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The biggest small town in America, Sioux Falls South Dakota, found itself Sunday night as a prime example of the national tragedy that is the George Floyd riots. Just as we have seen in Minneapolis, and dozens other cities, citizens in Sioux Falls sought to use civil dissidence to protest the murder of George Floyd.
These protests went from peaceful to violent, as they have in so many places, and have left the community shocked. Yet, Sioux Falls is handling the situation differently and finding a small amount of light inside all that darkness. As the city heals, they find hope in each other and perhaps a way for the country to get out of this mess.
The Sioux Falls George Floyd protests started out with the best of intentions. Among those that helped to organize the Justice of George Floyd march was Julian Beaudion, a senior state trooper running for Sioux Falls city council.
With Beaudion's help, they met with the mayor, the chief of police, and the Minnehaha county sheriff. Beaudion also made sure the group put out clear instructions that it was to be peaceful and disavowed any violence. This turned out to be vital as even before the march rumors swirled that buses of Antifa were coming in from Fargo, North Dakota.
The protests started out hopeful. According to city officials, at least 3,000 protesters showed up. The most noteworthy speaker for the event was Selwyn Jones, an uncle of George Floyd's from Gettysburg, South Dakota. Sioux Falls citizens turned out in a positive force for good. March attendees were bipartisan, multi-ethnic, and skewed youthful. Another positive sign came from the police, who were incredibly graceful and cooperative.
Sadly, what had not been adequately anticipated is what all that marching and yelling about injustice would do to the passions involved. After the last speaker finished, and police had knelt with the protesters, Beaudion announced the march was over. Leaders made it clear everyone needed to go home.
The planned protest had officially ended but the protesters did not want to leave. Instead, the group decided to trudge forward for what in total ended up being 9 miles with the police and media following.
The first sign of chaos appeared as the group got close to the Empire Mall. A fight broke out as young protesters assaulted a vehicle and tried to rip its occupants out of the car violently.
The group then fanned out into the empty Empire Mall parking lot.
A group of 50 or so protesters grabbed large rocks, some up to 7 lbs, and started to pelt them at the officer’s vehicles and heads.
Native Americans began to sing.
Other protesters moved from attacking the police and headed off to pillage and raid nearby stores such as T.J. Maxx, Fleet Farm, Verizon, Halberstadts, and more.
Police called in for reinforcements as the attack on them went on for 3 hours. In the end, the police had to resort to using tear gas and shooting rubber bullets to disperse the rioting crowd.
The protest that started with so much hope and love ended in anger and violence, and hate. Yet, even during the violence, there was still a spark of hope. During the rioting, police gave a protester access to a police car's loudspeaker and begged the angry group to not hurt her friends on the police.
In another miraculous moment, a group of protesters wearing black lives matter t-shirts formed a human chain to protect the police officers from the missiles thrown.
The next day Sioux Falls began to mourn. In a somber press conference, Mayor Tenhaken teared up describing what had happened that previous evening. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages, a terrified populace, and hard-fought community cohesion destroyed in a single night. But that was not the worst of it.
A middle-school teacher contacted the city to say she recognized one of the teenagers to be a kid in her class. The group of 50 or so rioting protesters was almost exclusively Sioux Falls children. Said the mayor: "Our city has failed these kids, and parents have failed their children, these kids should be ashamed, the rest of them should be embarrassed. It's heart-wrenching."
Sioux Falls prides itself on its family-friendly environment and our schools are the center of our community. To have failed the raising of these children meant we had failed that element that we cherish the most. What had plagued the rest of the nation with the riots happened in Sioux Falls in miniature.
Yet, even in this darkness there is a little bit of light.
The day after the riots, community leaders and activists posted apologies and lamentations at what happened. Many of those peaceful protesters returned the next day with other teenagers to clean up the mall parking lot. Law and order have been successfully restored.
South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem promises justice against the rioters. She also proclaimed that South Dakota would pursue police reform. As a community, South Dakotans are putting the pieces back together.
Sioux Falls experienced a piece of what the rest of the country is facing: peaceful protests turned into rioting and violence. That story is remarkable. But what we should not forget that there are good people even in the protests and that Americans by their nature are good.
We all want equality under the law and justice for all. Sioux Falls went through hell and is still trying to pursue that project despite the rioters hate. That story of healing and justice is encouraging and should be the one that might lead the rest of the country forward.