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Video: Semi truck drives through protest crowd in Minneapolis

Hundreds of people marched in "No Bail" 10K March that started at U.S. Bank and ended closing the 35W bridge in both directions, Sunday, May 31, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minn. (Elizabeth Flores/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)

An afternoon of peaceful demonstrations across the Twin Cities Sunday was shattered when a tanker truck drove into a crowd of demonstrators marching on Interstate 35W in Minneapolis.

But apparently, it hit none of them, according to authorities, who were unclear of the driver’s motives.

As evening drew on after curfew, the evening became punctuated by orderly mass arrests of curfew violators, but as of 11 p.m., no fires and little violence. Around 11:30 p.m., Minneapolis responded to a fire at a small grocery store, and after midnight they responded to a few reports of looting and fires that could not be readily confirmed.

“We’re seeing very few incidents,” Gov. Tim Walz said around 10:30 p.m.

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One large group of demonstrators gathered in Minneapolis, preparing for a standoff with police on the ground where George Floyd, who death sparked protests last week. Floyd, who was unarmed, died Monday after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on him.

The group neither exhibited — nor allowed — violence within its ranks, disobeying curfew for hours in what was a largely solemn display. “This is a safe space,” one of the demonstrators said.

By 1 a.m., the group had hauled in trailers, signs and parts of fences to barricade the area from police, whom they assumed would arrive, sooner or later.

The lack of carnage in the truck incident was astounding to many.

“Not to have a tragedy and many deaths is just an amazing thing,” Walz said at 7 p.m., a little over an hour after the incident happened.

The driver was mobbed by the crowd and detained for police, who arrested him. Video of the event shows him being forcibly removed and roughed up while some in the crowd pleaded with those grabbing him to not harm him. After being treated at a hospital for non life-threatening injuries, he was released into police custody.

The horrifying and chaotic incident was still being investigated as nightfall approached, heralding the third straight night of curfew and highway closures as the metro area and thousands of law enforcement and National Guard personnel braced for whatever the night might bring.

As the sun set and crowds dispersed from a peaceful protest in front of the State Capitol in St. Paul, several hundred previously peaceful protesters in Minneapolis ignored the curfew and marched on a different stretch of I-35W, apparently destined for a police confrontation. After sunset, police began to make mass arrests of curfew breakers in Minneapolis — about 150 as of 10 p.m.

A small group remained at the Capitol and briefly clashed with police, resulting in perhaps a dozen arrests, officials said.

Those arrests — slow and methodical constrictions of police surrounding peaceful demonstrators — contrasted sharply with the tear gas-tinged incursions of law enforcement the evening before. Officials said the difference was that authorities were able to determine that Sunday’s groups did not include violent actors, but rather those engaging in peaceful disobedience.

The entire area is reeling following a week that witnessed widespread and unchecked violence, looting and fires until Saturday night, when the state’s largest-ever assemblage of law enforcement — a militarized force, really — was aided by widespread curfew compliance and seized control of the streets.

In a pattern that has played out in cities across the nation, the demonstrations were followed by escalating violence after the death of Floyd.

NO DECISION ON MONDAY CURFEW

While the early part of Sunday evening appeared relatively quiet, officials said that no decision had been made on whether curfew would be imposed Monday. Top law enforcement officials will make a recommendation to Walz, who has instituted the previous curfews jointly with the respective mayors of St. Paul and Minneapolis and authorized local officials across the state to do so as they see fit.

ARSONISTS’ CACHES

There were signs that those intent on doing harm — and it’s unclear exactly who they are — would try again Sunday.

Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington said authorities continued to discover caches of incendiary materials in vehicles and other places. Some appeared to be days old and were found in areas where fires previously had been set, while others appeared to have been placed within the previous 24 hours. They were associated with a fleet of vehicles, many if not all stolen, that have been stripped of license plates.

Harrington said the pattern speaks to sophisticated planning and coordination.

TRUCK VS. CROWD

TV aerial video and state traffic cameras showed a disturbing and chaotic series of events before 6 p.m. after a large crowd of marchers had taken to I-35W, which was officially closed at 5 p.m.

Harrington said that preliminary reviews of state traffic cameras suggested the driver was already on the highway when crews began closing it. Later, Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell said that the driver did drive around a traffic “diversion” that was being set up to shunt vehicles off the highway.

Authorities initially planned to close the highways later in the evening. However, when throngs of peaceful demonstrators marched from a mostly peaceful event at U.S. Bank Stadium, several thousand headed toward the interstate. The Minnesota Department of Transportation announced the 5 p.m. closure time about 20 minutes before it took effect.

Harrington said that action — by what he estimated were 4,000 to 7,000 people — prompted officials to decide to close the highway earlier than planned to protect the safety of the demonstrators, who were not authorized to march on the interstate.

The 18-wheeler tanker truck drove toward and into the edge of the crowd at what appeared to be swift speed — Schnell suggested it could have been above the speed limit — before coming to a halt. The crowd largely appeared to scatter in advance of the truck, and some videos posted online showed the driver sounding his horn at one point.

“It was sheer panic,” said Rachel Quinn,a nurse from Minneapolis who was in the crowd when the truck rolled in.

The truck did not appear to swerve or veer toward the crowd as it came to a stop.

The cab was soon mobbed. Video shows the truck then begin to drive forward again with people on its hood and clinging to both sides of the cab. One of them appeared to break the driver’s front window, and the truck stopped came to a stop a second time. That person can be seen breaching the cab through the driver’s front window.

Immediately following, the crowds fled — or attempted to flee — from the stretch of interstate, which is elevated as it approaches a span over the Mississippi River. Some people could be seen vaulting over guardrails, while others stayed put.

Harrington said authorities didn’t know if the tanker and its content might be hazardous or explosive — or if they were secure. As such, police aggressively cleared the crowd, using chemical irritants and other tactics that have become commonplace lately. The tactic drew criticism from many in the crowd, who noted their demonstration, while civilly disobedient, had been non-violent.

Harrington said it was necessary for their safety and so authorities could reach and secure the tanker truck, which some witnesses told a TV reporter was leaking fuel.

Hennepin County jail records indicate the name of the trucker as Bogdan Vechirko, 35, of Otsego, booked under suspicion of assault.

The trucking company described the driver as an independent contractor.

Kenan Advantage Group, a major petroleum transportation company, released the following statement Sunday evening:

“Our hearts go out to all those who are grieving the events of this past week. We have been informed of an incident involving one of our independent contractors in Minneapolis, MN during recent protests. Our first and foremost concern is for the safety and security of the public, our employees and our customers. We will be cooperating fully with the investigating authorities in the days ahead. It would be inappropriate to comment at this time until we have additional facts as the investigation is in its early stages. We will comment further once we have more information.”

ST. PAUL PROTEST

Some 1,500 people rallied at the Capitol in St. Paul and also took to the interstate afterward, but that event featured none of the horror of the otherwise-similar scene in Minneapolis. Later, however, the situation became more heated.

The afternoon protest led to road closures around the Capitol complex and featured some tense moments near the front of the crowd, where police and soldiers from the Minnesota National Guard stood behind a fence they had erected. Around 4 p.m., a contingent of the crowd marched onto the Interstate 94, headed west, and exited at Lexington Avenue.

By 8 p.m., only a few remained at the Capitol. St. Paul officers were assisting with the arrest of a small group of people at the Capitol for curfew violations about 9:30 p.m.

Schnell said at one point a small group of people attempted to breach the fence around the Capitol. This led to an exchange where authorities deployed gas. Schnell said the number of those arrested was “10 to 12 or less.”

CHAUVIN COURT APPEARANCE

Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged with third-degree murder for in Floyd’s death, was to make his first court appearance on Monday, but it was rescheduled to June 8, according to a court record, which did not list an attorney for him.

Chauvin was booked into the Ramsey County Jail after Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agents took him into custody Friday. He was transferred Sunday to the Hennepin County Jail, according to a jail roster, and then moved to the state prison in Oak Park Heights Sunday, Schnell said.

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© 2020 the Pioneer Press