With Minneapolis in the running for a lucrative federal crime-fighting grant, local street activists are riled at city plans to adopt an anti-violence program based in Chicago, saying they already do that work here for nothing.
The brewing tension boiled over publicly Wednesday when a half-dozen of the city's most streetwise, experienced activists staged an angry walkout at a city-organized meeting to introduce the program -- CeaseFire, started by a Chicago physician -- that could serve as a model for a similar effort here.
In a haunting reminder of the stakes involved, Minneapolis recorded its 31st homicide of the year three hours later and two blocks from where the walkout occurred.
"The city disrespected us," said veteran North Side activist Spike Moss, who has coordinated street intervention and support programs for decades. "We've done everything that they were talking about in there. We been on the streets, been in the hospital rooms, been in the churches."
Moss, who organized the walkout from the meeting held at Urban Ventures just off E. Lake Street, argued that local activists could succeed as well or better than CeaseFire if local, state and federal authorities gave them the money instead.
A city official countered Thursday night that the money for the program would go almost entirely to local staff, possibly some of the same people who objected to the program.
What it would do
CeaseFire pays local ex-gang members and others with street connections to "interrupt" potentially violent situations before anyone pulls a trigger. A university study credited the program with reducing homicides in Chicago neighborhoods where it was in place.
Minneapolis has applied for a $2.2 million U.S. Department of Justice grant to start a similar program here. Even if the federal grant doesn't materialize, the city plans to move ahead with a smaller, pilot version of CeaseFire in north Minneapolis by early next year, said Bass Zanjani, the city's youth violence prevention coordinator.
Its budget would come from city funds and possibly funds from philanthropic groups and Hennepin County, he said.
The people who walked out of the meeting with Moss would seem to be important hires for CeaseFire. Indeed, CeaseFire's outreach director, Frank Perez, directed much of his presentation to them before they left. They said they're angry because they've done CeaseFire-type work for years for free because the city cut their funding or refused to make money available.
As for CeaseFire's so-called "Interrupters" program, "this is no disrespect to CeaseFire, but we've been doing this," said Jimmy Stanback, who once ran a jobs program for North Side teens with ex-gang member Ferome Brown.
"The money is here, and they're giving it to the wrong people," said the Rev. Elliott Cook of New Salem Baptist Church in north Minneapolis. There have been 15 murders on the North Side in the first seven months of 2010; last year, during the same period the homicide total there was three.
Still, a CeaseFire program in Minneapolis could be a boon to street-level organizations that work with troubled kids, since it would require that the city hire contractors to perform the street work that's become the program's hallmark. Zanjani said panels made up of city officials and community members would vet the applicants for those jobs.
While Moss claimed a racial motive in the city's attempt to fund CeaseFire, whose founder is white, Wednesday's protest also underscored divisions in the African-American community.
Disaffected activists reserved some of their harshest criticism for North Side City Council Member Don Samuels, who the activists claimed gets preferential treatment for the Peace Foundation he co-founded. Samuels' wife, Sondra, is president of the organization, which currently is in the running for a federal grant to establish a North Side "children's zone" similar to one operated successfully in New York's Harlem neighborhood.
"You've got a Peace Foundation that can't make no peace," Moss charged.
Neither of the Samuels was immediately available for comment Thursday.
The city's CeaseFire plan is the second city initiative to run into controversy in the past week. A new measure to toughen federal prosecution for illegal gun possession was announced last week in a high-profile news conference by city, county and federal officials.
It set off a visceral reaction among some activists who don't think it will stop the shooting. The Rev. Jerry McAfee, the lead pastor at New Salem and a fixture in North Side anti-violence efforts, called the plan "a farce."
"We're standing in rivers of blood in north Minneapolis," Moss said. "If you aren't doing the gun runners, you're not doing right."
A few hours after Moss said those words, a man was shot to death on E. Lake Street. Carl Antoine Miller, 47, known as "Vino," was a well-known fixture of that street who had been out of rehab for crack-cocaine and alcohol addiction only five days, friends said.
Miller often wore flashy clothing and had long, finger-wave hair, a distinctive look that left a stronger impression than the man himself, who didn't cause trouble despite his personal demons, said those who knew him. By Thursday afternoon, a couple of balloons marked the scene of the man's death, with a posterboard that read "RIP Vino."
The circumstances that led to Miller's death are unclear, police say. The latest killing and possibly the dispute over how best to stop the violence brought activists out in force.
V.J. Smith, president and founder of neighborhood activist group MAD DADS, stood at the intersection at about noon Thursday, talking to passersby.
"My soul is getting tired and weary, but I've gotta keep going," he said.