For a second day, American Indian activists occupied the site of a once-sprawling homeless encampment in south Minneapolis on Saturday, insisting they will not leave until local officials address their demands for more emergency shelter beds.
The civil disobedience action began just past midnight on Friday, when dozens of demonstrators marched onto a stretch of land along Hiawatha and Franklin avenues that last fall was the temporary home of several hundred people living in tents. Amid blowing snow and a biting wind, the activists erected a teepee at the center of the former encampment, known as the “Wall of the Forgotten Natives,” and read a statement demanding a stronger response to the housing crisis and a “culturally specific” overnight shelter for Natives experiencing homelessness.
“Our First Nations people continue to suffer and are sleeping outside tonight,” the statement read. “The slow pace towards finding a solution is unacceptable and the community can no longer stand idle.”
Early Saturday, amid falling temperatures, activists showed no signs of departing the site that has become a symbol of resistance to many in the Native community. A dozen people stood huddled around a makeshift fire near the entrance to the site, while others went to collect more provisions. Tobacco ties and sage were pinned to the chain-metal fence around the former encampment. Organizers have collected tents, tarps and other gear for overnight camping. “We need to be here for the public to wake up and know this is a crisis that needs to be addressed,” said Keiji Narikawa, a Native community member and one of the organizers of the occupation. “We need permanent solutions to a permanent crisis, instead of brushing it away and fencing things off.”
Word of the occupation spread quickly on social media and among the Native community. American Indian Movement co-founder Clyde Bellecourt, a citizen of the White Earth Nation, visited the site Saturday afternoon and joined the protesters in a prayer ceremony. “When you stand up, you stand up for everyone, for all the people,” Bellecourt told the group. “The Great Spirit is the one that moves us to come together as people, as family.”
Minneapolis police officers have circled the site in vehicles but, apart from warning protesters about the fire, have not intervened. On Saturday afternoon, police brought pizza to the protesters.
In a statement released late Saturday, Native organizers said they are negotiating with police and the Minnesota Department of Transportation and have told officials they will “establish a permanent encampment” if talks do not progress.
Hennepin County’s number of unsheltered people reached 732 in July, up 40% from 523 a year earlier, according to the county’s most recent point-in-time count. Officials attribute the increase to rising rents and a lack of affordable housing.
Last week, the Hennepin County Board approved an unprecedented expansion of the county’s emergency shelter system, including $1.1 million in new annual spending. The money will fund a shelter for women as well as expanded case management services in the existing shelters to help transition people faster into stable housing.
Some participants in the new occupation are men and women who lived in tents at the Wall of the Forgotten Natives last fall, before it was officially closed and no-trespassing signs were placed on the chain-link fence.
Protester Melissa Bringsthem said the encampment provided her with a much-needed sense of community last year after her husband died and she turned to alcohol to cope with her loss and depression. A diverse coalition of nonprofits descended on the encampment last year and helped Bringsthem and dozens of others move into their own apartments. As soon as she got her own place, Bringsthem stopped drinking, went back to school and found stable employment.
Bringsthem said she has been sober for a year and two months — an accomplishment she said might not have been possible without the aid she received last year at the camp.
“When people come together, good things can happen,” she said. “Right now, it’s really sad that people are out here, getting kicked out of tents and have nowhere to go and the shelters are all filled up.”
She added, “It’s cold. It’s freezing. And everyone needs a home.”