Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on July 1, 2020.

Burning Anger

As civil rights protests took over US cities, fires and violence burdened first responders

Listen to a 2016 NFPA Journal Podcast about civil unrest from a first responder perspective. 

It’s a narrative we’ve seen play out many times before: an African-American man or woman dies at the hands of police and protests sweep the nation, sometimes devolving into riots that become violent and destructive. 

This time, it was the killing of George Floyd—a 46-year-old black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his throat for nearly nine minutes—that sparked nationwide civil rights protests in May and June.
While police officers may have been the target of many of the protests that turned violent, firefighters and EMS workers also reported being attacked or simply having to battle exhaustion—especially since the protests came on the heels of an active period of the coronavirus pandemic.

RELATED: Read "Civil Action"; read an Urban Fire Forum white paper on civil unrest.

In Minneapolis, pictured above, looting and burning were widespread, taxing responders across the city. In Cleveland, Charlotte, Rochester, New York, and other cities throughout the United States, some demonstrators threw rocks, glass bottles, and even fireworks at firefighters responding to fires and medical calls stemming from the protests, according to Firehouse magazine. 

In Philadelphia, fire officials said they were becoming overburdened by the fires that rioters were setting. “On average, we have seven or eight what we call working structure fires every 24 hours. The past 24 hours, we had around 24, and the past 48 hours we’ve had probably 50 or 60,” Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel told a local television news station.

NFPA President and CEO Jim Pauley responded to the civil unrest in a statement released June 4. “What happened to George Floyd in Minneapolis is despicable, and we are outraged,” Pauley said. “Racism and inequality in any form are unacceptable.” But, he continued, some of the violent and destructive riots that resulted from Floyd’s death were “also disturbing.” —A.V.

ANGELO VERZONI is a staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top photograph: Getty Images