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Local photographer captures Twin Cities riots with camera and interviews

Photography and telling people’s stories is a passion for Tanner Schaaf.

The 26-year-old man from Kingston has been snapping pictures since he was 13. Today he works as a stringer for Live Storms Media, which provides weather footage for news outlets around the country, as well as coverage of other major events.

While Schaaf usually spends his time chasing storms, this past week he’s been capturing the protests and riots sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis through his camera lens and speaking to people on the streets. As it would be for most Minnesotans, Schaaf described the experience as surreal.

“I was there when they lit the Third Precinct on fire,” he said. “I was right there when they lit the Molotov cocktail. … You can’t get any more in there than that.”

Schaaf visited the protests for three nights straight —Thursday through Saturday — and thought he might return Sunday night as well. Along with providing coverage for his job, Schaaf wanted to witness the protests for himself and hear what the people had to say. But when he arrived on Thursday, he quickly realized this was unlike any experience he’d ever known.

“I get out of the car the first night, I’m walking over and my heart’s just racing. I’m beginning to see evidence of everything,” Schaaf said. “There’s a burning car in the middle of the street, people are shouting stuff and having confrontations with the police. But after about 15 minutes, I became more comfortable. … I felt safe, and then I just went into picture mode, and that’s how it was for most of the night.”

From speaking to and observing protestors, Schaaf said it was clear that many just wanted their message to be heard, while others were there strictly for the carnage.

“I experienced a lot of hurt, a lot of pain,” he said. “And I also see that there are people who just don’t care and are there to burn stuff. They don’t care about the protest or anything.”

He said it was hard to determine if it was the protestors who were causing most of the damage, or others using the protest as cover to sow chaos. There has been speculation that outside groups are responsible for much of the destruction in the Twin Cities, an assertion with which Schaaf agrees.

“I almost 100 percent agree with that, just because I experienced it myself,” he said. “This isn’t coming from any source but my own experience, but the experience I’ve had is super weird and suspicious. How much of an outside source? I don’t really know to be honest.”

“The people who set the Arby’s on fire that I witnessed, it was just two white dudes,” Schaaf also said. “I’ve only been threatened twice during this whole thing, and they told me … they were going to smash my camera.”

While Schaaf witnessed his fair share of devastation and looting, he also said there were groups of peaceful protestors actively discouraging violence. He described a feeling of camaraderie amongst the protestors. He thought 80 percent to 90 percent of the protestors didn’t want to see buildings burned and neighborhoods demolished. But while they said they didn’t want violence, many also felt it would be worth it if it helps their message be heard.

“When I asked people, ‘What do you think about the burning buildings?’ the same people who told me, ‘Hey, I don’t condone the burning,’ at the same time they’re also like, ‘But if this is the way for our message to be heard, then let it be,’” Schaaf said.

So what is the message protestors want heard? While some blamed all law enforcement and others said the problem is only with a few law enforcement, Schaaf said they agreed that something is wrong about the treatment of black people by the police, and changes must be made.

Whether a week of protests, riots, arson and looting will lead to change remains to be seen.

“I asked one guy, ‘What do you think about this?’ and all he said was, ‘I hope it works,’” Schaaf said. “Even though he doesn’t agree with the methods that are being used, he was just like, ‘Well, I hope it works.’ And that phrase really stuck with me.”

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Litchfield School Board rejects teacher contract proposal

Litchfield School Board unanimously rejected a two-year teacher contract proposal from Litchfield Education Association during its meeting last week.

The contract which would cover the 2019-2021 school year called for a 4.192 percent increase over the life of the contract — 2.055 percent in the first year and 2.137 percent in the second year. The increases would mean a $356,281 increase in teacher salaries over the two-year period.

Board member Dave Huhner offered the motion to “not accept” the proposed contract, because information he’s seen indicates the district’s funding could be “in jeopardy.” Fellow board member Greg Mathews agreed, saying that approving the proposed contract would be “unconscionable” based on the current economic picture.

Superintendent Beckie Simensen said Tuesday that the board wanted to revisit the salary increase proposed as part of the 2020-2021 school year.

Board Chairman Darrin Anderson, in an email to the media following the meeting, indicated that the board’s decision was a reflection of the economic times.

“... Many people have lost their jobs, businesses are closed until further notice, and families are struggling to make ends meet,” Anderson’s email read. “For these reasons the Litchfield School Board feels that approving the new contract with our teachers is not the right time.”

The state is forecasting a $5-$10 billion dollar deficit, the email said, which could affect school funding during the next two years.

“This puts extra strain on our community and school district to make cuts to balance the budget, which results in more people losing their jobs, class sizes getting bigger, and education of our students being impacted,” Anderson wrote. “This has a ripple effect on our community with more job losses and more people impacted.”

Anderson’s email went on to say that the board wants to negotiate a contract that works for both the district and its teachers, but “with the economic uncertainty and the financial strain that currently is impacting the Litchfield community the board cannot support approving the current teacher contract proposal.”

Doors are opening once more

After more than two months away, some of the faithful returned to Church of St. Philip for a morning service this past Wednesday in Litchfield.

It was the first time the doors were opened for a large gathering since public Mass was cancelled March 18. And while those who gathered comprised a smaller group than was usual before church services were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was a welcome return to a degree of normalcy for the church.

“Like most churches we have been livestreaming weekend Mass,” said the Rev. Jeff Horejsi. “We have made personal calls to some people we thought were more vulnerable and we have continued to be available in case of a special need, especially if there is a concern for someone close to death.”

Despite those outreach efforts, however, the long gap in public service was a challenge, Horejsi said.

“You wonder about those that are maybe going through financial turmoil that we don’t know about and that maybe for one reason or another they’re not wanting to call and ask for help,” Horejsi said. “There is a lot of isolation for those who don’t have others to check on them.”

Letters sent out informing parishioners of the end of public Mass also directed them to where they could find prayers and faith guidance.

The challenges at St. Philip were echoed by other faith leaders throughout the region.

“It’s been sad, heartbreaking,” the Rev. Dan Welch said of the gap in public service. “But we’re wanting to do everything we can to keep everyone safe, and we’re using ways to reach out to people through social media.”

His church, First Evangelical Lutheran Church of Glencoe, posted services on Facebook while it has been closed these past several weeks. But it made plans to reopen following guidelines set forth in an executive order by Gov. Tim Walz. A single service was held Sunday morning in the large sanctuary to allow for social distancing, with a capacity of 175 to follow the 25 percent rule.

At St. Philip, parishioners who are not ready to return will still be able to watch digitally.

“There will be people who aren’t ready to come back, and that’s OK,” Horejsi said.

Parishioners who are able to do so were encouraged to attend weekday service to make it easier to maintain the 25 percent capacity rule on the weekend. The church also prepared new protocols including hand sanitizer and face masks.

“I think it will be very helpful for people to see one another even though they’ll be at a distance,” Horejsi said.

Riverside Church in Hutchinson saw that when its members gathered May 24.

“We are a really lively church,” The Rev. Arnold Allison said as congregation members — many wearing protective masks — left their vehicles one at a time and approached with cheers of greeting.

“People have been missing it,” he added.

After weeks of digital services in response to the pandemic, and the governor’s order preventing large gatherings, the decision to hold a Sunday service came two days prior, following a May 22 order from President Donald Trump instructing states to treat churches as essential services.

“I don’t want to close the doors any longer,” Allison said in a Facebook video to his congregation.

Though the order’s validity is in question on account of constitutional protections for state rights, it wasn’t the only change to come that weekend. On May 23, Walz permitted churches to open starting May 27. Capacity was limited to 25 percent inside the building, up to a maximum of 250 people. The change came after meeting with faith leaders, resolving a conflict with the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and it came with other stipulations, such as maintaining social distancing.

Some local churches started service May 24 in response to Trump’s declaration, while others set their first return service for May 27 or May 31.

Riverside, having first planned to follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, added Walz’s rules to its May 24 preparations.

“We still have to be (cautious),” Allison told his congregation, “but we are excited that we get to come to the place of worship again and worship God together.”

In meeting with church ushers, numerous safety precautions were implemented. For instance, anyone feeling sick was asked to stay home and continue to watch online. Families were asked to enter individually, use provided hand sanitizer, and to follow ushers directly to seating. At the end of service, families were guided out from back to front outside to their cars to avoid clustered gatherings. Other sections of the church were marked off. No nursery services were offered. The number of church services was reduced to one.

Churchgoers were instructed to respect the decisions others made regarding face masks.

“The ushers put a lot of work into implementing everything,” Allison said. “We were all here on Saturday to rearrange the entire sanctuary and make all of it happen so that it was as safe as possible.”

Air filters were changed, fans were all turned on and all doors in the church were opened. The kids’ service was moved to where they would not be inclined to touch things, and to where there would be a draft.

Meanwhile, across town on South Grade Road in Hutchinson, Christ the King Church continued an unusual practice it had implemented on Palm Sunday with input from Hutchinson police. Members of the congregation pulling into the church parking lot tuned in to the radio to hear the speakers from inside their vehicles, and see friends parked nearby with the service on top of an outdoor stage.

Church ushers decked out in bright, reflecting clothing and rain gear had attached buckets to wooden boards to pass out bubble wands to inject a bit of fun into the unusual service. In a previous week, pinwheels were handed out in a similar manner.

“This keeps people safe but our worship is still engaging,” said the Rev. Steve Olcott. “We have people stuck at home and this gives them an opportunity to see people.”

All in all, Allison said, the first Riverside worship with people back in the sanctuary went well.

“Their faces spoke volumes,” he said. “There was a lot of gratitude, a lot of happiness. There were a lot of tears. It was like this huge feeling of relief from everyone.”

The service reminded him of the meaning of “ecclesia.”

“The Bible refers to ecclesia as ‘the gathering,’” Allison said. “There is a reason. The Holy Spirit can use us to build each other up.”

Digital services and correspondence online were helpful to bridge the gap while the church was closed, Allison said, but it wasn’t the same.

“It’s like a patch on the wound, but it’s not the real thing. So (Sunday) was a huge relief,” he said. “There is a plot of psychology study that shows you need a physical presence.”

Another service followed this past Sunday, and just like the week before capacity was limited. Allison also continued to speak to a camera for families at home. However, there was one more major change: churchgoers were invited to attend with lawn chairs and stay spread out outside while listening to the service through speakers if such a setting felt more comfortable.

“I can’t wait until everyone can be together again, but I am proud people are choosing to stay home if they need to,” Allison said. “It’s OK to stay home. It’s OK to wear a mask. No one is going to make fun of anyone. And if you want to take a mask off that’s your own conviction.”

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Meeker County Fair canceled

Another summer celebration fell victim to the COVID-19 pandemic last week.

The Meeker County Fair Board announced in an email May 26 that the 148th edition of the fair, traditionally held the first weekend in August, would be canceled.

“Our goal is to always support the community with the respect and responsibility for all attendees, workers and volunteers,” the email from fair board Secretary Bobbi Jo Valiant said. “In these difficult times, it is for those same reasons, and with heavy hearts, this decision has been made.... We know this is the correct decision for the fair and to ensure the celebration can go on for the next 150 years.”

The county fair board’s decision followed the announcement a week earlier that the Minnesota State Fair will not take place in 2020.

The Meeker County Fair Board’s decision to cancel the fair came after much reflection and analyzing the costs and challenges of the pandemic — not just as they affect the fair, but also the county as a whole, the statement said.

“As we are a non-profit and rely heavily on our supporters, we also have to keep in mind the impact on the economy of our area,” the email said. “However, with the uncertainty of the times, and unknown challenges or future guidelines we are unable to be fully confident in the fact that it will be safe to gather and celebrate at the beginning of August 2020.”

Having made the decision to cancel this year’s fair, “we can pivot our energy towards continued improvements on the fairgrounds,” the statement said. That includes working with “friends of the fair” on projects and completing updates to buildings and the grounds.

The fair board is considering a community event at some point in the future, the statement said.

Additional information will be posted on the fair board’s Facebook page or its website at www.meekerfair.com.