Organizers in Minneapolis Weigh Role of Community Defense Groups in a Police-Free Future

Some suggest neighborhood watch groups can offer long-term alternatives to over-policing. Others believe they run the risk of replicating the same abuses.

Michael Grunke looks out from his home to the streets around his neighborhood, where he has joined neighbors to form a watch group, after the death of George Floyd while in custody of police sparked unrest, Tuesday June 2, 2020, in Minneapolis, Minn. A week of civil unrest has led some Minneapolis residents near the epicenter of the violence to take steps to protect their homes and neighborhoods. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
Michael Grunke looks out from his home to the streets around his neighborhood in Minneapolis, where he has joined neighbors to form a watch group, on June 2, 2020. Photo: Bebeto Matthews/AP

The night that Minneapolis’s 3rd Precinct burned, Anthony Allen stood on the roof of the iconic Midtown Exchange building and watched in awe as the area went up in flames. Allen is the security manager for the building, a Minneapolis landmark built in 1928 that holds apartments, cafes, and specialty grocers. A 26-year-old black man, Allen was deeply affected by the police murder of George Floyd, who, like him, worked in security. His frustration was shared by many others, and now that collective anger had boiled over into white-hot rage.

Although he was in the business of protecting property, Allen understood the desperation. “As much as this stuff sucks, I think it’s worth the sacrifice,” he said. “I’ll be able to tell my kids, ‘When I was growing up, cops could kill us and nothing would happen. And then a dude named George Floyd died, and everything changed.’”

But that weekend, things got weird. The neighborhood surrounding Midtown Exchange is racially diverse, with a large immigrant population. One night, Allen said, “an Expedition drove by, no license plate and bumping death metal, with bald buff white dudes in it.” On Facebook, he watched a video of three white men beating up a black man at Chicago Lake Liquors, just across the street from Midtown Exchange. Andy Nowacki, who lives nearby and attempted to put out some of the fires in the area, said that by the end of the week, he also began noticing strange vehicles with no license plates.

Similar reports proliferated throughout the city. Farther east, members of the American Indian Movement Patrol, a Native-led group founded in 1968 to monitor the streets of Minneapolis for police abuse, confronted three white teenagers from Wisconsin looting a liquor store. The property damage spilled into predominantly black north Minneapolis, too, with beloved black-owned businesses going up in flames. And on May 31, a video interview by a reporter for the local nonprofit media organization Sahan Journal showed two armed young white men wearing tactical gear at a protest downtown. The men identified themselves as members of the Boojahideen, a term associated with the far-right Boogaloo movement, which promotes an anti-government ideology that calls for civil unrest as a means to accelerate the collapse of the political system.

“If we can burn down a couple of black-owned businesses in the middle of all the chaos, it’s a good move for the racist people,” Allen said. “I think that’s what their logic is.” His security team soon had help from an ad-hoc community defense group of around 30 volunteers wielding baseball bats — friends of one of the business owners who rented commercial space in the building.

Fueled by distrust of the police and assertions by public officials that white supremacists and other outsiders are infiltrating communities in the wake of Floyd’s murder, residents of various backgrounds across the Twin Cities have formed neighborhood watch groups, in some cases arming themselves with pots, pans, and bats, and in others, with assault rifles. With the Minneapolis City Council pledging on Sunday to dismantle the police department, some organizers have suggested that these groups can offer long-term alternatives to over-policing and brutality.

But neighborhood watch groups have their own fraught history, at times contributing to violence toward people of color. In Minneapolis, the ad hoc associations have at turns clamped down on and amplified an intense rumor mill. Some community members point out that the groups, like so many proposals intended to remake community safety structures, run the risk of replicating the abuses of the police.

Tony Williams, a 27-year-old Minneapolis police abolitionist who has been involved in his neighborhood’s community defense group in the Whittier area, said he believes government officials’ at-times-false claims about outside agitators should be considered separately from the serious concerns raised by community members. But Williams, who is black, views the defense groups with caution. “A lot of these neighborhood patrols are predominantly white — not all of them, obviously — and if those white folks haven’t dealt with their own racism, their own internalized white supremacy, then they can very easily turn into a vigilante justice group,” he said. “I think it’s a kernel that could evolve into an effective form of safety in Minneapolis, and they are keeping people safe right now, but I also think they’re going to require a lot of political education and a lot of dedication on the part of organizers and members of these groups in order to make sure they do more good than harm.”

Official Misinformation

One video in particular set off the anxiety surrounding outside agitators and infiltrators in Minneapolis. On the first night of property damage, a white man dressed in black, wearing a gas mask, and carrying an umbrella was filmed methodically breaking the windows of the AutoZone near the 3rd Precinct. When observers confronted him — one yelling, “Are you a fucking cop?!” — he avoided the questions and quickly walked away. Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison tweeted, “This man doesn’t look like any civil rights protestor I have ever seen. Looks like a provocateur.” Ellison asked his followers to help identify him. One Twitter user posted a screenshot of a text conversation with a person identified as the former fiancee of a St. Paul cop, claiming she was sure the umbrella man was her ex. Although only the man’s eyes were visible, and the St. Paul Police Department tweeted that the man was not their officer, to many viewers, it was proof enough that the property damage was being set off by white infiltrators and agitators, likely police.

In the days after the 3rd Precinct burned, a series of public officials inflamed the growing anxiety about outsiders. “I want to be very, very clear,” Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said at a press conference on May 30. “The people that are doing this are not Minneapolis residents. They are coming in largely from outside of this city, outside of the region, to prey on everything we have built over the last several decades.”

“Our best estimate right now that I heard is about 20 percent is what we think are Minnesotans and about 80 percent are outside,” Gov. Tim Walz added the same day, as he announced he would be mobilizing the National Guard. He added that he suspected that white supremacist groups and drug cartels might be taking advantage of the chaos.

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter went further, stating, “Every single person we arrested last night I’m told was from out of state.”

Blaming civil unrest on “outside agitators” is a tactic that has long been used to help state officials delegitimize dissent and justify violent crackdowns. Mayors and law enforcement leaders across the nation repeated the trope over the past two weeks as the protests spread. Carter and Walz were both forced to walk back their statements after reporting on jail records revealed that the majority of those arrested were from the Minneapolis area.

ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA -- Firefighters watch as flames devour a building on University Ave. and Syndicate St. in St. Paul's Midway neighborhood Thursday, May 28, 2020, following the Monday death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis. (John Autey / MediaNews Group / St. Paul Pioneer Press via Getty Images)

Firefighters watch as flames devour a building on University Ave. and Syndicate St. in St. Paul, Minnesota, on May 28, 2020.

Photo: John Autey/MediaNews Group/Getty Images

SG grew up not far from where George Floyd was killed, as did her mother. For three generations her family has experienced racism in Minneapolis firsthand. The 37-year-old’s grandfather was the longtime head of the local NAACP. He got involved in racial justice work after the local fire department refused to hire him despite ample qualifications, an incident that became part of a landmark lawsuit that integrated the department. SG’s brother was assaulted by police when he was 14. Her mother sued, but the jury acquitted the officer. The family was harassed by police supporters in the wake of the trial, and for that reason SG asked that The Intercept only use her initials.

“My pain is not at the people who burned those things down, it’s really and truly at the city of Minneapolis, that three generations in, all my family’s contributions to this city — it all meant nothing when it came to police violence,” SG said. “It seems ridiculous to think that the people here in Minneapolis would experience all of that and need someone from the outside to make them enraged enough to burn things down. It’s kind of offensive and disrespects all of the things we’ve been through.”

“It seems ridiculous to think that the people here in Minneapolis would experience all of that and need someone from the outside to make them enraged enough to burn things down.”

Although many residents underscored that there was real rage underlying much of the property damage in Minneapolis, they also emphasized that they had seen people show up who had little apparent connection to the Black Lives Matter movement. On the second night of widespread property damage, Niko Georgiades, a reporter for the nonprofit news organization Unicorn Riot, was livestreaming when he spotted a group of “nerdy” white guys standing off to the side. They looked out of place, and one was wearing a Hawaiian shirt. Georgiades was convinced they were members of the Boogaloo, whose adherents often wear Hawaiian shirts. “This is like the third group of strange white folks,” he narrates in the grainy footage. “It’s a reality — white folks that are not down for the cause are out here.” Raw Story and CNN also interviewed a member of the Boogaloo, who had traveled to Minneapolis from North Carolina to participate in the protests.

In fact, there is precedent for individuals associated with the right wing violently disrupting anti-police-brutality protests in Minneapolis. In 2015, Allen Scarsella, who had broadcast his white supremacist views in videos posted on 4chan, shot five protesters during an occupation of Minneapolis’s 4th Precinct organized in response to the police killing of Jamar Clark. And far-right extremists like the Boogaloo and Proud Boys have shown up at Black Lives Matter protests elsewhere in the country this year.

“We’ve been dealing with far right-wing and white supremacist groups terrorizing our community by burning down black-owned businesses,” Minneapolis City Councilmember Phillipe Cunningham said on June 3 in a virtual town hall with former President Barack Obama. Like numerous community members, Cunningham felt that the only way to deal with the threat of right-wing agitators was to get organized.

Everyone Is on Edge

In Powderhorn Park, not far from the site of Floyd’s murder, hundreds of people attended a community meeting the Saturday after the protests began. In addition to discussing mutual aid and rebuilding strategies, neighbors broke out into strategy groups block by block, to discuss how to protect themselves and their homes and businesses. Similar meetings took place in North Minneapolis, a historically black area, and in Longfellow, where the 3rd Precinct station is located. Much of the anxiety focused on far-right instigators.

“We’re under siege — or it feels like we’re under siege,” Nowacki said. “Everyone is on edge about any weird-looking white person.”

During the civil rights movement, black, Indigenous, and other people of color formed patrols to protect their communities. In North Minneapolis, black residents launched Soul Patrol in the wake of a riot in 1967, aiming to act as a buffer between law enforcement and community members. The American Indian Movement Patrol, born a few miles from where Floyd was murdered, was a response to routine police abuse and a sense that the city had abandoned Native community members. On a national level, the Black Panthers came together to prevent police brutality. They later began providing free food and other forms of mutual aid — approaches that have resurfaced in Minneapolis amid the protests.

If suspicious people or vehicles were spotted, the volunteers banged on pots and pans, and neighbors ran from their houses to help.

Another strain of watch group has ties to law enforcement. National Neighborhood Watch was founded in 1972 with a grant from the National Sheriffs’ Association, and in the decades that followed, its stickers showing a silhouette of a fedora and trenchcoat were plastered to windows throughout suburban America.

In August 2011, George Zimmerman called his local police department for support in setting up a neighborhood watch for his gated community. Six months later, he shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black 17-year-old wearing a hoodie and carrying Skittles. Martin’s murder and Zimmerman’s acquittal became a key moment in the growing movement for black lives.

More recently, apps like Nextdoor and Amazon Ring’s Neighbors have encouraged residents to post about or record people they deem suspicious. Ring shares the footage recorded by cameras installed in users’ homes with hundreds of police departments. Both companies have been accused of fueling racism.

Watch volunteers and organizers in Minneapolis interviewed by The Intercept see themselves in the first vein, as an alternative to police. Some groups are white-led, but others are primarily black, Native, or Latino. They overwhelmingly support the protests and in many cases marched in the streets themselves. Some are also vocal advocates of defunding the police.

In the days following Floyd’s murder, many saw city and county officials repeating the mistakes and inaction of the past, and some noted that the situation changed only after the police station burned. “I think it’s telling that there’s a causal relationship between the 3rd Precinct burning and Derek Chauvin getting arrested and charged,” said Jordan Peacock, who helped organize a neighborhood watch group in Lowry Hill East, a neighborhood that includes a part of Lake Street with substantial property damage. In the days that followed, he added, the use of tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters only added to residents’ frustrations. “There were many, many steps where this could have been dealt with in a healthy way.”

Some groups erected blockades on their streets so that drivers couldn’t pass by, and residents were on high alert for any car missing a license plate or with out-of-state plates. Reports proliferated on social media of hidden stashes of flammable materials, and communities swept alleys searching for out-of-place items, swapping stories in newly formed WhatsApp groups and Discord servers.

In Longfellow, residents stationed themselves with baseball bats and pots and pans at intervals: one person on the sidewalk of each block, and one in the alley. If suspicious people or vehicles were spotted, the volunteers banged on pots and pans, and neighbors ran from their houses to help.

The Lowry Hill East neighborhood group had to field a claim that one resident bashed another resident’s car with a hammer.

In some cases, individuals involved in the groups succeeded in scaring off suspicious characters. A resident of a South Minneapolis neighborhood miles from the protests described to The Intercept a confrontation with four white men in tactical gear wielding knives and a machete, who told him they were from the suburb of Burnsville. The community member declined to share his name, out of concern about retaliation from right-wing groups, but in a video showing part of the confrontation, one of the men holds a sign that says “Rome,” a reference sometimes used by right-wing groups to celebrate what they see as the origins of Western, white male culture. After one of them indicated that he might have a gun, the resident scared him off by pumping his shotgun.

There are risks involved with armed — or unarmed — civilians patrolling communities for outsiders. In some cases, residents have disagreed on who qualified as suspicious. Some people wanted to stop every vehicle, said Doug Mack, one of the Longfellow volunteers. “I am concerned that some of the neighbors will view themselves as heroes when they’re actually disrupting people’s lives and harassing people who are just out walking the dog from a couple blocks over, or who are genuinely trying to leave town and just happen to have Wisconsin plates.”

On the other side of Interstate 35W, in the Lowry Hill East neighborhood, organizers have tried to keep rumors and anxiety in check. They created a channel labeled “unconfirmed reports” for events that people had not witnessed firsthand. They also began insisting that residents collect two suspicious data points before reporting an incident, for example, a car with the plates removed that also had an “All Lives Matter” bumper sticker.

Miski Noor, an organizer for Black Visions Collective, which has led the call to defund the police, views the defense groups in their neighborhood as a positive development. “I live a couple blocks from the George Floyd memorial. Every day, it’s like a block party — there’s someone barbecuing and making free food, there’s people making art, there’s a jazz band. I don’t think there’s this cloud of overly suspiciousness,” Noor said. “I don’t think there’s these two contending sides. There’s community, and they’re thinking about how to keep each other safe.”

Now that the Minneapolis City Council has vowed to disband the police department, Peacock hopes that the groups can provide alternative forms of mediation, without involving the authorities. “What precisely that looks like and how do we do that in a responsible way — that’s the discussion,” Peacock said.

In the virtual town hall, Cunningham mentioned a similar intention. “We’ve come together and protected our own community, and now it’s time to systematize community-led safety strategies and make them sustainable.”

The Work Is Just Beginning

Despite his encounter with the Boogaloo, Georgiades is skeptical of the paranoia that swept like wildfire through Minneapolis. To him, the man with the umbrella flagged as a provocateur is case in point. “He was not the police,” the Unicorn Riot reporter said. “I’m 100 percent sure.” Georgiades said he’d verified through trusted contacts that the man opposes racism and has strong links to the Twin Cities community. He declined to elaborate further, citing the efforts police are currently undertaking to identify those who destroyed property. On Monday, with the rumor still being spread as proof of police infiltration, the St. Paul police released surveillance footage that they said shows the officer alleged to be the umbrella man loading equipment into a vehicle at the same time that the AutoZone windows were being smashed.

On the first couple nights of the protests, as Georgiades filmed the 3rd Precinct burning and the Target being looted, he didn’t feel like he was witnessing the work of white supremacists or provocateurs. “I interpreted it as coming from regular, mainstream youth that are sick of police killing them,” he said, adding that the collective rage simply overwhelmed community members who were attempting to prevent people from damaging property. “That was not white kids from the suburbs, or from Indiana, or the police — that was the kids that live here, that were not a part of an organization.”

“We don’t feel a sense of relief or that things are over. The work that’s ahead for us is literally just beginning.”

He acknowledged that later in the week, the air on the streets had changed, and there were more strange faces. “People are uptight for reasons. I get it — your whole neighborhood is burning down, you don’t want your shit burned down, but at the same time, it’s this mentality and mind frame that pushed the paranoia way further than it should have,” Georgiades said. Despite its efforts to tamp down on paranoia, the Lowry Hill East neighborhood group has had to field a claim that one resident bashed another resident’s car with a hammer.

SG also didn’t take much comfort in the creation of community defense groups. “While I do appreciate and think that people should protect their own neighborhoods, a lot of the same white micro-aggressions that are used daily in Minneapolis have been used in their so-called patrolling,” SG said. “Even if they’re reporting white people, they’re using that same lens to keep the bad people out. It’s the same thing that pushed people to feel like they weren’t a part of this city in the first place.”

For some in the local black community, SG said, “We don’t feel a sense of relief or that things are over. The work that’s ahead for us is literally just beginning.”

Williams, the police abolitionist, agreed that there is more work to be done. “I think these groups are being born out of a desire by neighbors to keep each other safe, and that’s beautiful and amazing and absolutely the foundation we need to build an abolitionist future,” said Williams. But what gives him hope more than anything is the mutual aid efforts that tackle safety at its roots. He pointed to activists who commandeered the Sheraton hotel and transformed it into the “Sanctuary Hotel,” a massive mutual aid station that housed more than 200 homeless community members, some of whom had been evicted from encampments as the city responded to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“My greatest hope is that we can create a police-free city, and one that’s safer and less racist and more beautiful than the one we have now,” Williams said. “One where everybody’s needs are met and where everybody feels like they have control over what safety looks like in their community.”

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