'Exhausting, traumatizing': Minneapolis protests push peace amid police confrontations

“We cannot back down now. We have come way too far. We are literally in the midst of history.”

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By Daniella Silva and Ed Ou

MINNEAPOLIS — Ashley Phelps and Ahmad Eltawely developed a fast bond on Saturday, the night they fled tear gas and ran from advancing police who were pepper-spraying protesters.

They had met for the first time earlier in the day at a peaceful protest and sit-in with thousands of demonstrators who were not involved in the burning of businesses and a police station on previous nights, said Eltawely, who had a microphone and passed it around for people to speak.

“That’s not a demonstration," he said of the violence. Instead, their sit-in "was so peaceful to the point we wouldn’t even allow anybody to yell out any chants that were anti-police."

But less than an hour after the 8 p.m curfew passed on Saturday, a wall of Minnesota State Patrol officers warned the crowd to disperse or face arrests. The officers then immediately began advancing into the crowd, using tear gas and pepper spray and filling the streets with smoke.

People were seen running, throwing up and crying as police fanned out. Shots rang out in the distance.

“We were running from the cops attacking us,” said Phelps, 32, who earlier had led the crowd in the sit-in.

Eltawely said it was the most terrifying experience of his life.

“We thought we had constitutional rights. I thought if white men with guns can peacefully demonstrate then surely me and my fellow Minneapolis and Minnesota residents can sit in prayer at 31st and Nicolett in front of a police station and that we would never be attacked,” Eltawely, 33, a life-long Minnesota resident who is Egyptian American, said.

He ended up sheltering Phelps in his home for the night.

“It’s just humanity, treat others the way you want to be treated,” he said of his decision to take her in.

Earlier on that sunny Saturday, Phelps picked up the microphone in front of the crowd of thousands of peaceful demonstrators gathered in front of the 5th Police Precinct.

“We are here to offer you grace and mercy and forgiveness,” she said, her booming voice trembling. “I’ll f---ing give you a hug tonight.”

The crowd roared with applause.

Before George Floyd died in police custody more than a week ago, Phelps did not consider herself an activist. That Saturday, the fifth day of massive protests in the city, was the first time she had joined the demonstrations. Phelps felt she could no longer stay home, she said.

“We all need to heal, everybody here: Sit down, do not move, hold your ground,” she instructed while leading the crowd in a sit-in.

Ashley Phelps peacefully protests in front of National Guard officers in Minneapolis on Sunday.Ed Ou / NBC News

Floyd, who was black, was killed May 25 after being arrested for allegedly attempting to use a counterfeit $20 bill. Video footage showed a white Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes as Floyd cried for his mother and said he couldn’t breathe.

Three other officers watched as Floyd gasped his final breaths. Chauvin was arrested and charged Friday with third-degree murder and manslaughter. All four officers were fired.

Many protesters have called for charges against the other three officers, but Phelps said the demonstrations go far beyond Floyd's killing.

“This is 100 percent about racism and systemic oppression for centuries,” she said. “We need to rebuild the entire thing, together.”

Eltawely echoed that sentiment.

“George Floyd was a martyr, but what are the circumstances and what are the systemic issues that made him a martyr? We have to focus on those,” Eltawely said.

Phelps reflected on what it had been like to see the protests and police response in her city night after night.

“The last week has been the most exhausting, traumatizing — also enlightening week of my entire life,” Phelps said. “I mean I’m just so exhausted that I barely have words at this point in all honesty, that’s how hard this fight has been and it is dire.”

Phelps, who is half black and half white, said she had spent days seeing her city gripped with trauma and fury.

“I don’t have an option to be sitting in my house watching at this point,” she said.

Eltawely said he, too, was moved by the injustice of Floyd’s killing and purchased a megaphone with a friend to give a voice to others.

“An hour or two later, I'm in front of thousands of people and we’re passing this megaphone speaker around allowing people to project their voices,” he said.

“People didn’t know what they were going to do yesterday, where they were going to go. They knew there’s pain that we’re all feeling, and they wanted to be together with others that have a similar feeling,” Eltawely, said.

Demonstrators protest the killing of George Floyd outside of the 5th police precinct on Saturday in Minneapolis. Scott Olson / Getty Images

The day after they met and Phelps stayed at Eltawely's home, they decided to join a march at the Hennepin Avenue Bridge with their children and spouses, who were not with them on Saturday.

“They want to go and be a part of the movement,” Eltawely said.

“It’s a family thing,” Phelps chimed in.

Eltawely and his family were part of a group of demonstrators that had to disperse because a large truck drove through a crowd, though officials said no protesters appeared injured.

On Monday night, hundreds of peaceful demonstrators gathered past the state-mandated curfew of 10 p.m. at the Minneapolis intersection where Floyd's life came to an end a week ago.

A couple waits after curfew Monday outside the Cup Foods grocery store that George Floyd had just left when he encountered police.Kerem Yucel / AFP - Getty Images

“We cannot back down now. We have come way too far,” C’Monie Scott, 22, said, holding a megaphone in the middle of a large circle of flowers and signs honoring Floyd. “We are literally in the midst of history.”

Demonstrators have gathered here since Floyd's death, taking turns on megaphones and microphones, listening attentively, clapping, raising fists and chanting, encouraging one another in peaceful protest. Music fills the air and demonstrators pass out free food, water, masks and gloves throughout the day and night.

Scott, who is black, said all heard Floyd's last words, “I can’t breathe.”

“But now, as a whole, we can’t breathe, you guys. They are suffocating us,” she said, leading the crowd in a chant.

“We can’t breathe,” they chanted back.