Fargo leaders, protesters plea for peace instead of violence

police and protesters in Fargo
Police in riot gear moving on protesters in downtown Fargo, N.D., on May 30, 2020. Black leaders in North Dakota's largest city pleaded for calm Thursday in the face of violent threats to disrupt a gathering in memory of George Floyd and advertised the event as a celebration and not a protest. 
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Updated: 5 p.m.

Black leaders in North Dakota's largest city pleaded for calm Thursday in the face of violent threats to disrupt a gathering in memory of George Floyd and advertised the event as a celebration, not a protest.

The OneFargo event is scheduled Friday afternoon at a downtown Fargo park. Organizers had planned to march from Island Park to City Hall for a sit-in, but have scrapped that idea after social media threats surfaced to burn down the city offices and commit other violent acts.

“We will not be protesting. We will be speaking and we will be celebrating,” organizer Wess Philome said, noting that the event will stay in the park. “So if you would like to join us in positive energy, I encourage you to come out and share with us as we grow OneFargo. If you are looking to destroy that, I encourage you to stay home."

The organizers praised community leaders and said Friday's event will be another step forward. Ritchell Aboah said there was some success last weekend when they peacefully “protested in a Republican state and got our voice heard.” Angelina Zokego said she doesn't want 2020 to be remembered for violence in the Fargo-Moorhead area, which has a population of about 230,000 people.

“Let this be the year that change began in our city,” Zokego said.

Philome said there were tears exchanged Thursday morning when black leaders met with police to discuss ways to improve race relations. He urged attendees at Thursday's event to ditch inflammatory signs and rhetoric and asked police to take off their riot gear so everyone can “come out as human beings.”

The pledge to tone down the dissent comes after a peaceful march through the metro area last Saturday turned violent and resulted in damage to buildings and vehicles in the city's downtown. A dozen people were arrested and four offices were injured. Some demonstrators who came with guns “were escorted away,” Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney said.

“We’re not going to tolerate that,” the mayor said.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced Wednesday night he was sending the National Guard to the Fargo-Moorhead area, citing what he called credible threats of violence. Local officials said they're not sure if the social media warnings will materialize, but are taking precautionary measures. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum's authorization for National Guard troops remains in place from last weekend.

“We will try and stop anything negative from happening,” Fargo Police Chief Dave Todd said, adding that it's “our intention” for officers to come to Island Park without riot gear and shields. He called the meeting with black leaders Thursday a “first step that needed to happen” and said he needed to hear the “life stories" of those around the table.

Todd announced earlier Thursday that Deputy Chief Todd Osmundson has been suspended for one week without pay after Osmundson decided to work undercover at last weekend's protest and did not tell anyone. Todd called it a “serious matter” that is still being investigated.

The ACLU of North Dakota is calling for Osmundson's resignation, accusing him of adding "fuel to the fire” when he decided on his own to change out of his police uniform and into civilian clothes to infiltrate protesters.

“Osmundson’s actions — and his minor punishment — only deepen the pain and anguish of black communities and serves as a pointed illustration of the growing distrust of law enforcement officers among the public," said Dane DeKrey, the group's advocacy director.

Osmundson submitted his immediate resignation to the Fargo Police Department, police said Thursday afternoon.

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