Crime, Law and Justice

‘The worst seven minutes of my life’: As bullets flew overhead, children ran for cover

Minnesota Jays football team
The Minnesota Jays football team plays home games at the U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis in October 2019.
Courtesy of Marvin Thompson

Coach Marvin Thompson had never been more afraid. Several dozen players on his youth football team, as young as 5 years old, were practicing in a Minneapolis park last week when bullets started to fly over the field.

"It was terrifying — not being in control, having 50 kids out there laying on the ground, and bullets are ricocheting off the ground and pinging off the poles and hitting my parents' cars and whizzing past our heads,” said Thompson.

He said about 50 gunshots rang out during the drive-by gun battle at Jordan Park in north Minneapolis. Parents and coaches shouted at the kids, ordering them to get down on the ground. The shooting didn't stop. Players and their families had to seek protection from a nearby building.

Carrie Heinrich's 12-year-old son, Calvin, was on the field that day. In a video she streamed on Facebook, Heinrich described how helpless she felt amid the gunfire.

“The worst feeling as a parent was seeing my kid out in the middle of an open field with bullets flying and not being able to get to him,” she said.

In an interview, Heinrich said her son was in shock.

“He said, 'You know, Mom, when I was running for that wall, I couldn't feel my legs,’” she recalled. “And I said, 'Well, that's adrenaline, hon.'"

At a time when the city of Minneapolis is taking steps to dismantle the Police Department, an uptick in gun violence is causing fear and anxiety among some residents.

Although no one on the team was injured, the Jordan Park drive-by shooting has cemented people's fears about public safety. The neighborhood’s community council has been meeting weekly to gather residents and police to air concerns about the city’s spike in gun violence.

"There are actual men who are on the block, active gang members who are older, who are saying, 'This is wild. This is a problem,'" said Aniya Spears, who attended the gathering on Tuesday.

And the park shooting wasn’t the only recent incident in Minneapolis that put children in danger.

Earlier this week, a 7-year-old boy was shot in the foot in a drive-by shooting on Lowry Avenue. Police say the boy and his father were walking out of a store when someone fired a gun toward a group of people in the parking lot. The boy and his father did not appear to be the intended targets, and no one has been arrested.

In the month that ended June 25, Minneapolis police say 116 people were injured by gunfire. That's four times higher than injuries reported over the same period last year.

Although the city can't point to one cause for the growing violence, Sasha Cotton, director of the city's office of violence prevention, said she believes economic hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the angst and trauma following the police killing of George Floyd are contributing factors.

"It all kind of creates the perfect storm for an environment where people are feeling very repressed and feeling a level of desperation, that can lead to all kinds of erratic behavior,” she said. “We're just doing the best that we can to try to grapple with how we can respond to the recent shootings and also work to prevent any continuance of them.”

Cotton’s office connects with gunshot victims in hopes of preventing further retaliation.

‘No police presence’

After hearing the gunfire, Thompson, the coach, remembers driving on the practice field, loading up the team in his van and taking the boys to his house to get away from the path of the bullets. But equally chilling, he said, was the absence of police after parents called 911.

"It was crazy to have 50 to 60 rounds fired and no police presence,” he said. “It was the worst seven minutes of my life so far."

Thompson said even when the parents went back to pick up equipment at the park, the police weren't there.

John Elder, a Minneapolis police spokesperson, said officers were simultaneously handling two other shootings in which a total of eight people were wounded. The Jordan Park case is still under investigation.

In a statement this week, Police Chief Medaria Arradondo acknowledged the bravery of the coaches and parents who risked their lives to protect the kids.

“Gunfire shattered their peace and sense of safety,” he said. “Our children must be protected and those who would dare to bring harm their way must be held accountable.”

Arradondo added that the police play an important role in responding to violent crime.

“There is still a need for us to protect and serve our communities and we will continue to do that in a manner that preserves the public’s trust,” he said.

But for Thompson, the incident has left him with mixed feelings. Before, he was comforted whenever he’d see squad cars driving by. But he said after the shooting, it's hard to support the police when they weren't able to protect the boys on his team.

"I feel like I have more chance of encountering the police by just me being Black myself, just walking down the street, versus me actually physically calling them telling them I need their help right now in north Minneapolis,” he said. “And that's sad."

As the city moves toward a charter amendment that would defund the police, Thompson says he's conflicted about the idea.

Meanwhile, his team has found a new field to play on.

Reporter Melissa Townsend contributed to this story.

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