrators from Grand Rapids, Michigan, to Oakland, California, flooded the streets to protest systemic racism and police brutality. The anger on the streets in Minneapolis, Guttenfelder says, taps into deeply rooted divisions in the city. “This is by no means the first—very similar—episode of police brutality toward people of color,” he says. But these protests are now reaching historic proportions. The state’s governor has fully activated the Minnesota National Guard, although he declined the U.S. Army’s offer to send military police.
Guttenfelder had been photographing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Midwest for National Geographic when protests broke out in Minneapolis, where he lives. On Thursday, he drove home. He added a gas mask to his N-95 mask. After 20 years as a conflict photographer working around the world, Guttenfelder is now covering protests that are inching closer to his house.
On Friday, Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who was shown kneeling on Floyd’s neck, was taken into custody and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. He could face up to 20 years in prison. (Related: For black motorists in America, there's a never-ending fear of being stopped.)
That day, crowds gathered at the 5th Precinct, and what began as a peaceful protest became fiery as a Wells Fargo branch, post office, and nearby restaurant were set alight. Businesses posted signs on their doors asking protestors not to burn them and warning that people live above. Around 200 businesses in the Minneapolis and St. Paul area have been damaged in the protests so far.
“The protests have spread widely day by day,” Guttenfelder says. “The area that looks like a charred warzone is increasingly becoming a huge swath of the city.” (Related: Here's where the streets bear Martin Luther King Jr.'s name.)
Over the weekend, the class of 2020 turned out to protest. On Saturday, Datelle Straub, Avery Lewis, and Titan Harness-Reed arrived wearing their crimson graduation caps and gowns from Patrick Henry High School. “Because of COVID we couldn’t walk the stage, so we decided to put our robes on to show that there is black excellence in our community. And we walked the streets as our stage and protested,” Straub says. When police approached, he lifted his diploma. The officers, he says, aimed their guns at the small group, and red target dots danced on their robes. “It’s just frustrating that they are OK with killing the future.”
What will come of this anger and frustration? During his two months on the road covering coronavirus, Guttenfelder spotted a T-shirt that said: “Nothing will go back to normal if we’re lucky.” He hopes the same realization will come from George Floyd’s death.
“Everyone was grieving in their own ways when they saw the video,” he says. “And everyone is grieving for what’s happening to our city. I believe that’s bringing people together. But I’m sure there are many for whom this highlights the differences they already felt.”
David Guttenfelder is an award-winning photojournalist focusing on global geopolitics and conservation who is currently based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.