Cities, facing pressure to minimize police presence, turn to unproven community groups

By: - June 9, 2021 7:00 am

Agape leader Steve Floyd (center) speaks at a news conference alongside other members including Akeem Cubie (left) on June 3 after working with city workers to reopen 38th Street and Chicago Avenue to car traffic. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer.

Facing increasing political pressure on all sides in the face of rising violent crime and activists demanding the dismantling of their police departments, Minneapolis and some other cities are increasingly turning to private community groups to keep the peace — and provide political cover — in perilous times. 

The Agape Movement, a group of ex-gang members who arose out of the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, first put up barricades around the intersection where Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police so activists could hold the space. Later they were hired by the city to help with security in the square, complete with a house-converted-into-an office north of Cup Foods.

Last week, however, Agape’s mission took a turn when it was paid by the city to help keep the square calm as city workers took down the barricades, removed plants around the fist sculpture in the intersection and erected roundabout signs in their place, all in an effort to reopen the square to car and bus traffic.

City workers set up traffic signs and bike lanes for the reopening of George Floyd Square to traffic. The iconic fist statue was set to go in the middle of a traffic roundabout. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Agape’s role in the botched reopening irritated activists and protesters who have kept the four-block area around the intersection closed for more than a year.

When Comrade Link heard last week that “the square was falling,” as he put it, he went straight to the square without taking off his blue Ralph Lauren bathrobe.

Once there, he got into a heated argument with several black-clad members of Agape in the parking lot of the former Speedway gas station as the city tried — and failed — to reopen the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue.

He argued with Agape members about what justice looks like and whether the Black community would lose leverage if it let the city reopen the space without ceding to the demands of the group controlling the autonomous zone.

Link later said Agape had previously been a vital cog in George Floyd Square, doing community engagement and acting as a liaison between law enforcement and the neighborhood. But then Agape “ushered the city workers in to come and perform the eviction.” 

“They get these community members and then they fund them to be agents of the state,” Link said. “That ain’t community led,” he said, scornfully referring to comments last week by Mayor Jacob Frey, who seemed to wash his hands of the decision to reopen the intersection and put it on Agape. “You done picked some people that you could cut a check to,” Link added. 

Frey said it was crucial to avoid violent confrontations during the operation, which he said could take months. Although Minneapolis police were stationed nearby, they were not part of the operation given the local antipathy toward police.  

Agape co-founder Steve Floyd — no relation to George Floyd — said money was diverted from the police department to “give young men jobs.” 

“They scream and holler defund the police, you know, abolish the police,” he said. Once the city diverted money to groups like Agape to help with public safety, people accused Agape of working with the police, he said. “You don’t get ex-gang members working for police,” he said in frustration. 

But Agape’s contract calls for it to work under the city’s direction, including the police department. 

The groups are not eager to disclose financial ties to city governments. Brooklyn Center spent $140,000 to contract with six community groups to help handle protests after the April 11 police shooting death of Daunte Wright. Acting City Manager Reggie Edwards said one of the six groups was the Minnesota Freedom Fighters. 

But last month Freedom Fighters Commander Jamil Jackson told the Reformer his group was volunteering at the protests. The Reformer recently obtained the Freedom Fighters’ $55,000 contract for nine days of work, with its staff paid $30 an hour to provide “intervention and mediation for agitated protesters”; maintain a barrier between police and protesters; assist with crowd control; help with “healing spaces”; protect media and “official staff”; and deliver information from police to protesters.

Last week, Steve Floyd told a Reformer reporter Agape didn’t have a contract with the city, which was not true. City officials later released Agape’s consulting contract showing Agape could be paid up to $359,000 to provide “a number of community building, health and safety services associated with re-opening of 38th and Chicago” through November. 

The contract requires Agape’s outreach workers, who are paid up to $40 per hour, to be trained.  City officials say the workers have been instructed in de-escalation, conflict resolution and group violence intervention.

The city declined to make anyone available for an interview on the training provided.

It’s also not clear how much vetting the workers are receiving.  

Akeem Cubie, an Agape member who spoke at a press conference last week at George Floyd Square, told two reporters later that day that he will likely kill people someday. He also questioned why white reporters don’t pay Black people in the square $5,000 for their stories and photos and warned the reporters they weren’t safe in the square because “hurt people hurt people.”

Cubie also said he wanted the intersection reopened — to show that it should be closed.

“Us barricading this block kept the men of this block safe because there’s gang activity going on over here,” he said. “To put up these barricades — and push ’em to the side, it don’t help us,” which seemed to contradict Agape’s mission to remove the barricades. 

The mayor’s office and Sasha Cotton, head of the city Office of Violence Prevention, did not respond to requests for comment.

Not very Agape

Agape is a Greco-Christian term referring to unconditional love, but from where Quentin Wathum-Ocama was sitting last week in George Floyd Square, there was no love being shown by Agape workers as they tried to keep the intersection open.

The St. Paul elementary educator went to the square after work to see what was happening and said he witnessed an Agape worker hurl homophobic insults at activists. 

Wathum-Ocama called the city’s decision to hire Agape “a joke.” 

The Freedom Fighters have also not been free of police scrutiny. Several members of the normally heavily armed Freedom Fighters were arrested Saturday night at the Uptown protests over another police shooting of a Black man, Winston Smith. The group expressed outrage on its Instagram page, saying the city claims it wants to reimagine public safety, but “the events of last night indicate that they want business as usual.” 

When asked what happened on Monday, Jackson of the Freedom Fighters said he was there when it happened and “I still don’t know.” He said he and his team needed more time to decide how to respond.

Minneapolis Council Member Jeremiah Ellison said some of the private groups have risen to the occasion, but he’s also seen their credibility take hits.

“I think it’s well intended, but what is the efficacy of the strategy? How can we prevent putting these groups in a position to blow up their credibility?” he asked. “Anytime you act, you’re going to create a few critics, but these groups thrive when they’re trusted. If these groups begin to be seen as quasi-law enforcement, we’re going to find more people fearing or resenting them. That might eventually compromise their ability to do their jobs well.”

$1 million more went to other groups

The city of Minneapolis also turned to private groups to help try to keep the peace during and after the trials of Derek Chauvin and his three fellow former police officers charged in Floyd’s death. The city awarded $1 million in contracts to seven community organizations to provide “positive outreach and support” this year.

One of those contractors is the Native American Community Development Institute, whose president is Robert Lilligren, a Minneapolis City Council member from 2001 to 2014. His organization is acting as fiscal agent to disperse a $175,000 city grant to a coalition of groups dubbed “the Protectors.”

He said he started organizing his “very dangerous, crack-infested” Phillips Neighborhood block in the late 1980s, and was taught to organize through an MPD program in the 1990s. 

Lilligren said the city will learn from these pilot programs and adapt.

“It informs the whole reimagining community safety, reimagining policing and so here’s an example of an effort where the city invested directly in the community. I don’t see how it can return to the way that it was after what’s happened here,” he said of Floyd’s murder and the aftermath. 

So far, the operation at George Floyd Square doesn’t seem to be working: After the initial failed attempt to reopen the square on Thursday, Agape workers again removed the barriers in another early-morning operation on Tuesday, and protesters put them back. 

Link, still in his bathrobe as the day wore on last week, said most of the neighborhood supports keeping the square barricaded off. He said city officials are using rising crime as an excuse to reopen the intersection. 

“I believe the violence is gonna happen regardless, until they… start the surgical process… of actually providing social programs for these underprivileged areas,” he said. “That’s what’s going to stop the violence, not opening up the streets.”

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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.