New Casper father David Mercado headed straight from the airport with his camera gear to the protests and riots in Minneapolis that followed the police killing of George Floyd there a few days before.
An Uber driver let him out at a roadblock as close as she could after he asked her to take him to where everything was happening. He walked about a mile mostly through empty streets the evening of May 29 and began to wonder if he was in the right spot until he heard explosions and sirens and saw helicopters.
“And I said, ‘You know what? That’s where I have to go.’” he recalled.
Minneapolis was where Mercado, 35, decided he had to be to document the moment in photographs, following years of news stories about police brutality that made him more and more passionate about police reform. He felt sadness and anger and wanted to do more.
“So when this happened, I said, ‘You know what? I don’t want to sit on the sidelines of this,’” he said. “I want to go over there, and I want to see people’s faces; I want to feel their emotion; I want to feel the vibe of the crowd; I want to feel the tension in the air, and I want to see what’s going on there, and I want to document it. I want to document it, and I don’t I don’t even just want to document it, I want to capture history.”
Mercado gasped and choked as he walked through tear gas lingering from an earlier confrontation — a taste that would become much more familiar that weekend. There’d be moments when he thought he might not make it back to his girlfriend of nine years and their 17-month-old son.
He’d struggled with the decision, but his child was a major reason to go. Mercado, who’s Mexican American, doesn’t want his son to someday end up in a run-in with police that he knows from his own experiences could escalate quickly into a dangerous situation, he said.
“And I want to be able to tell him to stand up and do something for what you believe in,” he added.
A police officer pulled alongside Mercado as he walked toward the explosions and sirens and warned him not to go that direction, that it was dangerous, people were burning and flipping Humvees and the National Guard had been overtaken.
“Everything he told me just added to the exhilaration, the apprehension, the nervousness,” Mercado said. “He was building that up for me.”
Desolate blocks gave way to buildings on fire, smoke and shouts and screams from crowded streets. Mercado started photographing and filming people kicking out windows and looting.
“And there was not a police officer in sight. It was pure madness and chaos and anarchy going on,” he recounted.
He headed to the Third Precinct police station burned the night before, where journalists from major news outlets were gathered. A couple people started another fire inside, and teenagers screamed on the top floor.
“They were literally trapped,” Mercado said. “They were going to die.”
Mercado filmed a human ladder that rescued them and a medic who tended to an injured teen.
Farther down Lake Street, masked looters ran in and out of a large liquor store on fire as water sprayed from ceiling sprinklers and the lights flickered in the dark.
“It was like a scene of a movie,” he said.
National Guard and police stood in a line at a spot farther west, where Mercado worked to capture the “raw emotion” of what he estimated to be 300 to 400 protesters venting outrage — “people speaking politically, people speaking from the heart” about what was happening in their city, he said.
“They’re tired and they’re fed up. And I understood it.”
The National Guard observed the protest but began to fire rubber bullets and tear gas so the firefighters could reach a burning building. As people realized what was happening, they backed up and continued to protest toward the police, Mercado said.
When he sat on a curb to rest, three people smashed a nearby car window and tossed a Molotov cocktail inside. He filmed the explosion from behind a tree. Fires burned on every corner and smoke filled the streets. Around 3 a.m. he headed downtown and lucked out to find a ride share bicycle and a hotel when he got there.
A large majority of those he filmed destroying property were teenagers, he recalled. When he asked some why, they told him they were bored. He saw others who chased them down and told them to stop.
“There is multiple people doing that, and there’s people standing up for their city,” he said.
“Not all these people were George Floyd protesters. And I think it’s completely disgusting and not right to lump all of the protesters into the same category as looters and rioters,” Mercado continued, “because that’s not what was going on. These were strictly people taking advantage of a situation.”
Mercado on Saturday evening walked to the spot where Floyd was killed and found a large gathering with speakers at the memorial there.
“I stood right where he died,” Mercado said. “And it was a very powerful and very emotional feeling knowing that he had just lost his life there a few days before.”
Then he saw about 2,500 to 3,000 peaceful protesters headed down the street toward him and joined the march. People on doorsteps warned that the way ahead was blocked.
“And at this point, I started feeling like I was in a military convoy going to battle,” he said.
A line of law enforcement appeared in the distance as they marched.
Mercado at first sensed a feeling of separation from the city, where “everybody’s either with you, or they’re scared of you, or they’re against you,” he said. “And so you feel alone even when you’re with 3,000 people.”
But the marchers came across another protest group of what he estimated was 1,500 people. The groups shouted greetings and ran toward each other in what he described as an “epic moment.”
“I think they both felt like they were alone. And it was like two armies, almost really like uniting.”
Peaceful turned to chaotic in an instant as more than 100 police officers in riot gear — he estimated amid the chaos — with possibly some National Guardsmen began to fire flash bangs into the crowd. Rubber bullets whizzed past his face and pepper balls hit his legs.
They charged the crowd in a scene he compared to huge armies coming at each other in the movie “Gladiator.”
“I honestly thought I was going to die,” he said. “It was scary. We ran for our freakin’ lives.”
Tear gas choked Mercado at one point, and two people led him aside to pour milk and water over his face. He describes the smell like diesel exhaust “with a sweet, putrid aroma that turns into the fiery pits of hell.”
The protesters built barricades for protection from road construction materials they at least once lit afire as they retreated multiple times mile by mile. Neighborhood watch groups blocked the protesters from heading into their neighborhoods.
Shortly before 2 a.m. police vehicles blocked the one open road but sped off as the marchers charged into the area. The group headed down that highway and veered toward St. Paul, and Mercado said his goodbyes, took his last photos and headed back to his hotel through armed neighborhood patrols.
“My feet literally gave out on me,” he said. “I started limping, because I just started getting horrible pains in my feet from walking so much.”
He made it back, physically and emotionally drained, and caught his plane later that Sunday morning to return the next day to his job in the oil and gas industry.
Before he pressed the button on his phone to complete his plane ticket purchase the previous Wednesday, he agonized half the day with doubts about the risk of being hurt, arrested or exposed to COVID-19. He’d decided earlier that week after talking with his girlfriend not to worry about judgment or ridicule from others. He’d seen backlash toward advocates of police reform and protesters and the Black Lives Matter movement from many people he knows. He lost many friends after posting his images and experiences on social media, he said. But he stated he knew he had to stand up for his beliefs even while others are against him.
He’s had his own experience with police brutality while in college in Denver during a party at his home. Mercado expected a warning about noise when an officer arrived looking for someone who lived there. But as soon as Mercado answered that he did, the officer got on his radio and two undercover officers Mercado thought were party guests grabbed his hands and threw them behind his back to handcuff him without identifying themselves, he said. Startled, Mercado jerked away, and the undercover officers threw him to the ground, punched him and put him in a chokehold, he said. One officer said, “Take him outside where nobody can see,” he recalled.
The officers turned out to be part of an effort to catch underage drinkers.
Mercado doesn’t want his son to end up in a situation where he doesn’t know how to react and one that can quickly escalate and turn deadly.
“And that’s why I’m so for positive police reform in this country,” he said, “and that is why I am fully invested into this movement and in this cause.”
The same week Mercado returned from Minneapolis, he photographed the protests in Casper. It moved him to tears to see the town be part of it. He praised Casper Police Chief Keith McPheeters, whom he heard speak at the downtown vigil.
“They were outright and vocal of their opposition to what happened to George Floyd and what happened, what those officers did to him,” Mercado said, choking up. “And then they just touched my heart so much.”
The most unforgettable moment of his time in Minneapolis wasn’t fires, explosions or tear gas. It was the one quiet moment when the marchers stopped for a break along the Mississippi River at sunset.
A young woman stood on a statue and sang with a voice that brought him and many in the crowd to tears.
He learned after he returned home that the song was Sam Cooke’s civil rights protest song “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
After almost deciding not to go, Mercado is happy and proud to have been a part of the positivity he saw and to document the negative things that need to be shared.
“But I’m most proud of all of the positive things that were going on there, and I really think this was the start of a big change coming. And regardless of where you stand on things, regardless what your views and opinions are on things, the world is awake at this point and I’m glad I got to be a part of history.”
Follow arts & culture reporter Elysia Conner on twitter @erconner
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