An attempt by the city of Minneapolis to clear a homeless encampment Thursday morning led to a violent clash between police and civilians guarding the camp.
Five people were arrested and five officers suffered minor injuries, according to police.
More than 100 people showed up at the encampment at 205 N. Girard Av. in response to several activists' social media accounts warning that the city of Minneapolis planned to clear the empty lot where about 20 people live in tents.
Witnesses said about a dozen police cars arrived around 7 a.m. and blocked off the street; however, in an afternoon news release Minneapolis police said five officers in three squad cars initially were sent about a block from the encampment. A scuffle broke out between officers and civilians who shoved back and forth, some of which is captured on a social media video, before officers pepper-sprayed a line of people and forcibly arrested a few. The officers drove away within half an hour of arrival.
The encampment remained in place Thursday afternoon.
According to a statement released by Minneapolis police Thursday afternoon, officers had begun to tape off the area Thursday morning so equipment could be brought in when officers saw dumpsters had been pushed into the road. They called additional squads after they were confronted by several men and got pelted with snowballs.
Police say around 25 to 30 people were "actively challenging" officers and pushing against their line with one person attacking an officer and resisting arrest. During the melee, a woman jumped on the back of an officer and began to choke him, and other people continued to surround the officers, police said.
Encampment volunteer Benjamin Melançon said he saw at least one police officer accelerate aggressively toward a line of protesters before stopping at the last moment. Melançon said police intimidation escalated tensions.
"It's just mind-boggling that just because they have this mechanism of violence at their disposal, they think it's OK to force people to move," he said. "No one here is asking for much, literally just a piece of land that they won't be pushed off of."
A soundless, 30-second video clip that is being shared on social media showed police hitting and trying to pull someone off an officer who is on the ground. An officer then appears to put a knee on the back of the neck and head of the person before the video cuts out.
During a 10 a.m. news conference, Chief Medaria Arradondo said he wouldn't tolerate people assaulting police officers.
"From the limited video that I have seen, I was appalled by the actions of those community members that attacked my officers," Arradondo said. "I am thankful that they were not seriously injured."
The city's Department of Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED) posted eviction signs at the camp on Monday morning, warning residents that the camp would be closed Thursday and how to connect with shelter resources. This was the third attempt to clear the encampment, which was created in the fall after residents were evicted from Minneapolis parks.
According to a statement from CPED, the camp needs to be closed due to "site contamination, fire hazards, and other health and safety risks." A bulk petroleum company previously occupied the parcel where the encampment sits.
"Currently, there is enough capacity in the shelter system to provide alternative accommodation for everyone at the encampment," according to the statement. "As of [Tuesday] morning, there were 27 men's shelter beds and 46 women's shelter beds available in the shelter system. Outreach workers have been engaging with residents to connect them to shelter and housing resources and will continue to do so until the encampment is closed."
Mandla Xaba, an encampment resident who moved from the Sheraton Hotel to Powderhorn Park to B.F. Nelson Park before coming to the Near North site, said that after the city canceled its previously scheduled February eviction enforcement, CPED and residents had agreed to "work together to reach a solution instead of just kicking people out."
"This has been a model encampment," he said. "Given proper time and support, people can transition to permanent housing. It's all we've been after, all we've been saying. The city's just trying to save face. They've been lying to us."
Xaba said the Near North camp survived the winter thanks to a dedicated mutual aid network, volunteers who deliver food and supplies, donations from the Harrison Neighborhood Association and the residents, who bonded over their many evictions throughout a year beset by COVID-19 and civil unrest.
Many people choose to live in outdoor encampments because congregate shelter situations come with many problems — overcrowding, stringent rules — that are exacerbated in a pandemic, said John Tribbett, the street outreach manager of St. Stephen's Human Services, which serves the camp.
"There's a long-running narrative that treats homelessness in our community like a math problem," he said. "It's looking at a spreadsheet and saying we have X amount of beds available, so therefore people who are outside could opt to use those beds, and since they're not, they're making a choice not to go to shelter. And that's a very reductive way of understanding what's happening in people's lives."
Disbanding encampments and isolating unsheltered people interrupts the efforts of social workers to transition them into housing, while destroying their tents and other baseline survival gear sets them back even further from moving off the streets, Tribbett said. "All it does is appeases the immediate political crisis and shifts it into a new location."
Before COVID-19, resident Sandy Kelting used to ride the trains for shelter at night. Since last summer, she has lived in Loring Park and B.F. Nelson Park. With the many repeat attempts to clear the Near North site, she said she's exhausted. "We're all just defeated, just worn out and tired."
If it weren't for the encampment, Kelting said she would rather live out of a suitcase on the street than go to a shelter.
"Most of us have had bad experiences with shelters. They get you under their thumb, they treat you like children," she said. "I literally would rather take a chance on hypothermia than go back to the shelter. That's how a lot of us feel."