Why MPD Pulls Guns on Highschoolers and Sends Tactical Vehicles to Dance Parties

*Note: The article was hastily written a while back but the narrative and ideas presented still feel as pertinent as ever.*

On January 19th, we tried to host a public dance party in Uptown in south Minneapolis. We asked people to meet up in a grassy spot by the Walker Library and were planning on dancing around with strangers to some hip-hop on our tiny mobile sound system and shooting off some fireworks. Since we put the invitation online, we expected a police car or two to watch us and make sure it didn’t get out of hand. But when we arrived at the location, we didn’t find the lone cop parked across the street with his feet up and donuts in hand as we were expecting. Instead, we were confronted by lines of cop cars spanning multiple blocks in every direction, vans, private security guards from The Mansion (a club across the street), and also tactical riot vehicles parked in the Lunds & Byerlys parking lot a block away, along with five or six more police SUVs. They even parked multiple vehicles in the grassy spot we wanted to start in. All we could do was scuttle away, completely deflated, trying at that point to simply avoid getting stopped and potentially losing our fireworks or sound system. We went to Liquor Lyle’s and drank, wondering why the police would go through so much trouble to shut down a dance party.

We have some ideas, but first, a little back story. Following the election, we knew like so many others that a violent storm was coming. We more or less all come from that thing that could be called “activism,” but all feel very alienated and distanced from that world now. We all wanted to do something, we just weren’t confident that more marches and rallies were going to the thing to stop a travel ban or the uptick in racist attacks. Meeting people who are unhappy and like-minded is the first step to making concrete plans. Our problem was that marches are really fucking boring when you just march along the parade route. Plus you can barely hear anyone (and thus can’t have a conversation) over the “Love trumps hate!” chants. It’s simply a bad place to meet people with whom you’d like to do anything other than attend other demonstrations. So when people started making plans to protest inauguration day, we wanted to work to create some space to congregate, talk, and dance. We wanted to see what would happen if we called for an anti-Trump dance party on January 19th in Uptown. We were going to blast music and hand out fireworks and encourage rowdy—but relatively low-risk—behavior and hopefully meet up afterwards at a bar to talk about where to go next. Although some questioned the purpose of such an event, it’s objectively true that had we been able to block a single street in Uptown for an hour without a permit, we would have been “resisting” more than any of the massive, but permitted and planned, marches that took place in the following days. We had no illusions about our capacities though, and did not imagine that this small action would significantly disturb the function of the city. Our goal from the beginning was to open up a space for meeting people, specifically people who were afraid, angry, and confused by the trump presidency and wanted to meet others who hated trump but who didn’t believe in activism, whether because they found it pointless or because it didn’t feel empowering in the way some would hope.

But that didn’t happen. Instead, we walked into what must have been an exciting counter-insurgency fantasy for the Minneapolis Police Department. When we saw all the cops, we moved into a parking lot to get out of sight, but were followed by an undercover sliming around behind us who peaked around the corner and gleefully ran back to report to his team that he’d found the bad kids. Our friends called us to say they’d ditched after seeing the scene, and we imagine many others did the same. One friend who walked from the next neighborhood away said he saw cops parked at steady intervals for about a mile. So we retreated. We were sad.

So why did the cops put all this effort and resources into stopping what would have probably been thirty to fifty people dancing in the street for an hour or two? Why did MPD send a Persian army to our aborted battle of Thermopylae and only a handful to the “mega march against trump” the next day? We imagine they decided to send half of the available cops in the city to shut down a dance party in Uptown for the same reason we chose to host our party there: because Uptown is representative of an ongoing war against those undesirable people of the city that the inhabitants of Uptown never have to see anymore. Yes, the MPD sent their army to defend the most advanced territory of an ever-widening circle of gentrification. Many have had something to say about the process of gentrification in Minneapolis, but few consider the concrete practices of exclusion it entails. We wonder: Do the bros in Uptown, after a night of shuttling back and forth from Coup d’état to Cowboy Slims and back up the stairs to their condos, and who occupy the sidewalks with the same flagrant entitlement as they do their rooftop patios, ever dream of the homeless, the freaks, the drug addicts, or the loiterers who were removed to make way for their adult-sized playground? Are they ever haunted by the curses of the women whose stories of abuse and assault were minimized, ignored, or rejected in a world of silence and tacit agreements among men that makes night life increasingly dangerous for everyone else?

The bellicose occupation by the MPD was an exceptional occurrence, but one that reveals the reserves of force the police keep on deck for whenever they believe an event or a group of people may in any way hinder the commercial operations of Minneapolis’ most affluent districts. The process most critics of gentrification focus on is the rising of rent prices. This long-term form of exclusion is often characterized by the influx of mostly white entrepreneurs, artists, activists, and college graduates. While these individuals absolutely have a role in the process of gentrification, pointing the finger solely at them takes attention away from the systemic cause that drives gentrification, namely, capitalism. Centering in on the individual’s role in gentrification gives rise to solutions based on the individual. Hence the arguments that white people should only move to affluent areas. Surely white people and people with wealth or other social capital ought to be aware of the dynamics of the neighborhoods they intend to move to, but, in addition to this selective moving being impossible for many, this framing of the issue also de-emphisizes the driving forces of capitalism and transforms the political issue of gentrification into a moral and individualistic one. It also tends to take the spotlight off of the police who are the actual people tasked with evicting the previous residents and monitoring or arresting those outsiders (the homeless, black youth, “criminals,” people who “look Muslim”) who remain and wander in the gentrified region. Things may appear normal in a gentrified district, but with the appearance of abnormality or aberrance comes the threat and use of force. This supposition was strongly reinforced by what came next.

About a month later, we got another glimpse of the strong hand of reinforcement and protection that assures a comfortable environment for business owners and rich kids when we were witness to a far more regular event just a block away from where the dance party never happened. As a group of four of us were walking around Calhoun Square on our way to see a weekend showing of I Am Not Your Negro we were passed by a speeding fuzz car and gave it the usual “oh great.” Our cohort up ahead began recording from a spot on the sidewalk with a clear view of the car they were stopping—their guns already drawn and pointed forward. They flung open the doors of the car and we could see within it several black teens all with their hands on their heads. In under a minute, four more police cars pulled up behind the first to block the street entirely. The two police pointing their guns into the backseat of the car began forcibly pulling out the teens, continuing to shove the guns in their faces. One of the teens they pulled out of the car fell hard on the concrete, his ankles wrapped up in all their backpacks in the back seat. As the teens were being patted down, a cop said loudly, “we are making sure the community is safe”—but safe for whom we might ask? As this was happening one of our group was speaking loudly about the right to remain silent and asking why the teens were being detained—of course no answer. One officer did, however, approach and grab him, while saying “you’re being an inciter,” put him in an arm-lock and dragged him farther away from the scene on the sidewalk.

With the teens detained and concealed in squad cars we walked the remainder of the block to the movie theater and all felt like screaming about what was happening to all the totally oblivious Friday night Uptowners flitting around us. Ironically (although not really), the film we were on our way to see addresses the systematic anti-Blackness of society, albeit in a historical context around a respected figure, and yet this was happening literally 100 feet away from where everyone was buying their tickets. We didn’t see the movie then and walked back outside, noticing another bystander who seemed to have intentionally stopped to watch. We joined this person and began talking to him—he was equally upset but not surprised about this happening. We communicated thoughts and feelings with each other about the banality and severity of such occurrences and agreed that though something like what we were witnessing was an everyday occurrence it should not be treated with the levity of an everyday occurrence. So long as people continue to just pass by and believe there is absolutely nothing they can do, police will continue to believe that they can brutalize with no social or physical consequence.

We noticed that the squad cars weren’t going anywhere. The officers were on their cell phones in what we imagined were conversations about whether there was anything they could charge the teens with—anything possible to make them look better in something that was obviously white supremacy at work. During the forty-five minutes of standing around we saw the car the teens were driving get searched in-and-out and towed away and were passed by many groups of people that didn’t even glance at what was happening and others who stopped momentarily, asked what was going on and then shook their head, said it was awful, and went on with their Friday night.

Finally the teens were released on the spot, after their car was towed away by a private towing company. We crossed the street and met up with them as they were being released. They were of course in a total daze and began realizing a whole number of horrible things in the moments that followed: they were robbed of their backpacks with their homework assignments and text books, their cell phones, and their wallets with their IDs and cash. These things were taken for “the investigation.” The teen who was driving was arrested since he had apparently forgotten his drivers license and didn’t have any other form of ID on him. We learned that they were on their way to the McDonald’s (a kind of island in the absurd titanium and glass glaze of Calhoun Square)  just half a block away before they were pulled over. They said the car they were in was one of their mom’s. They told us that they were asked by police first if they were Muslim (all but one of them was) and then were asked if they had grenades or bombs on them and then were laughed at. After talking about what they wanted to do, we gave them rides to their neighborhood. During the car ride they were expressing utter shock but also saying that they had experienced similar things before. They thought that they were going to be killed. The police never told them why they were being stopped, and of course never answered their questions.

Recalling this narrative to some (mostly white liberals) has left them utterly shocked:  “The police stole their money?”, “But why were they pulled over?”, “That is totally illegal!”, “Intervening could be really dangerous“. No matter how many black people are murdered by police, liberals just don’t seem to want to give up on the idea that the police are intrinsically good and it’s just the few bad apples who need to be changed, or similarly that they are a necessarily evil or something like that. This policing (“protecting”/”preserving”) of Calhoun Square which ruined these black teens’ nights, weeks, homework assignments, and probably a lot of potential other things down the line for them, is not an exceptional example of the police’s everyday role in the ongoing process of gentrification in areas such as Uptown. We tried submitting this narrative to the local weekly here, City Pages, in hopes of it getting a wider readership, but we heard back that “there was nothing new to be said about gentrification.” Oh yeah, that “old news.”

So, interlocutors were shocked to hear about black teens being stopped for no reason in a fancy-ass neighborhood as well as to hear that the police shut down an anti-trump dance party (as if both were indicative of some dystopic future to expect)—and City Pages is bored with it all. Certainly tensions are rising: right-wing bigotry and the face of neoliberalism becoming ever-more obvious and talked-about but shock and awe from people about the turns of these events also evidences a total lack of acceptance of the conditions that are now and that have been before a Trump election. If liberals are looking for something to resist they need not look beyond their comfortable life and what makes it possible—namely: capitalist infrastructure, city planning, policing, and a social order aimed at eradicating the “undesirables” from their neighborhoods or from the neighborhoods where they buy their Fjallraven backpacks. Seeing a group of teenagers dragged from a vehicle at gunpoint really should illicit some kind of response. What is this anti-black world—where it is so normal to see blackness as “criminal”—that the yuppies at the Soviet bar watching from behind glass and over their $12 cocktails barely even noticed?

We have yet to fully process the events narrated here, and clearly feel a lot of feelings, but these are some lessons we’ve gleaned from our reflections so far:

1. Gentrification is a process that excludes not only by means of rising rent prices, but also by militaristic mobilization and surveillance.

2. Gentrification is not a process made up of the actions of individuals. Although (mostly) affluent white people do have a role in accelerating the process, gentrification is embedded in the very normal systems of capitalism and social policing and will not go away if white people just “move to their own neighborhoods”, or shop at certain stores and boycott others, but only if these systems are rendered inoperable.

3. The “Muslim Ban” and other methods of racialized exclusion are not apocalyptic futures to come, but are already part of the contemporary and daily function of the city and police who surveil it.

4. If you see police terrorization and can stay close by to watch things, do. You can legally talk loudly (so that those being detained can hear) about how you have the right to remain silent and can ask police why you are being detained (though do expect to get harassed/possibly assaulted too if doing this). Watching and recording the police may not be an effective strategy in the long run (indeed reformists solution, like body cams, have done more to relegitimize the police than anything) but a group of people watching can put pressure on individual cops to not act abruptly. Sousveillance, a sort of “watching from below,” may be a false opposition [look out for more on that subject later] to the police and surveillance generally, but being present in cop interactions can possibly provide help to those being stopped. Intervention would be ideal, but short of such an opening, offering a little “human” connection if/when people are released can be a reassuring gesture that no one should have to deal alone.

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