Once you see them, you can’t miss them: A group of 20 people in bright orange T-shirts roaming city streets into the early morning hours, armed with knowledge about their community and a desperate wish to stop the gunfire.
They’re called “violence interrupters,” and they’re part of the city’s plan to curb an ongoing cycle of fatal retaliations at a time when shootings are at a five-year high in Minneapolis.
“I’m tired of it,” said Yulonda Royster, a violence interrupter who was starting her shift Friday night in downtown Minneapolis. “Every day there is some young Black boy being killed being shot. All of this gang violence, it can be prevented.”
The violence interrupters are paid employees of the city’s Office of Violence Prevention — not the police department. City officials launched the program about a month ago and modeled the group after similar efforts in New York City and Philadelphia.
On this night, most of the interrupters rounding the corner onto Hennepin Avenue are Black men. Royster is one of the few women.
Royster said she knows about the violence that can consume certain young men. When she and her family lived in north Minneapolis, one of her three sons was active in gangs, was wounded in a shooting, and was incarcerated, she recalled.
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“My son comes from a good home, but still,” she said, “I didn’t have that village, that support, while I was out working one job always full time — sometimes two — and being in school. He was out on the streets a lot of times.”
The violence interrupters focus a lot of energy on young people across the city. In the predawn hours, they simply walk the streets, keeping an eye out for unfolding conflict and de-escalating beefs. Royster says she’s especially concerned about how the pandemic is forcing some young people to go under the radar as schools and community hubs have had to close their buildings.
“A lot of these kids literally have nowhere to go and nothing to do,” Royster said. “We need some of these centers open. We need people like us in those centers redirecting them and that energy they have into something positive.”
Many of the interrupters live in the communities they now serve. Muhammad Abdul-Ahad leads the south side team of 20 on most nights.
“We get standing ovations, hand claps, honks and whistles,” Abdul-Ahad said. “That gives us the motivation to keep going.”
Plenty of people stopped to say thank you and honked their horns as the group traveled down Lake Street in south Minneapolis on Friday night.
The group checked on business owners who are still recovering from looting and rioting in May. Using walkie-talkies, team members communicated tips about possible large gatherings, which can often lead to conflict in the late evening and early mornings hours.
Abdul-Ahad said his team has been able to approach tense situations because of personal connections they already have with the community. But he said the group isn’t here to replace police officers.
“They respond to emergency situations, gunshots and stab wounds,” he said of police. “We aren't here for that, you know, we are there to prevent things like that from happening so they won't have to get called.”
The Minneapolis Police Department says about 100 officers left the agency this year, double the number of departures in most years. The force has been under scrutiny after the killing of George Floyd and the Minneapolis City Council’s conversations about dismantling the department.
The interrupters group still has to work to gain the trust of the people they encounter.
It wasn’t a warm reception from a group the violence interrupters approached later in the evening in a parking lot along Lake Street. The problem began a couple of nights earlier, on Wednesday, when the violence interrupters linked arms and tried to literally put themselves between protestors and police. That was the night people learned that Derek Chauvin, the former cop who kneeled on George Floyd’s neck for about nine minutes, had been released after posting bond. Violence interrupters said they pleaded with the protesters to listen to law enforcement orders to go home.
The violence interrupters were detained and eventually let go after authorities heard from Office of Violence Prevention director Sasha Cotton, who says she reached out to police.
“That was a miscommunication between outside law enforcement, our state troopers, and our law enforcement, locally, who know the role of interrupters and would not have engaged that way,” Cotton said. “They are doing a job, and when they are on the job doing their work the way they are supposed to, they shouldn’t be detained.”
The event caused skepticism and mistrust among some community members since 51 people were arrested that night. Many of the protesters were cited with unlawful assembly.
Abdul-Ahad says feedback from community members has been overwhelmingly positive, and many of the violence interrupters have had negative experiences with law enforcement themselves.
Abdul-Ahad said the violence interrupters aim to serve the community at large.
“I am hopeful,” he said. “I give much kudos to my team because every single day they come out here with me and the focus is with the children because the children are our future.”
The violence interrupters work six nights a week. It remains to be seen how big of an impact their efforts will have. After we parted ways, three people were shot downtown — within just a few blocks from where the interrupters first gathered earlier in the night.