A member of the Minnesota Freedom Fighters stands among the demonstrators in front of the Brooklyn Center police station on April 15, 2021. Photo by Kerem Yücel/Minnesota Reformer.
On his first day on the job as acting city manager for Brooklyn Center, Reggie Edwards knew he needed help.
He took over two days into protests that threatened to devolve into riots over the April 11 police shooting death of Daunte Wright.
“We knew we could not do this without community,” he said.
During early protests, police in riot gear lined up behind a fence surrounding the police station — helmeted, batons in hand — as protesters pressed in from the other side.
“We were at that point where we had 1,000-plus protesters, we had shoulder-to-shoulder law enforcement in riot gear and fencing with a foot or so in between, and it was simply a powder keg for something to go wrong,” Edwards said.
He asked what he calls “community and protest organizers” to meet with city officials and police to figure out how to keep people on both sides of the fence safe and prevent the police station from burning and businesses from being looted. They contracted with six community groups to help keep protests peaceful: the Minnesota Freedom Fighters, We Push for Peace, New Salem Missionary Baptist Church, A Mothers Love, WW Protection and Second Chance.
Edwards calls them “interveners” because they literally get between protesters and police.
During a time of turbulent protests, cities including Brooklyn Center and Minneapolis are increasingly looking to new ways to keep the peace. Although the groups are not affiliated with the city or the police department, some activists still reject them for being too cozy with authorities.
These ad hoc alliances will likely continue as cities face protests and high-profile trials of police officers accused of brutality.
The effort isn’t cheap — Brooklyn Center spent $140,000 while Minneapolis is spending $1 million this year — but city officials say it’s money well spent if it de-escalates tense demonstrations.
During the Wright protests, the outside groups agreed to work with the city for 10 days, with daily meetings to talk about how protests were handled the night before, with the ultimate goal to allow people to “lift their voices and voice their pain,” Edwards said.
Jamil Jackson, commander of the Freedom Fighters, said when Brooklyn Center officials asked for advice on how to make the protests safer, he told them, “You guys gotta own this. One of your own did this.”
“There are tactics that the police use that are brutal and we gotta get away from it,” Jackson said.
The Freedom Fighters made their presence known at the protests. Wearing mostly black clothing and protective vests that say “Freedom Fighters” on the chest, they got in the faces of protesters who tried to tear down or cut fencing or throw things at police.
The group of about two dozen predominantly Black men formed after the NAACP put a call out for help guarding small businesses after George Floyd’s killing last year ignited riots and looting across the Twin Cities. Their patrols of businesses expanded to neighborhoods and then protests. Normally they’re well-armed with licensed firearms, but Edwards said they weren’t armed at the Brooklyn Center protests.
The interveners aren’t authorized to arrest people, but “can use some type of force” to stop agitators, Edwards said. Meanwhile the women in A Mothers Love provided food, water and nurturing farther away from the action.
Police would see a bevy of umbrellas in the crowd, and wonder if protesters were stockpiling rocks or trying to protect themselves from munitions. Then if one person threw a brick at the cops, they would respond with rubber bullets and pepper spray.
Once the interveners were in the mix, they would communicate with law enforcement — telling them to stand down because nobody was doing anything nefarious behind the umbrellas — and then go address the brick-thrower.
“It worked out fantastic,” Edwards said, “and it allowed the city to… have peaceful protesting in a manner that we would have never had.”
Gov. Tim Walz credited the community groups for de-escalating tensions in Brooklyn Center.
“Something else that was incredibly helpful: community. Community activists stood there and said, ‘Don’t throw a brick, but by all means, yell and say we need change. And Daunte Wright needs justice,’” Walz said in an interview on Reformer Radio.
Many demonstrators and neighbors disagree, citing tear gas, violent clashes and arrests that belie the sunnier official outlook.
And, the cooperation and coordination with law enforcement irked some activists, who called them “pigs” and “informants.” Some demonstrators tried to get the Freedom Fighters to leave the Brooklyn Center protest.
In one confrontation captured on social media, Freedom Fighters and protesters faced off, with a Freedom Fighter saying he was there to protect the community, and the protester accusing him of being a cop. The Freedom Fighter ripped off his mask and lifted his cap to show his face, and told the protester he’d been a firefighter for 24 years.
Peacekeepers are walking around telling protesters to stay off the fences and not to provoke the police too much. They explain that the people in the neighborhood directly behind the police station can’t handle any more tear gas and pepper spray.
— Nic Rowan (@NicXTempore) April 16, 2021
“We’re out here for the community,” he told the protester, who walked away. “If you can’t stay off it, go ahead and bounce.”
Edwards said “clearly we had some issues” but when there were altercations, in most cases it was due to “agitators not there to peacefully protest.”
“It is a very dangerous place to be between protesters (and police) and that’s a better alternative than having armed law enforcement there,” he said.
Jackson, the Freedom Fighters commander, said they expect the tension. “We play a delicate role,” Jackson said. “People need to vent… sometimes we got to take the brunt of that.”
Jackson doesn’t support abolishing the police and he doesn’t see the Freedom Fighters as tools of the police.
“I mean, there has to be some form of law enforcement and there has to be some form of law and order, right? But police are not to abuse that, and we’re not standing for any brutality from the police, as it relates to our community,” he said.
The $140,000 Brooklyn Center spent on the six groups was for a month’s work and included security at apartments near the police station, which were caught in the middle of the tumult. The city also paid about $22,000 to put up more than 100 apartment residents in motels.
Edwards said contracting with interventors was “extremely cost-efficient,” far less expensive than law enforcement and an investment in the community.
Some activists claimed on social media that the Freedom Fighters were being paid to be there by the city of Minneapolis. Sasha Cotton, director of the Minneapolis Office of Violence Prevention, said that’s not true. Minneapolis awarded $1 million in contracts to seven community organizations to provide “positive outreach and support” during and after the trials of Derek Chauvin and his three fellow former police officers charged in the death of Floyd. Cotton said after hearing that some of the same groups were in Brooklyn Center, she made clear to them that they couldn’t charge Minneapolis for that work.
The Minneapolis contracts — which run through the end of the year — are with A Mothers Love, the Center for Multicultural Mediation, Native American Community Development Institute, the Corcoran Neighborhood Organization and T.O.U.C.H. Outreach, Change Equals Opportunity, Restoration Inc. and We Push for Peace.
Cotton said the city of Minneapolis can’t contract with the Freedom Fighters if they are armed.
Each group could apply for up to $175,000 and they are paid an hourly rate, with additional funds for administrative costs.
Although Chauvin’s guilty verdict and the delay of the other officers’ trials until next year will likely mean less peacekeeping work, Cotton said the groups will be used in other ways. For example, the police department recently asked for their assistance downtown as pandemic restrictions loosen and bars and clubs reopen, she said.
“We’ll be looking at the various ways that those groups can support community outside of the trial, but we certainly see value in the relationships, continuing to work with them to spend down the rest of those resources in a way that supports community and the city,” she said.
Jackson said his group will continue to work through the end of the contract to engage the community. “Trial or no trial, there’s still circumstances in our community causing youth to do things they shouldn’t,” he said.
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