How the Minnesota National Guard connected with protesters during the George Floyd demonstrations

Anger erupted in the community when George Floyd was killed while being detained by the Minneapolis Police Department. Protests broke out: some peaceful, others violent. It was a fine line, and many days it could have gone either way.

More than 7,000 members of the Minnesota National Guard were activated to support the response by local law enforcement. It was a unique mission, because these citizen soldiers were literally serving in their backyards. The demonstrators could have been their neighbors.

Lt. Col. Sam Andrews and Master Sgt. Acie Matthews Junior were on the front lines of protests at the Minnesota State Capitol. They sat down with 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS to explain how they made connections, kept the peace and preserved the rights of people to have their voices heard.

Andrews said the mood outside the Capitol was confrontational above all.

"They were well organized, they had leadership and they were angry," he said. "And they wanted someone to listen."

Read KSTP’s full George Floyd coverage

At one point, Matthews asked if anyone wanted to say a prayer.

"And that was to get us all on a common ground with a common understanding that we’re all there together," Matthews said.

From there, the tone shifted.

"We went from being the occupational force on the other side of the vehicles with the weapons and the guns and the helmets to being your neighbors — which all of our Minnesota National Guard soldiers are. We’re neighbors," Matthews said.

Andrews took his helmet and his glasses off to "humanize" himself, as he described it. And then he knelt on the steps of the Capitol and spoke to the crowd in a moment that’s now been seen across the country.

"Hey, I’m sorry for your loss," Andrews told the protesters. "I’m sorry for your loss. As a citizen of Minnesota, I’m sorry for the loss of George Floyd, alright? My heart hurts as a human being."

That moment of humanity, Andrews says, allowed him to walk among the protesters, have conversations and come to a level of understanding.

"Hey, we can hear you," Andrews told the crowd. "Respect our property, we’ll respect 100% to preserve and protect the constitution, your liberties to peacefully assemble and speak the first amendment, OK?"

Matthews said overall, the protests were an outlet for people to be heard.

"Aside from all the violence and damage to property and destruction, I think there’s a group of people who may have felt in the past their voices were not heard, who now can feel that they are being heard," Matthews said. "So I think that’s the good that can come from all of this."