ST. PAUL — A rehashing of the demonstrations that toppled the Christopher Columbus statue at the Minnesota Capitol and the law enforcement reaction that failed to prevent the removal drew sharp condemnation from Minnesota Senate Republicans, Wednesday, July 8.
A joint Senate committee weighed the removal in the latest hearing in a series of discussions aimed at reviewing the impact of civil unrest in Minneapolis and St. Paul following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
The discussion echoes a national dialogue about racial equity and whether monuments honoring slave owners or historical figures with a record of racism should continue to stand. President Donald Trump and Republicans have sought to defend the monuments as part of the country's history. Opponents, meanwhile, have said the nation can't have a meaningful discussion while the monuments stand or remain without additional context.
Law enforcement officers who responded to the pulling down of the statue on June 10 said they initially sent a tribal liaison to speak with demonstrators about legal procedures to request the statue's removal. And they had prepared to deploy armored troopers if the situation warranted it.
But a faulty timeline for the statue's teardown resulted in slow response, Minnesota State Patrol Colonel Matt Langer said. Langer said troopers saw social media posts that indicated demonstrators would arrive later than they did that day and they expected the statue would take longer to pull down than it did.
Facing those expedited events, Langer said troopers weighed the safety of demonstrators and law enforcement officers before responding. He said they avoided using force or chemical agents since children and protesters were present and they determined not making an immediate arrest at the scene could limit tensions between demonstrators and troopers.
"I'm not suggesting this was flawless or a victory for our organization or for the state of Minnesota, but in the end, the statue came down illegally, nobody was hurt, we know who did it and we have the statue," Langer said.
Columbus, who is often said to have “discovered” the Americas, brutalized the Indigenous people upon his arrival and sold Native people, including children, into slavery. The statue sustained about $154,000, state officials said, and anyone found guilty after investigation and prosecution could face 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Three involved in the June 10 incident could face arrest following the statue's toppling, Langer said, and case information on Tuesday, July 7, was passed on from the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to the Ramsey County Attorney's Office. The county attorney would be the one to press charges in the case.
Republicans on the panel questioned Langer and Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington about the response to the statue's toppling and said more should've been done to prevent its removal.
"People in my district watched what went on and are frustrated, furious, mad, angry to watch what happened on our Capitol grounds that day," Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault, said. "(There was) $153,000 in damage in front of all the news channels and no arrests were made, that's what everybody is frustrated about ... why did not something happen faster?"
Langer and Harrington defended the state's response and acknowledged the situation wasn't handled perfectly.
"We chose discretion, and for that, we can be accused of many different things," Langer said. He noted in response to senators' questions that no one had asked the troopers to stand down.
Harrington told lawmakers that neither he nor the Walz administration issued any order for troopers to stand down in the face of demonstrators.
"That absolutely did not happen," Harrington said. "It didn’t come from me, it didn’t come from them. There absolutely was no order."
Langer and Harrington said the Department of Public Safety and State Patrol would run a follow-up review of their actions and aim to prepare based on that for similar situations that could emerge in the future.
Democrats on the panel said the Senate should place the same amount of time and importance it dedicated to a statue to reviewing and responding to Floyd's killing at the hands of Minneapolis police.
"Back on Memorial Day, someone was killed. It wasn't a statue that wasn't breathing. Let's spend that much time that we spend today talking about that incident and why it happened and the consequences that led to it and the tragic result," Sen. Melisa Franzen, D-Edina, said. "We have to have rule of law, no one's questioning that, there's a process, but we also have to go back and talk about the root of the problem."
Republicans on the panel said allowing the toppling without interference or arrests at the scene could inspire others to unlawfully remove statues or monuments elsewhere.
“Tolerance of lawless behavior begets more lawless behavior, and I think we’ve been witnessing that,” Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, said. "This can't continue."
Other GOP lawmakers said the statue should be repaired and placed back on its pedestal at the Capitol as the state’s Capitol Area Architectural and Planning (CAAP) Board sets a review process for taking down statues.
Lawmakers are expected to return to the Capitol Monday, July 13, for a special legislative session. They could take up police accountability measures and other legislation following Floyd's death and resulting civil unrest at that time.