Minneapolis residents and business owners say anxiety is building as the first of the former police officers charged in the death of George Floyd heads to trial.
As city and state leaders plan to bring thousands of soldiers, sheriffs' deputies and police into the metro area, they face a delicate balancing act: providing a sense of security to residents who want a large law enforcement presence while trying to avoid retraumatizing those who have endured brutal encounters with police.
They expect tensions will escalate as the trial of former officer Derek Chauvin nears a close and people wait to see whether the jury acquits him, a decision that would cement activists' fears.
"The permission that we give the police and how they treat people — and especially people of color in this community — the message it would send, it is literally unfathomable," said Michelle Gross, president of Communities United Against Police Brutality. "I don't want to see what would happen in this community if they let these people walk."
Minneapolis officials plan to contract with local groups to do de-escalation work. Neighborhood groups are pressing city leaders for information about planning. Businesses are debating whether to board up windows. And local activist groups are organizing events and discussing the creation of a TV program to explain legal issues related to police use of force.
Jury selection in Chauvin's trial begins March 8, and state and city leaders have outlined an expansive security plan in hopes of preventing a repeat of last summer's riots.
Hannah Lieder, who lives in the East Phillips neighborhood, wants them to "do whatever we need to do" to protect families and businesses if riots break out. She and her 6-year-old son, Louis Thompson, went to a protest at the Minneapolis Police Department's Third Precinct last spring expecting it to be peaceful. Instead, her son saw a man who had been stabbed in the chest and had to run as police used tear gas on the crowd.
"It just scared me," said Louis, whose bicycle smelled of the gas for months.
Unlike last spring when the unrest broke out in Minneapolis, this year officials have time to plan, said Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul. But he asks: "Who is all at that table planning? In my mind it would be just a huge mistake if some elements of community perspectives are not at that table."
Police need to be connected with the people who are protesting and marching through the streets, he said.
"Those are the very people that point law enforcement in the direction of someone who is looking to take advantage of a situation and cause harm," Mariani said.
When Freddie Gray died in police custody in 2015, Baltimore, like Minneapolis, saw hundreds of businesses damaged and fires around the city. But after Floyd's death, Baltimore became a place where demonstrations played out relatively peacefully. Activist Kwame Rose, who was arrested as he participated in the protests in 2015, has been frequently cited as someone who helped ensure safety last year in Baltimore.
Rose said it was critical to have grassroots Black leadership at the forefront of the protests, and said in Baltimore they kept an eye on white people who they saw passing out weapons to people in the protest crowd. At one point a man smashed a window with a meat cleaver, Rose said, and protesters told him, "That ain't what we're doing. Time to leave, buddy." When police told protesters to disperse at night, Rose also urged the crowd to go home.
Before the protests started, Rose said he asked police to be peaceful and said it was helpful when police did not wear riot gear and sent home officers who had a Blue Lives Matter flag. Rose said while he does not coordinate with police, he had the ear of the mayor and warned him about officer behavior that would set off people's pain or rage.
"You're smirking while we're out here literally crying. That sets people off, those smirks. Or just standing in military formation as opposed to, let's just have a conversation," Rose said.
Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo and state Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington have both been reaching out to different community groups ahead of the trial, including business associations and faith leaders.
Meanwhile, Minneapolis Office of Violence Prevention Director Sasha Cotton is working on a tool kit that will advise residents to connect with their neighbors, tell them how to barricade their street if they feel compelled to do so and list a city hotline to call with information that might not merit a 911 response. She said they will distribute flashlights and reflective vests. Minneapolis is also connecting with community leaders and traditional and alternative media to help distribute information to diverse communities, she said.
Cotton anticipates the City Council will consider a plan this week to contract with trusted community groups and nonprofits across the city that have de-escalation training and could help diffuse tension. She said they are also looking at adding community events and "therapeutic spaces" where people can process what is happening.
The city has not yet communicated its plans to neighborhood groups, said Melanie Majors, executive director of the Longfellow Community Council. She said in addition to the new safety measures Cotton's office is trying, "One would hope you have true and tested measures that would provide for public safety." She believes a curfew — one that is communicated far in advance — worked last spring.
Majors said she has been hearing from a lot of business owners who are weighing whether to board up windows. People don't want to build "fortresses," she said; they want to have faith that they will be protected.
But she said that trust has been shaken. "Everybody wants to avoid what happened last time, but then there's — 'But what if?' " Majors said. "A lot of it is still waiting to get guidance from the city."
Sara Wordofa owns Katar River Ethiopian Restaurant and Bakery on Minnehaha Avenue, just across from the Cub and Target that burned last spring.
"We are not feeling good," Wordofa said Friday. But more than her business, she worries about the state of the country. When she saw how police treated protesters last year, she invited them inside for shelter and water to drink and to wash their faces.
"I didn't see justice for George Floyd," she said. "The police have to treat everybody the same, Black and white."
Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044
Liz Navratil • 612-673-4994