As It Happens

'Let it burn:' Owners of ruined Minneapolis restaurant stand with protesters

Hafsa Islam's restaurant was destroyed amid protests over George Floyd's death in Minneapolis, but she and her family have a powerful message for anyone decrying property damage.

‘We can bring back the building. We can't bring back George Floyd,’ Hafsa Islam says

Minneapolis restaurant Gandhi Mahal was destroyed amid protests over George Floyd’s death. (Submitted by Hafsa Islam)

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The owners of a Minneapolis restaurant destroyed Thursday night amid protests over George Floyd's death have a powerful message for anyone decrying property damage: "Let it burn."

Hafsa Islam, whose family owns Gandhi Mahal, said she felt both angry and sad upon first hearing the news about the fire, but that she understood protesters' anger and felt it was justified. 

Islam told As It Happens host Carol Off that as their restaurant lay in ruins, she overheard her father, Ruhel Islam, tell someone on the phone: "Let my building burn, let justice be served. Those police need to be arrested."

In a Washington Post opinion piece published Sunday, Hafsa Islam said it had become clear that the "issues at hand are greater than Gandhi Mahal" and while the restaurant can be rebuilt, "we will never reclaim the life George Floyd didn't get to live."

"The anger of our community and of the protests here is undeniable. More than that, it is understandable." 

Here is part of her conversation with Carol Off. 

What did you think when your father said ["Let my building burn"]? 

That's when I calmed down quite a bit. 

That really made me realize what we've been fighting for a very long time and what all this that's going on right now is about. It just connected me back to the roots of what we're fighting for. 

Hafsa Islam, whose family owns Gandhi Mahal, says 'the anger of our community and of the protests here is undeniable. More than that, it is understandable.' (Submitted by Hafsa Islam)

It's about justice. It's not about a building that could be brought back. It's about the life of George Floyd. We can bring back the building. We can't bring back George Floyd. We can't give him back to his family.

During the week, the restaurant became a kind of action centre, didn't it? For people who were taking part in protests, they were getting tear-gassed, they were getting injured. Tell us a bit about what was going on in the restaurant during the week. 

Monday, it wasn't too bad. There wasn't like police presence like that; they weren't bringing out riot police at all. But on Tuesday things got pretty bad. They were throwing tear gas and it was happening in front of the restaurant. People were being shot by rubber bullets and the injuries were pretty bad. 

When one of the tear gas bombs went off, a crowd of people ran toward the restaurant. One woman asked if she can come in because she was a medic and she needed to be safe so she can continue to help people. We let her in immediately. 

WATCH | Anger over killing of George Floyd  sparks protests across U.S.

Anger over killing of George Floyd sparks protests across U.S.

4 years ago
Duration 3:22
Protests against the death of George Floyd took place across the U.S. on Friday night. Some demonstrations turned violent.

We directed her to our climate hub, which is this office space where [...] climate action groups have their offices. We open that area for the medics and we became a medic tent. I even tried my best to help with the injured protesters. 

We opened our doors on Tuesday, on Wednesday, and even on Thursday, right before the fire started. We were trying to help as many people as we could. 

At least 200 people sought treatment in your family's restaurant during those days. Why was it so important to your father and your family to be so supportive of these people? 

In 1990 in Bangladesh, they had a dictatorship government set up. His classmates had protests and their student leaders were actually killed by the police there. 

The anger of our community and of the protests here is undeniable. More than that, it is understandable.- Hafsa Islam

My dad really understood the struggle that was happening with the protesters. He had flashbacks. It was a very similar picture to back home. That's why he felt the need to be there to support and help because he knows what it's like to be angry about injustice.

Does it upset your father at all that that some of the demonstrations have violence within them? 

It's not about the violence for him. He understands why it would get there. He also doesn't believe that it was his community; he doesn't believe that it was the protesters who would do something like that. 

He obviously doesn't condone violence. We don't condone violence. But what happened, happened. And, you know, it really did lead to some change. 

It really had to come to this for there to be some kind of change. And he understands the pain and the struggle. That's why it didn't bother him too much. 

Yes, he was sad that his building was gone, his life's work was gone. But more than anything, he was sympathetic to the cause. 

The Gandhi Mahal restaurant before the fire. (Submitted by Hafsa Islam)

You yourself, you were out driving [with] deliveries on Monday when you came to an intersection and you saw what happened to [George Floyd], didn't you? 

Yes, I saw the arrest. I didn't witness his murder. 

I saw in his face I could see the fear, his tears. [He was] still crying for his mom even before he was put to the ground, he was crying for his mother. 

I watched them walk him across the street, minutes before they murdered him. It's crazy because I woke up the next morning to learn that was George Floyd and [he] had been murdered. 

That picture keeps coming back in my head while I think about what's going on. 

Written by Adam Jacobson. Produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.