The Current

This Black-owned distillery raised $765K after it burned in Minneapolis protests. Now they're giving it away

Du Nord Craft Spirits was damaged in fires that spread through Minneapolis following George Floyd's death, but its owners have created an opportunity to help other local businesses in their community.

Du Nord Craft Spirits caught up in protests following George Floyd's death

Stock that was damaged in a fire at the Du Nord Craft Spirits distillery in Minneapolis in May. The fire was one of many in the city, amid unrest over the death of George Floyd. (Maria Kustritz)

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This story is part of The Current's series Road to November, a virtual trip down the Mississippi River from Minnesota to New Orleans, to meet some of the people whose lives will be shaped by the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

As protests escalated in Minneapolis days after the murder of George Floyd, Chris and Shanelle Montana got news that their distillery in the city had been set on fire.

"I was angry, I was sad, I was crying," said Chris, who is Black. He and his wife opened Du Nord Craft Spirits in 2013.

Chris grew up in Minneapolis, and remembers the area around the distillery once being just "a lot of abandoned buildings."

It had since been "revitalized, largely by the immigrant community," he told The Current's Matt Galloway. 

"To watch that burn, it was watching 30 years of progress being burned to the ground … that was hard."

Minneapolis police driven from 3rd Precinct as protesters set station on fire

2 years ago
Duration 0:49
The city endured a third night of protests and violence after George Floyd, an unarmed black man, died in police custody. 0:49

Protests in Minneapolis began when Floyd, an unarmed Black man, was killed on May 25, after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes during his arrest. The officer, Derek Chauvin, was charged with second-degree murder on May 29. 

The day before, protesters set fire to the Minneapolis 3rd Precinct police station, which covers the portion of south Minneapolis where Floyd died. Du Nord Craft Spirits sits 650 metres from the station, and burned the next day. 

Those initial days of unrest about Floyd's death travelled far beyond Minneapolis, sparking global demonstrations and conversations about systemic racism in all walks of life, including the media and education system. Meanwhile, the political websites FiveThirtyEight and Politico have identified Minnesota as a key battleground in the U.S. presidential election.

U.S. cities see more protests, violent unrest over George Floyd's death

2 years ago
Duration 6:32
Protests in Minneapolis and elsewhere continue, as cries to prosecute the other three police officers at the scene during the death of George Floyd continue. There is a growing memorial for Floyd at the corner where he was pinned down by police until he reportedly stopped breathing.     6:32

The price to start change

Once the Montana family overcame the initial shock of their own loss, they realized they had an opportunity to join that conversation and create something positive.

"It gives you the space to remember, 'Hey man, this is just stuff,' right?" he told Galloway.

"Once you take that breath and give yourself that space, you realize this is one, an opportunity, and two, a privilege," he said.

"And if the price we had to pay for things to start to change in our area was just a few fires, then so be it and we're happy to pay that price."

Some of the damage to the Du Nord Craft Spirits distillery in Minneapolis, from a fire in May. (Maria Kustritz)

The Montana family initially set up a GoFundMe page to pay for repairs. Following media coverage, it raised $765,419 US in donations. But when it became clear that their insurance would cover much of the costs, the couple decided to redirect the money to other businesses in need.

They set up the Du Nord Foundation to provide immediate food relief and support local businesses owned by people of colour. Within weeks, they received 139 applications from small businesses, with funding requests exceeding $1.6 million US.

The foundation is reviewing all the applications before allocating funds. 

Protests were 'beautiful': distillery owner

When the protests began in Minneapolis, Chris found the solidarity on display to be "both beautiful and tragic."

"I can look at any other Black person and I don't need to say anything, they already know how I feel about George Floyd," he said. "Because they know that we could be next." 

"But that crowd had everyone in it — I mean, everyone — and it was so refreshing to see."

At the same time, he was disheartened to hear the same chants and calls for change he's heard for decades.

As days passed and anger grew that Chauvin had not been arrested, Chris said "you could see the writing on the wall, and it wasn't going to end well."

It was early Friday morning that Chris got news of the fire, but he waited until the city's curfew ended to survey the damage.

"Looking as I do, I wasn't going to go out and take on the police," he told Galloway.

On May 28, a protester holds a photo of George Floyd near the spot where he died a few days earlier in Minneapolis. (Jerry Holt/Star Tribune/The Associated Press)

When he arrived, the sprinkler system had been on for over four hours, flooding the 7,000 square-foot distillery and warehouse with a foot of water.

"There was still smoke coming out, but honestly, it was hard to pick out the smoke from our facility versus the smoke from everything else," he said.

"It was almost like it was snowing in places, because of all the ash coming down." 

Inside the building, he found pallets of hand sanitizer that had "basically acted like big candles, so once they were on fire, they just didn't stop."

Chris said the damage would have been worse but for the sprinkler system, which stopped the fire reaching large quantities of ethanol stored on the north side of the building.

Burning ethanol "creates these rivers of fire, and they just burn whatever they touch," Chris said. "Anything downstream from us was gonna be on fire, too."

Police have made several arrests related to the fires across the city, but none directly connected to the distillery.

Minneapolis business owner devastated by damage

2 years ago
Duration 2:05
A Minneapolis bar owner saw his life savings go up in flames when protests over the death of George Floyd became violent and destructive. 2:05

Initially hard to see 'bigger picture'

While Chris's anger faded quickly, his wife Shanelle says she needed some time to process the personal loss, and "see the broader picture."

"It was harder for me, probably, absolutely, because I am a white woman," she said.

"I think it is difficult for someone who has never felt oppression to see the bigger picture, to see where this could make an impact." 

Chris and Shanelle Montana with their three sons. The couple opened the distillery in 2013. (Submitted by Shanelle Montana )

Now she thinks the protests in recent months have forced people to pay attention to racial inequality.

"I feel like this divide between the Republican Party — really the Trump Party — and the Democrats has just gotten so wide and so divisive," she said.

"I want us to come above that, I want us to say racial justice is not a partisan issue — it is something that everybody wants."

Trump, Biden gear up for home stretch of presidential election

1 year ago
Duration 2:01
The U.S. presidential election campaign is gearing up for the sprint to the November finish line and there are signs it's going to get nasty. 2:01

Shanelle and Chris met in Washington D.C., where she worked for a government agency and he worked on the campaign of former Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison, who is now Minnesota's attorney general. 

As of Friday afternoon, according to the CBC Presidential Poll Tracker, Democrat nominee Joe Biden commands 52 per cent of voter support in Minnesota, compared to Republican nominee Donald Trump's 44 per cent. In 2016, Hilary Clinton won the state's 10 electoral college votes with 46.4 per cent of the vote, compared to Trump's 44.9 per cent.

Chris hopes the U.S. chooses "a different path" in the presidential election in November.

"But whether we do or we don't, the real question for racial justice in this country is going to be: 'Do we continue the conversation regardless?'" he said.

He would find another Trump presidency "incredibly unfortunate," but added that "the election of Joe Biden is not going to suddenly make this better."

"The only way that that arc of justice bends is because people push on it, and we need to keep pushing."

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Ben Jamieson.

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