Audio story by Megan Burks. Text by Kathryn Styer Martinez.
It’s 10 p.m. on a Friday and residents of the Little Earth of United Tribes community pop open energy drinks while discussing the plan for the evening.
They call themselves “Little Earth Protectors,” and they’ll work in shifts to monitor their housing complex in the East Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis through the night and into the early morning. The patrols start with about a dozen people and more will join as the night goes on.
Little Earth’s community patrols began when the protests over the killing of George Floyd started to move into surrounding neighborhoods back in May, and they’ve been happening every night since then. Little Earth is less than a mile from Lake Street, and when protesters started to filter toward Little Earth, community residents formed a barricade at Cedar Avenue and East 26th Street to keep people from moving through the complex.
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They feared that with the protesters would come mischief, destruction and law enforcement.
They managed to keep the protesters diverted, but the police and National Guard did eventually come down Cedar Avenue in their convoys.
“We had a resident who was shot with a rubber bullet,” said Muck-Wa Roberts Sr., a Little Earth protector and resident. The patrol doesn’t know who fired, and both the Minneapolis police and the National Guard deny responsibility.
Little Earth is home to members of 38 different Native tribes. It’s also a low-income housing complex with 212 individual residences. Residents say their reputation as a “project-based, Section 8 housing” complex precedes them.
“They respond with preconceived notions of what’s going on,” said Jolene Jones about the Minneapolis Police Department. MPR News reached out to the Police Department for an interview but they did not respond.
Jones is the former board president of the Little Earth Residents Association and helps to manage the nightly community patrol. People started the nightly patrol to keep their community safe, she said, and also because they see it as a way to de-escalate conflict without calling the police.
A community-centered approach to public safety has become a key demand of people who want to defund the Minneapolis Police Department.
That includes Nora Sherman, a resident of Minneapolis’ Whittier neighborhood, who volunteers with the Little Earth Protectors, and said community patrols are better for residents than a large centralized police force.
“I’ve seen people doing security in Whittier and I’ve seen people doing security in Cedar-Riverside, people doing it around 38th and Chicago,” said Sherman. “Each place has their own set up and style, and that’s really really important.”
“Public safety is very personal. We’re taking care of each other. I’ve met people’s families. I love them, and I feel loved by them. And you can’t centralize that,” Sherman added.
Still, the work can be dangerous. Roberts was shot while on a nightly patrol. He’s convalescing but plans to be back out patrolling as soon as he can. The community protectors respond to basic things like fights and threats of broken windows, but if they know there are firearms involved, they call the police.
Minneapolis City Council member Alondra Cano, who represents the 9th Ward, which includes East Phillips and Little Earth, said she agrees that a “one-size-fits-all” model of policing doesn’t fit everyone. She and her council colleagues recently approved a budget that would divert $1.1 million from the Police Department and use it to support public safety models that individual communities co-create. The money would go toward training and — eventually, toward paying some of those doing the work.
Cano said she sees increased communications on a block level, but she’s also watching people who want to “connect with other parts of the city that are doing the same work” in a sort of community patrol skill-share. Most are spending their own money to buy patrol shirts, walkie-talkies and provide training, Cano said.
The Little Earth Protectors are doing all those things. They wear black T-shirts that clearly identify them as community protectors, coordinate with walkie-talkies and send people out with plastic tubs of supplies at each designated patrol location. The tubs have things such as hand sanitizer, snacks and water, and some have gunshot wound first-aid kits just in case.
Little Earth also pays to rent mobile lighting rigs that keep the adjacent Cedar Field Park brightly lit at night. It’s not their responsibility to light the park, but they said that it’s been a place where violent crime has broken out so often that they feel compelled to do it for safety.
“They make you feel safer,” Jones said, adding it was one of the best things they’ve done.
About 30 minutes into the Friday night patrol, a fight breaks out between a group of girls in the middle of the complex. One of the protectors de-escalates the situation and tells everyone to go home. All that’s left is broken glass all around where the fight happened, littering the ground of the play structure.
“This is our baby’s park. This is not good,” said Jones as she calls for a crew to clean up the glass. “This is where our babies play.”
Little Earth recently held a de-escalation training and plans to share what they learned with other community members. Jones said that the community patrol has also improved their relationship with the surrounding neighborhood.
How does Jones think relations could be improved between her community and the police department?
“You’re going to think I’m crazy,” she said, “but live in the neighborhood you patrol.”