When the Rev. Jerry McAfee saw the fires were getting closer, he knew So Low Grocery Outlet had to be protected.
And so he organized nightly patrols to keep an eye on one of the few discount food stores in north Minneapolis that hadn’t closed out of fear of the COVID-19 pandemic or looting.
The idea came about when he got a worried call from So Low’s owner, after several area businesses were torched under mysterious circumstances, says McAfee, the pastor at New Salem Missionary Baptist Church. He started working the phones, and eventually rounded up a group of ministers and gang members — “Bloods, GDs, Vice Lords,” he says — to man the patrols.
“Those they wanted to call menaces to society are now holding the community down,” he said. Their charge: protecting a market that needy residents depend on daily for food and other necessities, McAfee said.
“That’s not even a black-owned business, but that’s the only one that black folks can get to,” he said of the market. “This one, our sole purpose was to make sure our people can eat.
“If it goes up, then our people will have to go a long ways to get groceries,” he said of the market, at 3111 N. Emerson Av.
The police killing of George Floyd last week galvanized street protests nationwide and prompted officials in several states to mobilize National Guard troops and impose curfews; in Minnesota alone, hundreds of buildings were looted and torched.
While residents and shopkeepers along Lake Street in the south Minneapolis police precinct where Floyd was killed bore the brunt of the rioting, at least 17 North Side businesses were also damaged, according to a Star Tribune database. Most of the vandalized or burned businesses there were along W. Broadway, the area’s main commercial artery, but McAfee still worried.
With widespread reports of roving potential bad actors, similar civilian patrols have popped up all over the city, with residents blocking off streets with makeshift barricades and erecting floodlights to protect their neighborhoods from would-be rioters. In some areas, neighbors have started private WhatsApp groups to share minute-by-minute information and photos of suspected troublemakers in the area and, hopefully, correct misinformation that often spreads in times of crisis.
K.B. Brown has also organized street patrols in the area, bringing together an unlikely ensemble of rival gang members, bikers and “white people from the community that are literally out with hockey sticks.” The group of 50 or so has taken to going from block to block, on the lookout for suspicious people and vehicles.
He says he some of the young men agreed to set aside their differences and work together for the community’s benefit.
“It’s been a beautiful thing because I’ve like had the Highs and the Lows riding around in the same car,” said Brown, who grew up in the city and owns a local T-shirt printing business. “And they haven’t been fighting and doing all that. ... They’ve been riding around protecting the neighborhood.”
Some community groups are arming themselves, which has led to more than a few frantic 911 calls, like the caller late Tuesday who reported seeing several men with “machine guns” getting out of a Jeep. They turned out to be private security guards.
Last week, McAfee sent several of his volunteers down to help out another security detail run by the NAACP on W. Broadway, after he says some shady-looking people kept circling the block, arousing suspicion, and his men heard gunfire ring out, he said.
For years, parts of north Minneapolis were seen as so-called “food deserts.”
Big chains like Kowalski’s and Supervalu have come and gone in recent years. Today, residents’ options consist of a handful of convenience stores, Aldi and Cub Foods and North Market, a community wellness center and grocery store run by nonprofit Pillsbury United Communities that opened two years ago.
McAfee said that he was as upset by Floyd’s death as anyone else, but at the same time he was frustrated with how “flippant” some protesters were about looting at the Cub Foods on E. Lake Street.
“I’m never against protest, but I absolutely cannot stand for you to be so enraged that you don’t think about your actions,” he said. “And so with one strike of one match, without one thought about it, you decimate the oppressed that you claim be trying to defend.”