Community Defense in Minneapolis

Abolition—the notion that prisons and policing are directly linked to slavery and thus antithetical to human liberation—is not new, but it is to some people. That is lamentable, and not unrelated to the challenges associated with social transformation, but it is not avoidable. We need to prepare the ground, look for nascent and emerging practices and nourish them.

We are not yet after a revolution

Image by an anonymous street artist.

What does it mean for white people to practice residential community defense in a gentrifying neighborhood on stolen Dakota land in the midst of a Black-led uprising for police abolition? Can it prefigure a city without police, a city without policing? Or are the ideas of community, of defense, of property so saturated with racial capitalism and its associated desires that they cannot otherwise germinate the seeds of the urban? These are not questions to be answered (though people will try) but provocations to sit with. What I can say affirmatively is this: figures of urban life—archetypes—and their arrangements were collectively reconfigured in some neighborhoods in Minneapolis during and after the uprising in ways that deserve attention.

There is a very specific temporality and arc to the Minneapolis uprising. Monday, May 25: George Floyd is murdered. Tuesday: the first protest. Wednesday: Autozone across from the 3rd precinct of the Minneapolis Police Department burns. Target is looted. Thursday: this is not, apparently, your typical Minnesotan protest. The police precinct is overtaken, the police evacuate, and fireworks go off over a conflagration as the precinct burns. Friday: the “outside agitator” arrives—the archetype, not the person. On Friday, the police officer who murdered George Floyd is arrested, a curfew is imposed and the National Guard is activated. On Friday, people start seeing trucks without license plates driving around the city, spreading out flammable materials, speeding through alleys. On Friday, the city burns. On Friday, the fire department doesn’t come and the city counselor who represents the neighborhood at the epicenter is tweeting that no one will answer her calls.

Saturday at the site of the uprising is calm. Hundreds of people diligently participate in the cleanup. Like almost everything that follows, it isn’t clear why, exactly, people are cleaning up—whether it is to put the uprising behind us as fast as possible, to return to normal, to show solidarity with the neighborhood, or to clear the deck for another night of protests. Lake Street is still on fire but it has never been cleaner. Donations flood into pop-up mutual aid sites. But down the street in Powderhorn Park, the hub of the multiracial and rapidly gentrifying neighborhood flanked by Lake Street on one side and Chicago Avenue on the other, there is a community meeting. There is no organization to host it, no existing infrastructure to facilitate the meeting. It is just a Facebook event created late Friday night by a neighborhood artist who was texting with his city councilor: “what the fuck is going on?”

Josh and Aby go to the meeting. They live a few blocks south of Lake Street, just north of the Cup Foods where George Floyd was murdered, and right between the 5th and 3rd police precincts. A week and half later, they recount their experience, sensing a new kind of danger and vulnerability and describing a new way of organizing with their neighbors; they were still a little bit on edge. Friday was a turning point, they tell me. Josh describes seeing white people in pick up trucks speed through their alley, take pictures of garages, and light dumpsters on fire. At the meeting in the park on Saturday, they broke up into groups by block and made a plan with their neighbors to take shifts staying up, block off their streets, and help each other put out fires. I ask them who they understood themselves to be threatened by, who they were protecting themselves against. Josh struggles to get multiple competing sentiments out at once and ultimately says: “there was so much bacteria in this petri dish.” The germ theory of urban unrest offends leftist sensibilities until you realize he means white supremacists, white suburban teens, and the police. When they did see the police, Aby tells me, it only added to the sense of danger—they were likely to instigate, inflame and make everyone less safe, she says. I think white people in Minneapolis have known for a while that the police make non-white people mortally unsafe, but on that weekend in late May, a meaningful number came to understand this vulnerability collectively.

As sure as Josh and Aby were that they were protecting themselves, their neighbors, and their houses from white supremacists, others were alarmed at the way the “outside agitator” narrative was deployed. As soon as Governor Tim Walz and Twin Cities mayors Jacob Frey and Melvin Carter started pushing the story that the arson and property destruction was the work of outsiders, scholars of history and riots and uprisings flagged the way in which the figure of the outsider is often mobilized to discredit rioters and dismiss their genuine rage. My colleague, Aren Aizura, was skeptical, too. He told me while he was out on Friday night, he saw lots of Black and brown kids starting fires, and adjudicating amongst themselves which buildings were OK to damage, OK to burn. He was troubled by the way in which ideas of community defense quickly became about residential protection—a troubling trend in a gentrifying neighborhood like Powderhorn.

“It seemed to me,” he said, “that the end of this narrative was stay home, don’t go out, protect your home.” Acknowledging that it wasn’t just white people who felt threatened or scared, Aren wanted people to be out in the streets, organizing with the protestors and rioters, not bunkered in their homes, conjuring an imaginary or outsized enemy—he envisioned a more collective form of community defense, focused on common spaces rather than individual homes. Nevertheless, he did see a lot of people getting radicalized really fast, despite the conservative way community defense was practiced in some neighborhoods. “I think it is radical to know your neighbors . . . but it’s all strategic.” The injunction to stay home when protests are happening might be counterrevolutionary.

There was no consensus on how significant the threat of white supremacist arson was in South Minneapolis, but the felt threat was real. That was true in North Minneapolis, too, the neighborhood that is the epicenter of Black life in Minneapolis, miles away from the uprising. Jerry McAfee, a pastor and community activist in North Minneapolis, was certain that the arson in his neighborhood was not the work of local people. “Our people have been mad for a while, and most of them got better sense, than the first thing you destroy is the thing closest to you—grocery stores and pharmacies,” he told me. He worked with long established street gangs to organize community defense at the grocery store in North, at the memorial site in front of Cup Foods where George Floyd was murdered, and at the 3rd precinct. “If you want real talk the only reason Cup Foods isn’t burned is because of the Blood Brothers—that’s who got that neighborhood on lock. Those in the know, know.” Local efforts at community defense arose through other organizations, as well. “We are here to defend and protect,” the director of the NAACP told a meeting of mostly armed Black people in a neighborhood cafe around the time of the uprising. Frank Paro, the newly elected American Indian Movement president, activated the community defense network that had begun in the 1960s to patrol the neighborhood close to the Little Earth housing project (“an urban housing complex with a Native preference”). At one point during the uprising, they apprehended white teenagers from Wisconsin trying to break into a liquor store and called their parents to come get them. “Thank You American Indian Movement!” was scrawled on plywood north of the 3rd precinct.

What will become of the networks of mostly white neighbors, organized in the midst of an uprising, to practice residential community defense? How will they articulate themselves within or alongside these pre-established, non-white networks? Neighborhood watches run by white people don’t have a strong track record of effectively collaborating with street gangs in solidarity against the police.

Sam Gould, the artist who organized the meeting with the city councilor, likened the experience of organizing community defense in Powderhorn to what Willam James calls a “noetic” experience. “You have this moment,” he told me, “this kind of ineffable moment, you recognize you have gained new knowledge, and because of your gaining new knowledge, that is outside of yourself, not through linear experience, you’re immediately imbued with new information like a bolt out of the blue. You do not have the ability to articulate what you experienced, and that feeling may die over time, but you always hold on to that experience that you are different now, and you have new knowledge . . . I think for many people, that noetic experience—it was so elemental, people were like, this is what I need to do, this is how I can help.”

I know how this sounds, now, a few weeks later, when life is going back to normal in Minneapolis. Rents are already rising on Lake Street. The residents of the appropriated Sheraton hotel—an avatar of the possibility-laden uprising—have been evicted. The fires are out. After a euphoric meeting in Powderhorn Park a week after the uprising in which a veto-proof majority vowed to disband the Minneapolis Police Department it is now planning to “conduct a yearlong study.” In other words, the grinding reality of urban life, urban politics, urban governance has deflated the air of possibility that Sam refers to in a way that might seem overblown but reflects and names the electric feeling of the past month in Minneapolis. What will remain?

I don’t know what it means to recuperate the Bloods and name white supremacists and cops the new bogeymen of the city. The new figure of urban unrest, at least for now, at least in Minneapolis, is the white supremacist. Can this new configuration hold? This rearrangement of the archetypes: can it be liberatory? Revolutionary? At the very least, it seems, we must be skeptical of easy answers while being open to sensing new arrangements, new solidarities. There is something, however, to the cops as the other, the cops as outside. Perhaps this is one small, nonlinear but additive step toward an understanding of the path to our collective liberation. Whether this is enough, whether this is to be accommodated, whether this is at all hopeful, it is not for me to say.

We are not yet after a revolution and so we are situated in the liminal space of prefiguration. We can imagine it, but we cannot yet make it so. But it might be even harder than this particular tension implies. It might even be the case that to prefigure the world we desire—on the fly, and horizontally—runs the risk of importing the very grammars we wish to abolish. This is the danger to which Aren is especially attentive, to re-police, to protect property on stolen land, to desire order and peace in the form of a curfew might be counter-revolutionary. Can it be true that uprisings have effects good and bad? That they intersect with a racialized and racist society and geography and bring a world of hurt to a world already in so much pain. That Lake Street couldn’t afford to not be burned, but neither could it afford to be burned.

Abolition—the notion that prisons and policing are directly linked to slavery and thus antithetical to human liberation—is not new, but it is to some people. That is lamentable, and not unrelated to the challenges associated with social transformation, but it is not avoidable. We need to prepare the ground, look for nascent and emerging practices and nourish them. What does it meant to get ready for a revolution? Aren offers the antithesis to the emergent proto-revolutionary thesis: a multiracial coalition of mutual aid in solidarity with the uprising emerged in its wake and prefigured an abolitionist society. Maybe. But not exactly, not quite, not yet.

In the field of Urban Studies, there are iconic images and tropes we use as archetypes that inform the common sense of urban governance and policy-making at a given moment: the Black Panthers on the steps of the California capitol; Pruitt-Igoe mid-demolition; Reagan’s Cadillac-driving “welfare queen,” the Willie Horton ad, the cover of the New York Daily News with the headline “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” We show these to our students to provide a window into the images, headlines, and sense making devices that informed urban life at a given time. In a course I taught on Ferguson, we read a piece in the New York Times that described Michael Brown, an unarmed black man murdered by a white police officer, as “no angel,” which ran the day before his funeral.1

To make sense of whether and how urban archetypes are being reorganized in the wake of the uprising, consider a story that ran in the Star Tribune recently. The photo features four young Black men, armed with assault weapons, faces covered with masks, shot from below in the dark back lit by a street light under the headline “In North Minneapolis, neighbors on alert to ‘make sure our people can eat.’” The photo caption refers to the men as “community members.”2 Abolition this is not (no institutions have been dismantled, yet). But it is a tentative gesture toward the rearrangement of archetypes that emerged from the uprising, a new arrangement that may bear abolitionist fruit.

  1. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/25/us/michael-brown-spent-last-weeks-grappling-with-lifes-mysteries.html 

  2. https://www.startribune.com/in-north-minneapolis-neighbors-patrol-to-make-sure-our-people-can-eat/570984062/ 

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