Sitting at a picnic table at Martin Luther King Jr. Park in south Minneapolis, Londel French takes a moment to rest and consider what’s changed over the past two months.
A Minneapolis Park Board commissioner, French was an almost constant presence at Powderhorn Park, tending to the residents of two large homeless encampments day and night.
French, 46, whose day job is union organizer, had pushed the Park Board to allow homeless people displaced by the pandemic and civil unrest to take refuge in city parks.
This summer, the Powderhorn encampment swelled to 560 tents, a mini-community supported by volunteers like him. But within weeks, it had become so dangerous that the Park Board cleared the eastern encampment using police and heavy machinery. Last week, it did the same with the remaining campers on the west side.
As Park Board commissioners passed new restrictions on encampments, French joined the rest in acknowledging the problem was far bigger than a park system could handle.
On this overcast morning at Martin Luther King park, French said he was still proud of the Park Board for offering a refuge to those who had nowhere to go during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I think we did some things wrong in the implementation of it, but I think we did the right thing,” he said. “These folks wanted to just rest. They needed a sanctuary.”
Raised in Milwaukee by his grandmother and a diet of professional wrestling on television, French moved to the Twin Cities in 1998 to attend college and try to “escape prison and violence” that awaited him back home. He considered himself more of a libertarian, with dreams of one day being a wrestling announcer.
After a stint as a nightclub bouncer, French began a lengthy career as a paraprofessional in the Minneapolis schools. He now works full-time as a political organizer for Education Minnesota.
A friend and colleague, Justin Terrell, invited him to a meeting at TakeAction Minnesota, the progressive political organization. At the session, people spoke about relatives who had been caught up in the criminal justice system.
French thought of his cousin, who took his own life after serving a prison sentence, and realized he needed to do something.
Terrell, now the outgoing executive director of the Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage, said French got hooked on organizing and pushing progressive reform.
“He just comes from this space of the overflow of his heart, and he just genuinely wants to help people,” he said. “Londel is somebody that’s going to always respond to the needs of the community.”
Beyond his work at the schools, French would pick up extra hours at the local parks and driving Uber.
One early morning after bar close, French waited inside his car at a McDonald’s parking lot in Uptown to pick up a passenger. A police officer approached him, telling him he couldn’t park there. French stood his ground. Then, he said, the officer reached inside his car, knocked his phone down and grabbed his keys. French was dragged out of the car onto the ground and arrested.
That experience motivated him to run for office. He filed for an open seat on the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board in 2017 and won the DFL endorsement. He was elected to the job with a slate of other progressives determined to bring racial equity and staff diversity to a nationally renowned park system.
On the Park Board dais, French disregards the formality of other commissioners, speaking from the heart about youth recreation, diversity in parks and the park system’s police force.
“I hate Robert’s Rules of Order,” he said. “That ain’t how Black folks talk.”
Park Board President Jono Cowgill described him as a “values-driven individual” whose perspective has guided the board over the past few years.
“He … really, really shows and articulates his compassion, especially for folks who are often left behind,” Cowgill said.
After the killing of George Floyd convulsed the city, groups of homeless people arrived at Powderhorn Park. Many of them had been evicted from a nearby hotel. Although they first told the campers they had to leave, the Park Board allowed them to stay overnight in the parks.
French, who lives near Powderhorn, began showing up to help.
He started out sanitizing food and supplies. He took on an overnight security shift, patrolling the growing campgrounds and walking around Powderhorn Lake by moonlight. Soon he was spending what seemed like 15 hours a day at the park, he said, acting as a liaison between the encampments and the Park Board.
It was his genuine empathy that earned him the trust of the campers and volunteers, said Yusra Murad, a volunteer with the Minneapolis Sanctuary Movement.
“I think he really embodied and continued to embody what a lot of us think these spaces are, which are spaces of community care,” she said. “We’re all here because we’re all members of this community.”
Tony Smith, who is homeless, met French at Powderhorn, not realizing at first he was a Park Board commissioner.
“He knows how to address people. He knows how to talk to them,” Smith said. “If you can address an individual and know what they need … that little bit of giving them hope goes a long way.”
Yet the camps grew out of control. During a virtual Park Board meeting, dozens of angry neighbors criticized the commissioners for inviting a situation they were not equipped to handle. As they voted to put new restrictions on encampments, a defeated French said the board “may have bitten off a little bit more than we can chew.”
Sitting at the picnic table earlier this month, French said he did not understand the magnitude of the issues homeless people suffer from, including mental illness, addiction and the predators who take advantage of them. The Park Board, he said, “didn’t do a good job of keeping people safe.”
It is now struggling to manage encampments in dozens of parks across the city. Some commissioners believe they are not moving fast enough to disband unauthorized encampments. Park employees, officials say, are traumatized.
French has continued to advocate for the homeless, showing up at Powderhorn and calling on other government agencies to find them housing before the weather gets cold.
“He has been overworked and he is very lonely on the Park Board right now,” Murad said.
Looking out at a cluster of tents at Martin Luther King Park, French said what struck him the most about the past two months was the general indifference toward the homelessness crisis.
“I just want people to have some grace when it comes to their fellow man or woman,” he said. “Just care about people. Care about people. That’s all.”