MINNEAPOLIS — The Republican-controlled Minnesota Senate opened hearings Wednesday on the unrest that rocked the state after the death of George Floyd, focusing on the destruction rather than the underlying issues of racism and policing on which Democrats have concentrated.
The hearings will help Republicans frame up issues for the fall election campaign, tapping into outrage felt by many Minnesota residents over the unrest, and with an eye toward their base. The GOP is trying to defend its three-seat Senate majority, while Democrats hope to take over the chamber by capturing Republican-held suburban districts that Democratic Gov. Tim Walz won in 2018.
The topic for the first of five or six joint hearings planned by the Senate transportation and judiciary committees was the destruction of small businesses during the unrest in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Around 1,500 businesses were damaged, including many that were burned or looted before police, backed by the Minnesota National Guard, restored order.
“They're not about police reform and they are not about defunding or reorganizing a police department,” said GOP Sen. Scott Newman, of Hutchinson, who chairs the transportation committee. Policing issues are the subject of other proceedings and legislation, he said, so his committee is focusing instead on the thefts, vandalism and arson. "I view those as being very, very serious criminal activity. Arson, for instance, is one of the most serious crimes that is on our books.”
But Democratic Sen. Scott Dibble, of Minneapolis, expressed skepticism. “I hope we're not here on a curated, nonobjective one-sided effort to create a political narrative that assigns blame and has as its focus the elections in November,” he said.
The most emotional testimony came from Jim Stage, owner of Lloyd’s Pharmacy in St. Paul, which was gutted by fire and was a target of widespread theft. He told how firefighters had to flatten the shell that was left standing because it was unsafe.
“It was devastating to me," said Stage, who has owned the store since 2014 and plans to reopen at another site next week. “We have 37 employees. We service probably 7,500 to 8,000 patients out of that little store,” he said as he choked up, and showed a photo of his family standing at the now-empty lot. “It's hard for me to look at.”
A special legislative session last month ended in acrimony with no deal on a package of police accountability measures despite the worldwide uproar over Floyd, who died May 25 died after Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis police officer, pressed his knee against the handcuffed Black man’s neck for nearly eight minutes.
Due to concerns about possible disruptions by protesters, only Senators, staff, witnesses and media were allowed into the hearing room at the Minnesota Senate Building across the street from the State Capitol.
Access to the building has been limited since March due to the COVID-19 concerns, and the structure has been locked down even more tightly since George Floyd's death due to civil unrest and reported threats against lawmakers.
Senate Democrats noted that their Republican counterparts spent far less time hearing police reform proposals compared the number of hours they'll spend investigating who is most to blame for businesses being left unprotected during the riots.
While Senate Republicans said their plan would have made meaningful improvements to policing in Minnesota, leaders of the House Democratic majority and the bicameral People of Color and Indigenous Caucus said it didn’t go nearly far enough. Those issues are expected to come up again if Walz calls another special session this month, as he’s required to do if he extends the emergency powers that he has used to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
Democratic Sen. Jeff Hayden, of Minneapolis, a member of the POCI Caucus, said Republicans are miscalculating if they think their constituents don’t care about police accountability. He said he's been hearing from moderate to conservative Democrats from GOP-held suburban districts who want to a more equitable state.
“They certainly don’t like the idea of being in a state that is now known for Derek Chauvin murdering George Floyd instead of the Land of 10,000 Lakes," Hayden said.
House Democrats called their own hearing for Wednesday evening, focused on police accountability.