Amid massive security presence, Minneapolis is turning to grassroots to keep the peace

Plans include partnerships with community groups and social media influencers

By: - February 26, 2021 6:00 am

A worker ties barbed wire to the top of a fence fortification around the Minneapolis City Hall and Hennepin County Government Center on Feb. 24, 2021, in preparation for the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin, charged with the death of George Floyd. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

The area around the downtown Minneapolis courthouse where Derek Chauvin will soon go on trial for the murder of George Floyd is gradually taking on the look of military occupation. Concrete barriers, boarded-up windows and barbed wire clad the buildings. A security force of 2,000 National Guard troops and 1,100 outstate police officers will soon be on patrol. 

But the city is also turning to what political scientists would call “soft power,” enlisting the aid of grassroots organizations and even social media influencers to disseminate factual information and diffuse what some fear will be a combustible event in the life of the city. 

“This has been traumatic, what we’ve lived through this year,” City Council Member Steve Fletcher said. “And I think the likelihood that our justice process adds to that trauma seems high, so we need to prepare ourselves for that.”

Before he was elected to the council, Fletcher was out in the streets organizing protests, training protesters, serving as protest marshal — all of it.

Now that he’s part of the government, he’s trying to use his protest experience to help residents through the trial. 

Fletcher said this isn’t something you can do by signing executive orders or putting a line in the budget for “community relationship building.”

“It’s a process,” he said. “It’s a lot of people talking to a lot of people.”

The city plans to share information on the ground and online and get input from the public through community members who meet regularly; create safety toolkits for residents and community groups’ and form a “community information network,” including partnerships with media that reach under-represented communities that don’t rely on mainstream media for news.

After Floyd died under Chauvin’s knee, protests turned violent, and more than 1,000 properties were damaged, burned or destroyed. Police officers were ordered to abandon the Third Precinct police station, which rioters set on fire. Firefighters were unable to respond to fires and police couldn’t get to all the 911 calls during the unrest.

And while much of the focus has been on the police and military plans for the trial, other work is being done to brace the city for the trauma to come.

Social media influencers to help dispel disinformation

The city plan includes paid partnerships with “trusted messengers” with a large social media presence to share “city-generated and approved messages” and dispel misinformation. The budget for the social media influencers is $12,000, with each paid $2,000 to share information during the upcoming trials, according to city spokeswoman Sarah McKenzie.

The city is finalizing contracts with six social media influencers to share messages with the African American, American Indian, East African, Hmong and Latino/a/x communities, she said.

The city has also expanded its cultural radio programs — on KMOJ, WIXK, KALY and La Raza, which reach the African American/Black, Hmong, Somali and Latino/a/x communities — by going from bimonthly or monthly programs to weekly programs.

The city is also using “trusted community messengers” to translate trial-related information.

The total budget for this work is $69,500.

Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo (left) and Mayor Jacob Frey listen to City Council Member Jamal Osman during a news conference on Feb. 17, 2021, about the city’s preparations for the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

The city also plans to invite community organizations to apply for contracts of up to $175,000 through the city’s Office of Violence Prevention, creating a network that can be activated during heightened tension for the rest of the year, not just the upcoming trials. They will not provide law enforcement, but “conduct proactive and responsive community engagement” and share accurate information and resources. The focus will be on groups that are “culturally responsive,” and have “existing credibility and reach within communities.” More than $1 million is budgeted for this.

The City Council voted 13-0 Friday, without debate, to authorize these contracts with social media influencers and community groups.*

Despite all that, Minneapolis City Council President Lisa Bender said during a Wednesday committee meeting that the city has focused too much on policing.

“I am concerned that so much of the emphasis has been put on law enforcement and so little planning has come from the city itself in terms of planning for what reaction our community may have to the results of the trial,” she said.

She credited volunteers, neighborhood organizations and business associations for working to support communities through potential suffering.

One of those is the nonprofit community law firm, the Legal Rights Center, which is working with the NAACP and law schools to provide accurate information about the legal system before and during the trials.

Executive Director Sarah Davis said with the trial being livestreamed, a lot of people will be watching who don’t typically have that kind of front-row seat, and it’s not going to be like trials you see on TV. So her firm will help people understand what they’re seeing, and is working with schools because young people will be watching and absorbing everything, too.

Their lawyers will help the public understand the criminal justice system, teaching things like the difference between “probable cause” to charge somebody versus “proof beyond reasonable doubt,” which is needed for a conviction; the elements of the alleged offenses; what a jury is.

“Regardless of the outcome of this trial — certainly a conviction is a step toward justice — but the outcome of this trial is not the totality in this situation,” Davis said.

They anticipate ongoing demonstrations and protests throughout the trial and will support protesters again with a 24-hour legal support hotline while educating people on how to safely exercise their rights to protest.

“Even armed with the best possible information, we can’t ensure people’s safety, but we want to make sure people have access to that information,” she said.

On Wednesday, the firm hosted a community forum on “perspectives on justice,” and during the trial they plan to hold live “ask-an-attorney” sessions.

City officials plan regular briefings to keep the public abreast of trial-related preparations and responses and combat misinformation.

Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said during the first one last week that the city has been planning its response for eight months, and he has been talking to people around the city for several months.

“Communication is key to de-escalation,” he said. “Communication is key to making sure our communities are educated and aware of these plans.”

Some activists say they haven’t heard a thing

But a spokesperson for a coalition of 17 activist and community groups said Thursday they haven’t heard from city officials at all as they make plans to protest, no matter how many barricades the city puts in their way. Groups including Black Lives Matter, Racial Justice Network and the NAACP decried the city’s beefed-up security and plans to bring in soldiers and extra police.

Michelle Gross, founder of Communities United Against Police Brutality, said none of them have heard “a damn thing” from the city. 

Only Nekima Levy Armstrong of the Racial Justice Network said she’d heard anything, when the mayor called her last week after holding a press briefing on security plans and asked her thoughts. She told him other agencies coming in to help police during protests need direction.

Fletcher wants to avoid the need for the National Guard, or having police use the kind of crowd control employed last summer, with liberal use of chemical agents and less lethal bullets that injured protesters and journalists.

“I think there’s a real awareness that justice is denied in many cases like this and I think people are preparing themselves for an outcome that might be painful. Or a process that might feel painful even if the outcome is something like justice,” Fletcher said. “I think that figuring out how to support each other through that as a city is kind of the work ahead, and I’m hopeful that we can do more of that on the front end and rely less on riot shields on the back end.”

* This story was updated to reflect council action Friday.

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs.