Street Outreach Teams Get Caught Between Protesters, Police
A protester holds a sign reading, "defund police," outside Hennepin County Government Plaza during a demonstration against police brutality and racism on August 24, 2020, in Minneapolis. (Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images)
Jamil Jackson’s Freedom Fighters aim to defend the community from harm, whether it comes from police or members of the public. But as co-founder of the grassroots security unit formed in Minneapolis, Jackson has seen problems arise when police brutality protesters draw battle lines and demand they pick a side.
“Our job is not to get mad or upset or use our emotions when people are yelling and screaming at us,” said Jackson, also a high school basketball coach and founder of the youth mentoring group Change Equals Opportunity. “If they took the time to have a conversation with us, they wouldn’t be saying the same things that they were saying.”
For years, groups like his were known as “boots on the ground” because they sprang from the community to work with those most affected by gun violence. But recently such street peacekeepers have come under fire from protesters, as cities increasingly contract with the groups to provide an alternative response to rising crime amid the defund police movement. Some activists are calling them “bootlickers” and more racist variations of “sellout.”
One anti-police group put out a “Field Guide to Twin Cities Collaborators” urging protesters to beware of community patrols “that act like police, only minus the badge and uniform.”
As leaders explore new ways to provide public safety, the pushback is raising questions about the role of street outreach groups.
Neighbors at odds
Minneapolis City Council Member Phillipe Cunningham, lead architect of the council’s efforts to replace the Police Department with a new Department of Public Safety, complained during a recent council meeting that street teams were overstepping bounds.
The sticking point was a $359,000 contract for the Agape Movement, a south Minneapolis organization providing security in lieu of police at the closed 38th Street and Chicago Avenue intersection known as George Floyd Square. Agape is made up of Black men, including ex-gang members of the Central neighborhoods. When city workers cleared barricades to reopen the intersection last month, they stood guard.
“Violence interrupters should not be used as protest strike teams, they should not be used for crowd management at protests, they should not be doing funeral security,” Cunningham said, warning that the tasks would cost the groups their credibility. “The Office of Violence Prevention is meant to be the place in our city enterprise that operationalizes the public health approach to public safety. It is not meant to be a wholesale replacement to whatever MPD doesn’t want to do.”
Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins, whose ward includes George Floyd Square, said she supported Agape because her constituents largely wanted the zone reopened without a violent confrontation between police and protesters, and they were the ones who stepped “in the line of fire” to do it on behalf of residents and Black business owners who said they were suffering under the occupation.
“We can’t continue to denigrate these public groups that are coming forward to help provide alternatives for public safety, which is exactly what community members have been asking for Minneapolis,” Jenkins said in an interview.
Protesters who once viewed Agape as allies soon turned on the group, calling its members snitches and state agents. Twitter activists falsely accused them of destroying the George Floyd memorial and hosing away protest murals. They also alleged Agape members were rude and rough with activists who fought to keep 38th and Chicago a gated community.
“We have a right to protect our neighborhood and not let people come in and take over it,” said Agape co-founder Steve Floyd. He admitted that members sometimes respond in kind when confronted with anger, but said he doesn’t condone it and apologizes for it as much as he can.
“We work with ex-gang members. In certain situations [the way] they say things, they respond to things, it isn’t appropriate, and we jump on it right away,” Floyd said. “People just can’t see what we’re working with, how hard and difficult it is to transform guys that haven’t had a formal education.”
Floyd believes Minneapolis must have gang buy-in of the mission to reduce violence, and the best way the city could help is by giving young men economic alternatives.
‘Moms and dads’
There are many groups working in Minneapolis with the same philosophy but slightly different specializations, resolving conflicts in schools, patrolling neighborhoods, giving resources to mothers at the scenes of homicides. Some attend hospital vigils and funerals at the request of families concerned those gatherings could attract more gunfire.
“These are groups that have been doing this work before money was even on the table,” said Sasha Cotton, director of Minneapolis’ two-year-old Office of Violence Prevention, which dispenses contracts to street outreach teams that “bridge the gap” between police and the public. “These are moms and dads and coaches and people who felt a severe conviction to give back to their community and what you’ll often hear, particularly from some of the folks who have been a part of that gang lifestyle is, ‘I contributed to making these streets unsafe as a young person, and now I want to contribute to making it safe.'”
But she’s familiar with the new activist slogan, “If you work with the city you’re a [expletive] piggy.”
“If their desired outcome is just no government, I don’t know what to tell people,” Cotton said. “I would love to work myself out of a job because we live in a peaceful utopia. … Right now that’s just not where we are.”
Lisa Clemons of A Mother’s Love, a group whose members have lost children to violence and incarceration, also receives a large share of protesters’ ire because she’s a former Minneapolis police officer who stays in touch with other cops.
“I’m proud of that,” said Clemons, whose prolific Facebook posts espouse how police need to be part of the “village” that comes together to fight gun violence — an odious opinion to protesters bent on abolishing police altogether.
“You’re a nonfactor in this fight if I don’t see you standing next to me out here when these mothers are on their knees crying over their babies’ dead bodies,” she said of her detractors. “If I have never seen you, your opinion don’t matter to me.”
On the front lines
Trahern Pollard of We Push for Peace runs a workforce training center for underprivileged youth in Uptown. When sheriff’s deputies with a U.S. marshals task force shot and killed Winston Smith at the top of the Seven Points parking ramp last month, protesters flocked to his neighborhood, where some barricaded streets and left graffiti on buildings with threatening messages such as “Kill cops.”
Each time law enforcement kills a Black person under disputed circumstances, it sets We Push for Peace back in its efforts to bridge the deepening divide between law enforcement and community, Pollard said. Caught in the middle, his street team is increasingly criticized for trying to prevent violence and vandalism.
“You’re dealing with a lot of hurt young men and women who are sick and tired of being sick and tired,” Pollard said. “I was explaining to one of the young men, ‘Our tax dollars are paying for overtime for law enforcement. You’re saying you don’t want law enforcement, so when they hire community organizations to be able to deal with you and try to provide some opportunities for you, you mean to tell me you got a problem with that, too?’ ”
Conversation, even amid chaos, can defuse tensions, Pollard said. But it’s less effective with those who believe destruction is a justifiable means of bettering the world.
In that case, Pollard said he’s confident his street team, made up of men and women with prison experience, won’t be easily intimidated.
This story is part of a collaboration with the Star Tribune through FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.