Updated: 11:37 a.m. on Thurs., Feb. 23; Posted at 4:30 p.m. on Feb. 22
A day-long occupation of the Roof Depot site in the East Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis ended Wednesday when police swept the area and arrested eight people. Activists and neighbors had occupied the site for about twelve hours, camping out with tents, fires, and banners, to protest the planned demolition of the building.
Rachel Thunder, an organizer with the American Indian Movement, was one of the people arrested. She and other occupiers stayed on-site when police gave them a ten-minute warning to leave. She said she was charged with misdemeanor trespassing.
“This show of force and violence from the Minneapolis Police Department under the city’s orders is a testament to their fear,” Thunder said. “Our occupation was nothing but prayerful, peaceful, sober, safe and unifying.”
City workers have erected concrete barriers around the site.
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The occupation was a culmination of a years-long dispute over the site. Last month, the Minneapolis City Council voted to demolish the building. East Phillips neighborhood organizations and residents advocate for alternative uses of the area, including converting it to an urban farm, a community center and a site for tiny homes to shelter unhoused people.
Residents who oppose demolition say they believe it will release more pollution into the neighborhood. The lot next door to the Roof Depot was formerly designated as a Superfund site by the EPA — an area with significant arsenic contamination in the soil due to a pesticide plant that used to operate there. The EPA’s cleanup project found arsenic in more than 600 properties around the neighborhood between 2004 and 2011.
The City of Minneapolis says that the site is safe to demolish. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has reviewed the project, and decided that the city does not need an air quality permit for the construction.
Residents say they feel the pain of living in a polluted neighborhood. At a press conference today, Cassie Holmes told the story of her son, Trinidad Flores, who died of a heart condition at age 16 almost ten years ago.
“We like to say that we’re their sacrifice zone, because that’s how they treat us,” Holmes said about the city and the companies responsible for the pollution.
Holmes has been involved in the debate over what to do with the site for years and said the city has not taken the neighborhood’s proposals for an urban farm and community center seriously.
Various Indigenous organizations and local leaders have put their support behind the East Phillips organizers opposing the demolition. At a press conference today, Marisa Cummings read a statement from the Metro Urban Indian Directors (MUID), a coalition of Indigenous organizations in the Twin Cities.
The statement addressed a history of “environmental racism” in East Phillips, noting that people of color in Minnesota suffer worse health outcomes and tend to live in areas with higher pollution.
“It is the desire of MUID for the city of Minneapolis to realign their activities … in the hopes of arriving at a cocreated solution to these issues that benefit all of our residents,” the statement read.
The city says the demolition will go ahead as scheduled.
“The city can — and will — demolish the building safely. The city hired third party experts —who have decades of experience and have worked in the East Phillips neighborhood — to assess the building and its surroundings, including the soil underneath and around the building,” a city spokesperson said in a statement to MPR News.
The city’s plan for the project will relocate three of the city’s Public Works facilities into one central site. The plan promises to “mitigate the effects of site development in a responsible manner.”
In the City Council’s January vote to approve the project, they also offered a concession to the activists, which would give the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute the rights to develop three acres of the site and a workforce training and outreach center at the public works facility in exchange for dropping lawsuits challenging the project.
At the City Council’s Thursday meeting, activists and residents asked the council to re-vote on the demolition project. The council’s 6-6 vote fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to stall the project.
On Friday morning, an appeals court is expected to rule on a lawsuit over the project. On Sunday, organizers are holding a block party to protest the planned demolition at the Roof Depot.