Protesters demanding police reform to hit the streets again in Fargo

A person holds a sign saying Black Lives Matter
Several thousand people calling for change and racial justice march through the streets of Fargo on May 30, 2020.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Protesters will be back on the streets of Fargo Friday and Saturday, demanding changes to the city's Police Department.  

Dialogue between activists and city officials that began two weeks ago after previous protests has appeared to fall apart, with each side blaming the other for a breakdown in communications.

The first protest in Fargo after the killing of George Floyd happened just a few days later, on May 30. It quickly grew from a Facebook post to several thousand people marching in the streets.

The march was largely peaceful and lasted several hours, but later that evening, a smaller group of protesters clashed with police in riot gear in downtown Fargo. Several businesses were damaged.

The next week, protest organizers met with city officials. They decided that instead of another march that had already been planned for the weekend, they would hold a rally in a city park, billed as a unity event.

A man sits in a park
Fargo resident Wess Philome has been an outspoken leader of protests calling for change in the Fargo Police Department and Fargo city government to address racial bias.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Organizer Wess Philome said that agreeing to be part of the rally was a show of good faith on the part of the protesters. But since then, he said, city leaders haven't held up their end of the bargain.

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"Now that that has passed and that wave has subsided, they're wondering what more can they do or get away with, or do they have to continue to act," Philome said.

Among the changes activists are demanding are creation of local police oversight boards in local communities that would not include any law enforcement members; requiring officers to undergo cultural diversity training; ending the use of tear gas, rubber bullets and other “less lethal” munitions; and requiring the use of nonviolent tactics.

Activists are focusing on police tactics used during the protest on May 30. They accuse police of not adequately protecting protesters: One demonstrator was seriously injured when struck by a car that drove through the crowd.

And organizers were incensed when they learned that a police department supervisor had gone undercover among protesters that day. Fargo officials said the undercover work was done without approval and suspended the department’s deputy chief, Todd Osmundson, who later resigned from the department.

Cristie Jacobsen
Sgt. Cristie Jacobsen, center, of the Fargo Police Department, receives hugs from organizers at the end of a rally in Fargo on June 5, 2020. Jacobson was brought up to the stage at Island Park while musicians performed the song "Lean on Me." Hundreds of people attended the peaceful rally that included speeches, live music and dancing.
Dave Kolpack | AP

"What I'm hoping now is: OK. We have to move past anger, and we have to decide what do we want for our community," Dave Todd, the city’s police chief, said this week.

But Todd stoked protesters' anger himself when internal emails revealed he'd called them “thugs” after the May 30 confrontation.

"I admit I was probably still a little emotional about that, and I used words I normally would not have used and I regret that,” Todd said afterward.

But Philome thinks it was Fargo police who escalated the situation on May 30. He believes police don't respect protesters and have adopted a confrontational approach to make the protesters seem dangerous.

"I'm not here to burn down the Fargo P.D. I'm here to correct what's wrong and get us on the right path," Philome said. He insists he does not dismiss all police; he has a brother who works in law enforcement.

But he also said he can tell several stories of negative experiences he’s had with police in Fargo — which he believes reflect bias on the part of officers.

“My hope is that we can get to a place where our police department treats people a little bit better and shows a little more care and compassion when they engage with members of their community, especially the ones who don’t look like them,” said Philome.

Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney insists he wants to listen to protesters

"If you're upset with the system, tell me about it. Because I'm here to fix some things," he said. Mahoney has met with activists in the past few weeks, but said that they keep changing their demands — and making demands he doesn't have the power to meet, such as influencing the criminal justice system.

a crowd holds protest signs
Several thousand people calling for change and racial justice march through the streets of Fargo on May 30, 2020, stopping in front of city hall in front of a COVID-19-inspired banner.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

"I can look at policy, I can look at training, I can look at different things the city of Fargo invests in,” he said. “I can look at a diversity officer. I can look at a variety of things you may want to do. But you can't do that if you don't sit down and talk.”

Mahoney said he recognizes there is a deep mistrust between protesters and police that must be bridged before those discussions can happen.

He said he also thinks every Fargo resident needs to recognize the community has become a diverse city — and that embracing that diversity is critical to Fargo’s future.

"If you don't get challenged, will you ever change? A multicultural city is the strongest city you can have," Mahoney said. “If we get it right as a community, we will be the envy of the world. Because we'll be the one community that got it right. And it is hard to get it right.”

But it will take some work to get there.

a large crowd walks along a city street
Several thousand people calling for change and racial justice march through the streets of Fargo on May 30, 2020, the first of several rallies and protests held in Fargo since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

“If we get it right, then we have a community which people feel comfortable living in, want to move to because there's jobs available and there's economic growth," he said.

Philome said his dialogue with city leaders has left him feeling as though they were more interested in keeping protesters out of the streets than agreeing to the kind of change activists are demanding.

"So as long as we chose not to protest and march, then we could possibly work on their timeline and allow them to make the decisions on what we could and couldn't have. That’s a skewed view,” he said.

Philome thinks bringing marchers to the streets is the only way to force a constructive dialogue about the substantive change they believe is needed in their community.