‘Resurgence of the neighborhood watch’

Residents look to protect each other during unrest

Harriet barricade

On May 29, as small groups of rioters and opportunistic looters brought chaos to the neighborhoods around the 5th Precinct protest, residents on nearby Harriet Avenue noticed a group of people gathering trash cans from homes. Suddenly, the garbage bins went up in flames, people were running everywhere and there was no help in sight.

“The police were not coming,” said resident D’Andre Johnson.

Every night since, as darkness begins to fall, a group of neighbors living on the 3000 block of Harriet Avenue have put up makeshift barriers using old traffic signs at 31st & Lake to deter people from driving up their block. It’s a move they say is necessary when law enforcement is not responding quickly to incidents of violence and destruction that have stemmed off from demonstrations across the city since George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police on May 25.

“You could almost call it the resurgence of the neighborhood watch,” Johnson said.

Across Southwest Minneapolis, residents have taken an active role in defending their neighborhoods from destruction in the unrest that has arisen since Floyd was killed. Whether standing guard on corners, imposing makeshift barriers or communicating potential threats via text chains or digital servers, residents are trying to keep safe.

A key to safety strategy is communicating, residents say. Speaking with neighbors about any actions or communicating any real or perceived threats in a clear way is important. On Harriet Avenue, residents had a block meeting and have been communicating via a text thread.

“People need to talk to their neighbors,” said Chris Wylie, a Harriet Avenue resident who has been involved with the barricade efforts.

That’s true for larger, more formal efforts, too. In the Wedge, the Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association (LHENA) set up a communication network via a server on Discord, a communication app commonly used by video game players, that has various channels where neighbors can post about real or perceived threats that can be quickly confirmed or debunked.

“There are people up all night with eyes on the street watching out for each other,” said Alicia Gibson, LHENA’s board president.

Within 48 hours of The Wedge launching its communication server, more than 700 resi-[4dents had signed up, Gibson said.

To discourage looting or other destruction in neighborhoods across Minneapolis, residents have taken it upon themselves to provide security.

“If you’re not watching your store, it will get looted,” said Mahad Osman, who works at 36 Lyn Refuel Station in Lyndale.

The popular gas station experienced some looting on May 29, when a group of teenagers stole mostly tobacco products, and since has had a group of about 20 people taking turns watching the store and the entire 36th
& Lyndale corner at night, Osman said. The watchers take turns walking around the corner in groups of four and communicate via walkie talkies. Seeing people take advantage of the protests to do damage to local, black-owned businesses has been sad for Osman.

“It’s ridiculous,” he said.

Yin Muangmode, general manager of Amazing Thailand, said she and two others stayed at the restaurant for four straight nights during the worst of the chaos, keeping watch on the doors and chasing away several would-be looters. The scariest incident, she said, was when armed looters tried to break the plywood covering their windows to enter the restaurant.

“We actually pushed out the door and asked them, ‘Please don’t’ many times until they [were gone],” she said.

Three rocks that were thrown into the restaurant window now sit at the front counter. At Pimento Jamaican Kitchen in Whittier, the popular restaurant and rum bar has converted itself into a donation drop-off and distribution site. The restaurant posted on social media that it had received reports it would be a target for people looking to wreak havoc in the area but has had volunteers staying at the restaurant at night to deter any potential attacks.

“Pimento is safe, and the community won’t let it be any other way,” said Scott McDonald, a Pimento worker who has been helping lead relief efforts.

Fires and fear

In the week of unrest, there have been reports of caches of fire accelerants and heavy objects like bricks, stones and wood throughout Southwest Minneapolis. The city sent out a message asking people to check for such stashes, though Minneapolis Police spokesperson John Elder said he did not have a number of such instances to share.

Jared Drahonovsky lives in an apartment between James and Irving on Lagoon Avenue.

A little after 11 p.m. on Sunday, May 31, he said, a neighbor knocked on his door and told him that she’d just watched three men moving jugs from a truck into dumpsters in the alley behind their building. She didn’t get a good look at the men, she told him, but they were wearing hoodies and at least two were white.

Drahonovsky went outside and found about seven or eight gas cans, oil cans, and other jugs — partially full of liquid — spread out between two dumpsters and three recycling bins. He and his neighbors helped spray down the dumpsters with water and took the jugs indoors for the night. He said two of his neighbors called the police, but no officers were dispatched.

“I stayed up to 3:30 or 4 in the morning, sort of standing watch to make sure they didn’t come back,” Drahonovsky said.

In the Lyndale neighborhood, Johnson and Wylie said they found plastic water bottles filled with petroleum behind their alley on Harriet Avenue the weekend of May 30.

Gibson said she knows of no confirmed cases of such flammable liquid stashes in The Wedge, but a neighbor did find random blocks of wood in bushes.

“People have found strange things,” she said.

About 100 business fires have been reported in Minneapolis since the unrest began, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Other fires have been reported, including a June 2 car fire at the Lyndale Community School parking lot at 34th & Pillsbury and an attempted fire at a residential building that hosts Boiler Room Coffee at 18th & 3rd on June 1, both of which are being investigated as arsons, according to Minneapolis Fire assistant chief Bryan Tyner. With the department responding to so many fires in the past week, Tyner said MFD does not have a definitive number of suspected arsons the department has responded to at this point.

“It’s a pretty heavy lift right now,” Tyner said.

Separating fact from fiction

The Wedge has someone monitoring the server at all times to sift through any disinformation and distinguish fact from rumor, Gibson said. The group has instructed participants not to racially profile people and to take care to only post issues they see firsthand. The server has several channels, including lines for fire and medical relief and a designated area for people to post unverified reports of suspicious actions or vehicles that others can work to confirm or debunk. In one channel, dubbed “Don’t Panic,” residents can tell the group if they are going out in the street and give a self-description.

In the days of unrest following Floyd’s death, the community has been put on edge by credible reports of cars speeding up and down residential streets with their lights off and license plates being removed. As a result, residents have been examining cars with out-of-state license plates with suspicion. But in high renter neighborhoods like the Wedge, where people are constantly moving in from other states, that fear can be misplaced, Gibson said. A member of the group chat who moved from Virginia a few months back posted to let people know it was their vehicle parked in the Liquor Lyle’s lot; some new neighbors from Canada told people not to be alarmed by their Ontario plates on Bryant Avenue. On June 1, a rumor that Molotov cocktails were being thrown was quickly debunked, Gibson said.

“We’re going to be dropping out anybody who is fearmongering or spreading false information,” Gibson said.

LHENA is also using the mutual aid infrastructure it established in response to the coronavirus pandemic to funnel help and resources to people in need during the crisis. The neighborhood group is looking to form a new committee that will create a sort of neighborhood watch focused on community-based safety alternatives to policing, she said.

Zac Farber and Nate Gotlieb contributed reporting to this story.