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.
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.