Hamline News

Leading the Way Toward Lasting Change


Chris Montana JD '13, owner of Du Nord Craft Spirits, the first Black-owned microdistillery in the United States, speaks about the events surrounding George Floyd’s death and how the Hamline community can support lasting change in the fight against systemic racism.

Du Nord Craft Spirits is located in the Longfellow neighborhood of Minneapolis, near Lake Street and just blocks from the Minneapolis Third Police Precinct, a focal point of the protests. A former Minneapolis police officer from the Third Precinct is accused of murdering George Floyd.

When the crime sparked worldwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism, Du Nord was already undergoing unexpected change due to COVID-19. Together with two other local distilleries, Du Nord had formed All Hands Minnesota to manufacture hand sanitizer, and Montana was focused on that challenging business pivot.

Then, on the evening of May 29, Du Nord was set on fire, along with many other Black- and brown-owned businesses along the Lake Street corridor.

While the perpetrators stole alcohol and attempted to burn the warehouse’s ethanol tanks, most of the damage at Du Nord is from the nearly 40,000 gallons of water its sprinkler system released to douse the fire.

Montana and his wife, co-owner Shanelle Evens '06 Montana, soon became the recipients of crowdsourced funds for rebuilding. With insurance likely to cover most of Du Nord’s losses, the couple established the Du Nord Riot Recovery Fund with the goal of raising $1 million to assist other business owners in dire need, transforming the support for saving Du Nord into compassion for the greater community. They also turned Du Nord into a community donation center, currently working on feeding those who suddenly find themselves food insecure. To contribute to the Riot Recovery Fund, visit its GoFundMe page.

How did you first hear of George Floyd’s death and what was your initial reaction?

MONTANA: I didn’t hear about it that night, because I’ve been so focused on converting the distillery to hand sanitizer production. Once I learned of George’s murder, though, I shut down Du Nord. We sent an email to the staff and said that if they wanted to leave and go to protests that we’d pay them for the rest of the day. It’s such a shot to the gut that you can’t really expect people to focus on work. We said, “Go ahead, go to the protests if you want to. We’ll take care of you for the day. Be well.”

What happened to Du Nord Craft Spirits on the night of May 29?

MONTANA: George Floyd was murdered on Monday, May 25, and the protests that kicked off on Tuesday and Wednesday were fairly peaceful. There was some damage to the Third Precinct, which is just a few blocks from Du Nord. Because we’re so close, we set up a tent next to the precinct and were giving out hand sanitizer and bottled water, which in the end was mostly used to rinse people’s eyes out from tear gas. On Wednesday night, the Auto Zone was set on fire, which was the first building burned. We survived that night without a scratch.

On Thursday night into Friday morning, we knew that it was coming. I had a police officer tell me that they were going to do nothing, that anyone could do whatever they wanted to do. Once we heard that, we told our staff, “Don’t be anywhere near Du Nord.” Some of them disregarded that and put up signs in the windows saying that it was a Black-owned business. That night, we had some folks break into the warehouse. There were at least five separate fires set with the intent to bring the structure down. They attempted to set the tanks on fire. The tanks are filled with 1,000 liters each of 190-proof ethanol. If they’d ignited, it would have created a river of fire, but the sprinklers kicked in, which is what saved the building. We didn’t know it at the time, but in the bakery behind Du Nord, there were workers hiding in a dough proofer. If the ethanol had caught on fire, the building would have burned down and they never would have made it out of that dough proofer.

What are your plans to rebuild?

MONTANA: I’m more energized to reopen and do this better than ever. We’ve quietly gone about our business for a long time and this is the time to be a little more vocal. We need to be out front more. We are the first Black-owned distillery in the country and an event like this shouldn’t be the end. It should be a new beginning for us as a company and hopefully for our community at large.

There’s the question: How much are we talking about the issues that affect our community? We need to not mince words. A man was murdered by police in broad daylight in our neighborhood, full stop.

Our cocktail room gives us the opportunity to be a community gathering space, where people can have real conversations about injustice. We need it to be a topic of conversation not just within communities of color but among the people who don’t live this experience. They need to be able to ask questions about it and not be penalized for not knowing the answers. If you can share your experience with somebody else and they can learn to care about that experience, then you can make a significant change. Even though I’m never going to know what it’s like to be a woman, I still can pay attention, learn and try to understand so that I can be the best ally that I can be. The same thing needs to happen here. Du Nord can reach not only the communities that may have been at the rallies but also the communities that might have looked at those rallies and said, “What’s the big deal?” We now have an opportunity to be part of the discussion.

We’ve seen protests against police brutality before. What’s different this time?

MONTANA: Within communities of color, police brutality is a known factor, and it always has been. Over time, so much anger and frustration has built up in the community. We wake up with it every morning. Now there was this event — the killing of an unarmed Black man who was in police custody — that should be a big deal. Every single time it happens should be a big deal. But because it happens regularly and we don’t treat it like a big deal, it just adds to the cumulative effect of a powder keg with the propellant of fatigue. We’ve just watched it happen so many times before, and we know it’s going to happen again.

I don’t honestly believe that anyone who has been paying attention to what’s been going on between communities of color and the police, and particularly the Minneapolis police, can say they’re surprised at what happened. I’ve lived with it my entire life. Something was going to kick this off because people are sick of it. They’re just sick of it.
I don’t condone any of the violence. People who have done so much for the community have had their businesses burned to the ground. But you talk to a lot of them and they’ll say, “This is a tragedy, yes, but if this is the price, then we’ll pay it. If this is what it takes to change things, then we’ll pay it a dozen times more.”

How can the Hamline community respond?

MONTANA: I don’t pretend to be an expert on this. I’d urge the Hamline community to address some of the short-term needs but also to think about how to be a part of the solution by keeping the conversation about race going. Step back and take a wide view outside your narrow lens. Here are four suggestions.

  • Focus on immediate need. This has everything to do with the human cost of systemic racism, which right now is played out because of the scar that has ripped through two major American cities and many others. We already were a food desert and now it’s much worse. People should be cognizant of the immediate need for food and other supplies. There are a number of companies and organizations that people can contribute to, to the extent they are able.
  • Donate to the Du Nord Riot Recovery Fund. Its focus is keeping businesses from going under in the short term by getting them the funds they need to survive. They were already hurting because of COVID-19.
  • Support long-term rebuilding and economic development. The physical manifestation of these events isn’t going away anytime soon. If you walk down Lake Street and University Avenue, even near Hamline, you’re going to see burned and looted buildings. Those scars are unfortunate, but they’re also a reminder that this is an opportunity for us to fully fund Black- and brown-owned companies to create a business community that looks more like the population that lives here.
  • Stay engaged over the long haul. It’s not what you do right now. It’s what you’re still doing in six months, a year and two years from now. We don’t want to have to continue having events like George Floyd’s murder for this to be a relevant issue. We need to not just worry about these issues for a typical period of time and then move on. If we are still having these conversations with the same urgency a year from now, then the greater balance of society is pushing for the same change that communities of color have been pushing for, for hundreds of years.

Are you hopeful for change?

MONTANA: I’m fairly hopeful. I hope that we go back to this point in time in the same way people talk about Selma. I hope we say, “It’s difficult to tell exactly when things started to change, but our best guess is it was right now.” We have the nation looking at this issue and we are starting to ask questions about systemic racism in the light of day.

In my opinion, real change happens through person-to-person conversations. We need to reverse this trend of getting further and further into our own bubbles, because the more we’re in our own silos, the less able we are to understand what the other side has to say. There’s a significant portion of America today that doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. They don’t understand why people would get this upset, why buildings would burn. They can’t imagine anyone having anything bad to say about the police. There needs to be a conversation where real education happens, not from having what you thought to be true confirmed, but from being pushed and being made uncomfortable.

I’ve had people who don’t necessarily agree with me reach out and say, “This has opened my eyes a little bit.” That’s new. We can do this right if we don’t go back to business as usual. But I also worry that we can do it really wrong, because I’m worn down that way. I do feel a different energy that’s moving in the right direction and it would be such a shame to squander this chance we’ve been given.

Support the Du Nord Riot Recovery Fund.

Written by Marla Holt.