MINNEAPOLIS – The alert flashed across every cellphone in the city when the first curfew after George Floyd’s killing began. A text, in all caps, was accompanied by a deep, repeating buzz.
When the phones rumbled, Margarita Ortega was helping neighbors in the South Minneapolis community of Little Earth move roadblocks they’d borrowed from construction sites, positioning them in the intersections surrounding the neighborhood. She shuddered, reminded of a 2013 movie depicting an American dystopia in which all violence, including murder, was made legal for one night each year.
“It was just like ‘The Purge’ sound,” Ortega, 31, said. “I remember saying, ‘I hope people don’t take that sound as a reason to start purging.’ Why would they play that sound today, of all days?”
That night last year, as protests broke out across the city, there were no police in Ortega’s neighborhood, and so, the Little Earth Protectors were born. The community protection force of more than 80 members was shot at by looters, but no one was hurt, and every building in the government-subsidized, predominantly Native American community of more than 1,000 residents remained untouched. A different kind of purge took shape in the minds of Ortega and her fellow Protectors.
“I’ve always felt we’ve never really needed the police,” Ortega said. “Those first nights confirmed that for me.”
The Protectors are one of several neighborhood public safety groups that emerged here in the days and weeks after the city was rocked by protests that followed Floyd’s death in police custody on May 25. Many of the groups continued operating throughout the summer and early fall, and they are ramping up again as Minneapolis braces for the end of former police officer Derek Chauvin’s trial on charges of murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death, and beyond that, the inevitable warm-weather spike in crime.
Their successes may inspire other American communities that are seeking alternatives to traditional policing. On the other hand, their failures could empower those fighting for the status quo or for more-moderate change.
Ortega belongs in the former group. By night, she walks the neighborhood with the Protectors, a Glock pistol on her hip. By day, she’s running for the Minneapolis City Council as an advocate for radical police reform in a city primed as few others are for sweeping changes in policing.
“What I hear from residents is that the police don’t care. And they don’t show respect. And they’re limited in what they provide,” Ortega said. “If you’re dealing with a mental health issue, or a domestic issue, they can’t really do much but take people to jail. That’s all they’re trained for. I want to see a public-safety system that is controlled and driven by the community.”
The mayor’s office said its goal is to empower community groups to work with police, not apart from them. Last Friday it announced a partnership with seven community patrol groups that will receive “roughly $1 million” in funding to cover large swaths of the city should the Chauvin trial verdict illicit a violent response. (Ortega’s group is small in comparison with the seven organizations and is not included in the project). Mayor Jacob Frey said he hopes the groups can supplement law enforcement efforts to quell riots.
“There has been quite a bit of trust broken between our police and the communities they serve, and this helps to create another line of communication that is very much needed,” Frey said. “Many of these organizations have really strong contacts and ties on the ground with individuals that could cause crime or violence. We want to make sure we have contacts with friends and family members of these individuals so we can stop the violence before it starts.”
It’s the kind of work the Little Earth Protectors have been doing since May, when the city’s 3rd Precinct was abandoned by authorities and burned by rioters. The National Guard was called in, a curfew was imposed, and residents were told that if they called the police, there was a chance no help would arrive.
The day after the first night of rioting, Ortega and other community leaders called a meeting in the neighborhood park. They stood in a circle of about 40 men, women and teenagers, as they’d done numerous times before to discuss community issues, but this time was different: Gang leaders were invited. Rival gang factions had made Little Earth one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Minneapolis, but a bigger threat was emerging that night in May. Rioting threatened to touch homes and destroy community lifelines, including the nearest grocery store. Ortega wanted to organize a community patrol, and she wanted assurances that there would be no gang violence with the threat of outside violence looming.
“The gang leaders each wanted a cease-fire from the other side,” Ortega said. “They wanted to know that we were all in this together.”
The sides agreed to a truce. Community elders were asked to encourage their children and grandchildren to stay indoors. The Protectors patrolled the streets. Ortega, then a policy adviser for a city council member, was arrested on the first night along with a handful of her colleagues for breaking curfew. The charges were later dropped.
As the protests subsided days later, the Protectors rode the momentum. They made black T-shirts and hoodies emblazoned with the new group’s name and logo and wore them on patrol. They bought radios and stayed in constant communication with a Little Earth security officer monitoring dozens of security cameras throughout the community. They stood on established drug corners and pushed trade out of the neighborhood, discouraged parking lot prostitution and monitored police activity. Local hospitals donated Naloxone, the opioid-overdose remedy administered via syringe, and the Protectors became paramedics in practice.
While the 3rd Precinct struggled to regain its footing – its ranks decimated by retirements, transfers and low morale – the Protectors expanded their influence, mediating domestic disputes and teenage fistfights that otherwise would have brought police. Women in their 50s and 60s stood in the center of the community to discourage gang traffic on a footbridge that was a magnet for it. They set a curfew: 10 p.m. for children, 11 p.m. for teenagers. By 11:15 p.m. each night the Protectors stood watch; the bridge was clear.
“The cops asked how we did it. We just went and stood under the bridge and the kids respected that,” said Jacki Nadeau, 56. “And we fed them dinner. The Protectors are on scene all the time. The police just sit around in their cars, waiting for something bad to happen.”
“Under the direction of Chief Medaria Arradondo, one of the pillars of the Minneapolis Police Department has been community engagement,” said Minneapolis police spokesman John Elder. “Unfortunately, with budget cuts and staff reductions, our mission has become more mono-focused, and these staff members have been reallocated to 911 response and investigations.
“It is only natural that the community will see us in the lens of what our current service capacity dictates,” Elder said. “The men and women of the MPD continue to work with our communities as time allows as we realize the importance of these positive relationships.”
One Protector was shot and wounded in the buttocks in June by a man frustrated with roadblocks intended to disrupt drug trafficking. The male victim survived and the shooter escaped. Just two of the Protectors, Ortega and a man, carry firearms. The rest are unarmed.
“When the Protectors are around, crime is reduced. They know who’s supposed to be here and who’s not supposed to be here, so that helps in terms of curbing the outside influences,” said Dave, the community dispatcher who monitors 77 active cameras positioned throughout the community. (He declined to give his last name because he is not authorized to speak to the media.)
Dave said he thinks the Protectors are fighting a war they can’t win. Between Floyd’s death on May 25 and Aug. 1 — the most violent months of the year according to Minneapolis police violent crime data — 183 shooting incidents were caught on camera in Little Earth, he said.
“It’s dangerous, but they keep coming back out,” Dave said. “If they want to do it, it’s admirable, but they’re bringing stones to a gunfight.”
Elsewhere in the city, similar work is being done by seven larger groups: A Mother’s Love; Center for Multicultural Mediation; NACDI (Native American Community Development Institute); Corcoran Neighborhood Organization and T.O.U.C.H. Outreach; C.E.O. (Change Equals Opportunity); Restoration Inc.; and We Push for Peace.
Trahern Pollard, the founder of We Push for Peace, describes as too late the effort to involve community organizations in preparations for potential unrest after a verdict in the Chauvin trial.
“In the next week or so, we’ll be able to be somewhat impactful, but this should’ve happened a whole lot sooner,” Pollard said. “I’ve had many a conversation, and I feel like Minneapolis is in a no-win situation. If society doesn’t get what they want – which is an all-out conviction on all charges and 99 years in prison – they’re not going to be satisfied. And then, ‘Boom!’ But we’ll be as prepared as we can be.”
The city is requiring the seven groups to have liability insurance. Their members do not have arrest powers; the city is asking patrollers to stay in constant communication with police and to call them when situations escalate beyond their control. The partnerships announced April 8 amount to a pilot program, with plans to expand to smaller, hyperlocal groups such as the Protectors if things go well this summer.
“Community members have been doing these things for an eternity,” said Sasha Cotton, the city’s director of violence prevention, who is leading the program. “They’ve always been on the front lines of keeping people safe. We’re trying to institutionalize that and providing the training and tools to do that job well.”
The city also would like to strengthen weak connections between Minneapolis’s poorest communities and police, and build connections where none exist.
In 2015, Little Earth received the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant from the Department of Justice. The money went toward funding community safety efforts, studying the relationship between the neighborhood and police, and strengthening that relationship. Surveys conducted in 2019 and 2020 by Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., as part of the grant provide a window into a deep division between the police and those they were hired to protect and serve in one Minneapolis community.
According to a copy of survey results obtained by The Washington Post, when the police who patrolled Little Earth were asked whether they thought adults in the community make sure children are safe, 25.9% said yes; 82% of residents said yes. Seventy-three percent of community members said they thought residents were actively working to improve the safety of their neighborhood; 33% of officers agreed. More than 94% of officers said Little Earth residents should be concerned about being robbed or assaulted when outside their homes, compared with 49% of residents who thought the same.
Two-thirds of officers said they had not been to Little Earth for any reason besides responding a crime report in the previous two months, and the survey found that attitudes about the dangers in the community softened among officers who had visited for other reasons.
The survey also found just 39% of residents thought police provided people in their community with fair outcomes, 35% thought the police were honest, and 39% thought the police treated Little Earth residents with respect.
“There were very few areas where you saw the community answering identical to the police, and you don’t begin to see any sort of agreement until officers begin to visit the community for reasons other than crime,” said Shelly Schaefer, a co-author of the survey and an associate professor of criminology in Hamline’s Department of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences. “I think that’s particularly important to note as we have this push toward officer training tailored to community needs.”
The grant helped, Little Earth community leaders said. They said they saw a handful of police officers making a greater effort to connect with the neighborhood when they were not responding to calls. The biggest impact, however, resulted from the neighborhood’s emotional investment in community safety programs, which eventually evolved into the Protectors when the officers at the 3rd Precinct withdrew.
“Without that grant, and the buy-in we got from people who were really interested in making the community safer, I don’t think we’re able to make the Protectors happen,” Ortega said.
After a two-month winter hiatus, the Protectors are back. Around 9 p.m. several nights a week, mostly on weekends, 20 or more men and women ranging from teenagers to seniors stand in a circle in silence by the footbridge. They light sage and “smudge,” waving the burning herb across their bodies to ward off negative emotions and cleanse their minds. They stick pieces of cedar leaves in their shoes for good fortune. Then they’re off to walk Little Earth.
They plan to be ready, should events turn violent after the Chauvin verdict.
Said Nadeau: “If it happens again, and people try to burn down this city, we’ll be ready.”