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What drove protesters in May unrest over George Floyd?

ST. PAUL — Before facing federal arson charges, the only other time McKenzy Ann DeGidio Dunn could recall appearing before a judge was three years ago, when she was legally adopted by a rural Pope County, Minnesota family at the age of 16. Her biological mother had died of brain cancer when she was 13.

Then came the death of George Floyd, and what she saw as her chance as a white woman to make a statement about police brutality and stand in solidarity with Black Americans and people of color in general — her Black cousins, her Native American foster siblings, her friends from school.

On store security video, according to federal charges, she’s seen holding a bottle of flammable hand sanitizer while another suspect lights a fire within a St. Paul strip mall, the Pioneer Press reported.

“Honestly, I was out with a few people I had just met and it was a mistake,” said Dunn, 19, of Rosemount, who has been charged with conspiracy to commit arson last May at the Great Health Nutrition shop in St. Paul’s Midway.

Until the May riots, Dunn had never been arrested. Matthew Lee Rupert, on the other hand, had reportedly been arrested 44 times in his hometown of Galesburg, Illinois.

“I’m going to Minneapolis tomorrow,” said Rupert, 28, in a Facebook post, hours before allegedly lighting a Minneapolis Sprint store on fire, looting a Home Depot and encouraging others to throw incendiaries at police during the riots. “Who coming. Only goons. I’m renting hotel rooms.”

Bryce Michael Williams, an internet personality from Staples, has been equally open — if a bit more mission-driven — about his involvement in the fires that destroyed the Minneapolis Third Precinct police station and surrounding businesses during the looting and unrest that followed Floyd’s May 25 death.

“For once we feel like we’re in complete control,” Williams tells an online interviewer on Instagram for a documentary he’s filming about Floyd protests around the country. “The police can’t do anything. We’re burning down their sanctuary, their home.”

Minneapolis suffered an estimated $350 million in damages related to the unrest, looting and arson in the days following Floyd’s death.

St. Paul Planning and Economic Development has estimated business losses to be $73 million across 300 St. Paul properties, or $82 million including store inventories. That doesn’t include the long-term impact of lost customers or landlords that have declined to renew store leases.

In addition to the destructiveness of their alleged crimes, what links Dunn, Rupert, Williams and at least 18 other federal defendants facing conspiracy and felony arson-related charges in the May riots?

The answer may be not all that much, beyond a dislike for police and a general recognition of societal inequalities.

In fact, the only other links may be their ages and lack of shared geography. Of the 21 federal defendants, only one was recently of Minneapolis, and two were from St. Paul.

The others hailed from outside the cities, mostly suburban and exurban locations like Andover, Brainerd, Monticello and Wayzata. The oldest federal arson defendant to date has been 33. Their average age is 25.

A 19-year-old allegedly traveled with his younger sister, a minor. Authorities believe that a suspect caught on video attempting to burn down a St. Paul high school for disadvantaged youth with her male partner was pregnant.

During the May riots, many on social media accused Black protesters of burning down their own neighborhoods. Others blamed white supremacists and agitators from out of state.

More than half of the 21 federal defendants are white. Most are from Minnesota, but none of them have been charged with riot-related federal crimes in their own neighborhoods, or even their own cities.

Their politics, too, appear widely varied.

“I think everyone is coming from different perspectives,” said Paul Estate, an organizer with Minnesota Uprising, a loose coalition of progressive advocates.

“If you want an easy answer, you’re not going to find it here,” said the South Minneapolis resident who has advocated to have all charges dropped against protesters, rioters and federal defendants. “There’s people who consider themselves long-standing activists, and there’s people who saw the Floyd video and had a knee-jerk human reaction. It runs the gamut.”

After Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, Rupert — a white man who has been in trouble with the law since being picked up as a truant at age 14 — decorated his hometown of Galesburg with signw, including one that said “Police Kill,” according to his brother, who was quoted in the Chicago Sun Times.

Beyond his hatred of police, Rupert wasn’t particularly political.

“He doesn’t have any sort of ideology,” said Rupert’s attorney, Jordan Kushner, after his arraignment in federal court in downtown St. Paul in late September. “He came up here because he was upset about the murder of George Floyd. He live-streamed himself (online). … It was a human reaction.”

On the other hand, Michael Robert Solomon, 30, and Benjamin Ryan Teeter, 22, two federal defendants from New Brighton and Hampstead, North Carolina, respectively, were self-proclaimed members of the Boogaloo Bois. The anti-government, far-right movement has alternately taken its cue from white supremacist ideology and Libertarian philosophy in efforts to incite civil war.

They’re charged with providing information to an undercover agent posing as a member of Hamas, which is federally classified as a terrorism group based in the Middle East.

Williams, a social media “influencer” with 150,000 followers on the channel TikTok, has said Black activism is his calling.

In online video clips for his planned documentary on Floyd protests, he wipes tears as he explains to his young daughter over the phone why he can’t be home with her. His advocacy for Black America is too important, he tells an interviewer.

His TikTok clip of what appears to be a daytime Minneapolis protest is set to music, under the labels “Love my people,” among others.

Security footage from the Minneapolis Third Precinct fire shows a man identified as Williams in federal criminal charges holding a Molotov cocktail incendiary as he approaches the entrance of the heavily damaged police station.

On the professional networking site LinkedIn, Williams’ work history shows he’s held a number of different jobs, from high school basketball coach to Forex foreign currency trader, though few of his jobs lasted for more than a few months at a time.

His longest period of continuous employment was one and a half years as a residential counselor with Volunteers of America, a job that ended in October 2018, according to his LinkedIn profile.

His court history shows convictions for only petty misdemeanors on eight occasions, all of them traffic-related, most of them for speeding.

If Williams has been almost showy about his involvement, Montez Terriel Lee Jr. has been steadfast about his innocence. Lee, who has two young kids, has been held at the Washington County Jail on federal arson charges that accuse him of burning a Minneapolis pawn shop during the riots.

“I did not burn that building nor did I loot or take anything that didn’t belong to me,” said Lee, 25, of Rochester, Minn., in a written statement shared with MN Uprising.

So why was Lee — whose previous convictions include gross misdemeanor burglary and felony assault — at the protests?

“I have faced injustices from local police departments myself and have been subjected to racism,” Lee wrote. “I wanted to be a part of something bigger. I wanted to show my kids and peers that you fight for what you believe in. I’m sick of seeing people of color murdered by the same people sworn to serve and protect.”

More than one defendant faces charges alongside a spouse or sibling. Matthew Scott White, 32, a convicted burglar and repeat felon recently of Minneapolis, entered a guilty plea to a federal arson charge last month in the fire that destroyed the Enterprise Rent-a-Car in St. Paul. Federal prosecutors agreed to drop an arson charge against his older sister, Jessica Lynn White, 33, of Andover, and her case was dismissed in August.

In St. Paul, the irony of self-proclaimed advocates — many of them white — arriving from outside the city to burn down large strips of ethnic neighborhoods in the name of racial justice hasn’t been lost on residents of the Midway.

Authorities say Jose Felan Jr. was based in both Texas and Rochester, Minnesota, when he and his partner, Mena Dyaha Yousif, attempted to set fire to Gordon Parks High School in St. Paul, as well as a nearby Goodwill thrift store.

Parks, who died in 2006, was a glamour photographer, musician, writer and film director whose documentary photojournalism captured the poverty and civil rights struggles of Black Americans, and the school focuses on high-risk students.

In July, U.S. Marshals arrested Felan’s brother, 29-year-old Leeroy Felan, in Texas for allegedly lying to authorities and transporting the couple to safety, possibly to Mexico. Leeroy Felan’s legal history includes a federal conviction for transporting undocumented immigrants.

Jose Felan Jr., 33, a convicted felon who remains on the run, has a criminal history that includes burglary, drug offenses and aggravated assault. Yousif is believed to be pregnant, according to the U.S. Marshals office.

For her part, Dunn said she still hopes to go to school to become a social worker and help other young people in difficult situations.

“I didn’t mean to cause any harm or damage,” said Dunn, in a Sept. 28 Facebook chat with a reporter. “Peer pressure sucks.”

She’s accused of conspiring with as many as four others during the May riots to burn down the nutrition store on University Avenue in St. Paul.

When Dunn arrived in Minneapolis on May 27, the second night of the Floyd protests, much of the damage at the Cub grocery and Target store off Lake Street had already unfolded.

She traveled in the same group as Samuel Elliott Frey, who was the same age and had grown up in Farmington, a small, heavily Caucasian rural-suburban city not all that far from her father’s residence.

He shared her anger at police, but in other respects, he was everything she was not. Frey was, in her words, “gay and cocky and liked to cause trouble,” and his confidence and energy were reassuring.

When they caught a ride to St. Paul the next night, she said, he was determined. “He wanted to destroy everything,” she said.

On Thursday night, May 28, a mutual friend dropped them off in the city. Before long, they had snuck into the Great Health Nutrition store in the Midway Marketplace strip mall near University and Hamline avenues, whose protective plywood had already been pried open by looters.

It was there, according to federal charges and a subsequent indictment, that Frey, 19, of Brooklyn Park, was caught on surveillance video pouring flammable hand sanitizer onto a shelving unit and lighting it on fire.

Dunn, who was among at least five young people in the store, was captured on video joining him with a bottle of sanitizer in her hand.

A girl, a minor who authorities later determined is related to Frey, could also be seen on video taking beverages from a refrigerator and tossing them to Dunn, who is seen laughing, according to charges.

Someone in their group poured out a soda can of Red Bull and asked aloud if it was flammable.

Alongside the video, the smoke and fire damage were later reviewed by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which then circulated photos of the suspects and asked the public for tips.

When Brooklyn Park police visited Frey’s home on May 30, he admitted to taking items during the riots, according to criminal charges against him, but “didn’t want to talk to officers in depth about what exactly had occurred last night because he’s been up 24 hours rioting and looting and he’s tired now.”

Frey’s attorney, Marcus Almon, declined to comment on his client’s case Tuesday.

Before long, Dunn was booked into the Sherburne County Jail, though she has since been released pending trial.

Dunn, who is being represented by a federal public defender, lives with a relative and has been spending time before her next hearing date playing video games and working food service.

A third suspect, Bailey Marie Baldus, 20, of Ramsey, initially faced federal arson charges in the nutrition store fire, as well. To Dunn’s surprise, prosecutors would later agree to drop charges against Baldus after her defense attorney argued she was in the building but did not participate.

“We ran into her there,” Dunn said. “That was the first time I’d ever met her.”