On the morning of May 25, 2020, Mike Brown was still the mayor of Grand Forks — an office he’d held comfortably for two decades. For a generation, the doctor and former Air Force officer had worn a white button-down shirt and an affable grin and shown up at City Hall, ready to help move the city past the flood of 1997.
But on that late spring day, change was on its way.
Brown was locked in a race to keep his position atop Grand Forks' government, with a progressive reformer on his left flank and a square-jawed former sports star on his right. He’d made the mistake of choosing a side in the 2018 Senate election that had roiled the state two years earlier — this, Brown would later say, is what ended his 20-year political career.
Change wasn’t just coming to City Hall, though — it was coming to local businesses, to classrooms and to the streets of Minneapolis. The final two weeks of Brown’s campaign would coincide with what likely were two of the most tumultuous weeks Grand Forks had seen in two decades.
On the evening of May 25, George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis. On May 27, Grand Forks Police Officer Cody Holte was shot and killed while he responded to a call for aid in a local apartment building. On May 30, rioting consumed downtown Fargo, while other towns in the region feared it would spill into their streets. On June 1, Andrew Armacost became the 13th president of UND; that same day, Altru Health System laid off more than 160 employees, many of them in Grand Forks. Also on June 1, an airman at Grand Forks Air Force Base killed a woman and then himself.
Three days later, peaceful yet vocal protests following Floyd’s death unfolded in Grand Forks, coming after a large candlelight vigil in East Grand Forks. And in early June, storms passed through the region, causing structural damage and forcing thousands to seek shelter.
All this happened as the city grappled with the emerging coronavirus pandemic, which had already sent students home, strangled local businesses and cost families their loved ones nationwide.
The pandemic has been a lingering, difficult thing, and it’s hard to pick a dividing line between before and after — between the city as it was prior to COVID-19, and what Grand Forks is still becoming. But those two weeks in the spring of 2020 are a good start: a time so difficult, and so eventful, that it’s hard to see it as anything but a moment to measure time against.
At the end of the two weeks — finally, on June 9 — Brandon Bochenski defeated Brown at the ballot box. It was the beginning of a new era.
“I think it was a rebirth, like the phoenix,” Brown said. “I think those two weeks were strongly emotional — it was a rebirth. New leadership, new direction, new dialogue.”
After George Floyd’s death, things moved quickly. Debbie Swanson, the director of Grand Forks Public Health, was standing in her driveway just two days later when she heard about Officer Holte’s death from her husband, who was then Grand Forks’ city attorney.
It happened when officers from the Grand Forks County Sheriff’s Office attempted to serve an eviction notice to Salamah Pendleton, only to be met by gunfire. Holte and Pendleton’s mother — Lola Moore, who was in the apartment — died. Sheriff’s Office Cpl. Ron Nord was wounded.
Pendleton awaits trial, facing multiple murder and attempted murder charges.
As Swanson recalls the incident, she pauses to collect herself.
"Many of us knew of (Holte), or his family, and we also have staff who have friends and family in law enforcement,” Swanson said, recalling the Health Department’s mid-pandemic input on the memorial. “Being called to come and provide advice on how to have a safe funeral service was a very surreal experience."
State Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, recalls that time too. Floyd’s death was obviously worldwide news; but the news of a Grand Forks police officer’s death was especially jarring, coming right in the midst of the community.
“It was up close and personal,” Holmberg said.
And Holte’s death created an uncomfortable tension in Grand Forks. Suddenly, leaders would have to carefully manage two crises: The death of a Black Minneapolis man at the hands of a white police officer that was prompting nationwide riots and demonstrations and, locally, the death of a white police officer. It would be hard to avoid the optics that those two events happened somehow in opposition, especially since Pendleton is Black.
“Personally, one of my greatest concerns was that we were going to have a major demonstration outside of the Grand Forks Police Department,” said state Rep. Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks. “There was a very narrow line that had to be straddled in showing support for largely two demographics — or two groups of individuals. Fortunately, everything worked out. But I think there were a lot of folks that were nervous.”
One serious fear was that things might turn out as they eventually did in Fargo. On the night of May 30, police and protesters clashed in downtown Fargo after dark, in scenes of looting and tear gas condemned by protest organizers.
Andrew Armacost officially became UND’s president the following day. He, too, saw exactly the same kinds of community tensions that demanded recognition.
"These were two different circumstances, both involving police,” Armacost said of Floyd and Holte’s deaths. “And so I wanted to make sure what the focus was — on the loss of life and the absolute tragedy in both cases.”
Swanson recalls getting texts from her children, including her son in Minneapolis, sending photos of a burning building. A daughter in Washington sent a photo of a National Guard tank deployed amid protests. The immediacy was jarring. There was so much pain and urgency, touching everyone, a thousand miles apart. In Fargo, protests descended into riots on May 30.
"It changed me as a person, continuing to understand that inequality is still a really big problem in our country, and in some cases our community as well,” Swanson said.
And the COVID-19 pandemic continued to grind in the background. Health officials nationwide worried that widespread protests could become superspreader events. In Grand Forks, businesses and schools were still learning how to grapple with the virus. How would this all work?
“Those were definitely some challenging few weeks,” Swanson said. “I think my email daily volume hit about 350 during that time frame. It was hard to keep up and some things are a distant memory blunted by all the trauma.”
Strains at Altru
All this was happening as COVID rolled through Grand Forks, bringing with it masks, school closures and an unfamiliar way of life. By mid-year, the virus had been present long enough in Grand Forks that it was no longer new. But it was still remaking the community.
At Altru Health System, leaders had been hit with a financial blow when a structural failure forced an evacuation at its main clinic in 2016. When the pandemic hit, it was in the middle of construction on a new hospital — trumpeted at groundbreaking in 2019 as a $305 million effort.
But COVID meant social distancing, and social distancing meant canceling countless non-emergency procedures, which make up a big chunk of its revenue. In April, Altru paused construction. Soon, the strain forced bigger changes.
On June 1, 165 Altru workers were laid off, or about 6.5% of its workforce. The shift was a realization of some of the community’s worst economic COVID fears — that the pandemic would create real, lasting damage.
"As we face substantial financial challenges, we must continue to make changes in the best interests of those we serve,” Altru President Steven Weiser wrote in an internal note to employees. “We cannot operate as we have and sustain our organization.”
RELATED: Altru Health System lays off workers
At UND, COVID was forcing changes of its own. Since March, a flurry of changes had sent students home. At first, it was for a little while — two weeks after spring break. But by March 22, the pandemic had scuttled the rest of the semester’s in-person classes. Armacost, UND’s new president, recalls a flurry of preparation for the fall semester.
"Over the summer, it was, ‘How are we going to offer courses in the fall semester? What's the campus going to look like? How are we going to help our faculty members make a transition from in-person courses to online or hybrid courses?’" he recalled. "Many of the questions were surrounding, ‘How do we pull this off?’"
And between all the community’s history-making headlines, there were other notes of tragedy. Dwarfed by the news of George Floyd’s and Cody Holte’s deaths — not to mention the pandemic, a local election and a new UND president — was a murder-suicide at Grand Forks Air Force Base. Julian Torres, an airman at the base, killed fellow airman Natasha Aposhian before killing himself.
Even the weather made headlines. For several days leading up to the mayoral election on June 9, storms rolled through Grand Forks County, bringing wind and torrential rain and tearing the roof off a bar in Larimore, just west of Grand Forks. Roberta Huntley, the city auditor, recalls watching the storm come in.
"My husband actually went outside (as the storm approached),” she said. “He's not one who would say, 'Hey, we've got to go to the basement.' but that day, he did."
It was an extraordinary few weeks for news reporters in the Red River Valley. Korrie Wenzel, the Herald’s publisher, remembers looking back when it was all over.
“I moved to Grand Forks in 2014, so I wasn’t here for the Flood of 1997. But for me personally, I haven’t seen anything like those two weeks. I've been involved in one event creating weeks of news coverage, but this was different. It seemed every day we were sending people off to cover another breaking story that in any other time might be the biggest story of the year,” said Wenzel, who has been working in the daily newspaper industry for 30 years. “And on top of it all, we already were working in overdrive because of COVID. It was unreal.”
WDAY reporter Matt Henson, on the evening of the mayoral election, remembers looking back at it all and marveling at the volume of breaking news.
“I was driving up there every day,” Henson said, making the trip from Fargo to Grand Forks. “To me, I’m used to it. Some people may not be, (but) I’m not used to that much chaos.”
Ditto for City Council member Ken Vein. In a recent interview with a Herald reporter, he listened to a list of those busy two weeks’ events, and marveled at how much had happened.
“Today, it feels like a blur,” he said. “To hear that they all happened in that short time period, I think back and — that’s astounding.”
On June 9, Brandon Bochenski was at The Opal, near downtown Grand Forks, for his election-night watch party. Because the pandemic had forced the election to be conducted entirely remotely, news broke shortly after polls closed that he’d won the election handily, nearly earning half the vote. In just a matter of days, he’d be in City Hall, taking the helm as the city began the long road out of the pandemic.
It’s true that the pandemic is now slowly passing. The worst of the summer’s confusion and the late fall’s awful case surge look like they’re safely in the past. Full immunization rates are now at more than 48% in Grand Forks County, according to state data. Statewide case rates are far lower than they were months ago.
And the community has begun to move on from the hardest moments of last summer. Grand Forks Police Chief Mark Nelson takes an optimistic lesson from those two weeks last year, when the community had to process both Holte and Floyd’s deaths.
"Human beings are human beings, regardless of whether you're in a uniform or not,” Nelson said. “I think the loudest voices are what tend to be heard. But sometimes the silent majority realizes that, sometimes, we're not as diametrically opposed as we thought."
But there are also plenty of post-pandemic concerns that still linger. There are loved ones lost and livelihoods broken, and for many a year of memories with neighbors and friends taken away. There is the very pressing problem in Grand Forks of its stagnant workforce, which will be a top-of-mind challenge for City Hall as it hopes to move on from the depths of the pandemic.
And there are also the reverberations, a year later, from Floyd and Holte’s deaths. Most of the leaders interviewed for this story recall those two events — and the unavoidable tension between them — as defining moments during Grand Forks’ two most dire weeks. Grand Forks, remembering the tumult a year later, is still working to move past it.
The community will continue to closely watch Altru Health System, which is one of the region’s most important employers. Weiser, the system president, said Altru has been able to rehire about 17% of those who were laid off; plans to restart construction on the new hospital were announced in February.
“Things are very different at Altru this year compared to last,” he said. “We are a strong, confident organization and have our hard-working, talented, patient-centered team to thank for getting us through an unquestionably difficult time to where we stand today.”
Today, Bochenski strikes the same optimistic tone that many of the other leaders in Grand Forks do — that with some effort, Grand Forks has good days ahead.
“I think coming out of that, you see the community’s gotten together,” Bochenski said. “And we’re in a really good place coming out of the pandemic.”