Barbed Wire and Barricades

We saw the streets of Minneapolis, and the whole country, become militarized last summer as peaceful protests were met with weapons of war by police. Now militarization is occurring again, this time through fences, concrete barriers, and barbed wire that seek to cut residents off from street spaces. For the community to heal and stay safe, we must make our streets and spaces open and accessible.

A construction worker in yellow puts up fences along a detour pedestrian path in downtown Minneapolis, with skyscrapers in the background against a clear blue sky
Workers construct a thin pedestrian detour with fences in downtown Minneapolis, preparing to block to the wide adjacent path. Photo by Taylor Dahlin

A day after police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd in South Minneapolis, the intersection of 38th and Chicago quickly transformed into a gathering of the community, with hundreds joining their voices to mourn the life lost to this grave injustice and speak out for the protection and honoring of Black lives. But that night, and for many nights after, the streets became a warzone as Minneapolis police rained tear gas canisters and rubber bullets down on peaceful protestors.

Streets and sidewalks are meant to be communal areas, for residents to connect with neighbors, venture the city, and participate in their legal right to publicly demonstrate. However, these rights often cannot be enjoyed by Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), particularly Black people, due to racist power structures and unequal transportation enforcement. The killings of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and Philando Castile, and many more all occurred due to police using excessive, cruel, deadly force on Black folks while they were utilizing the street, either on foot or in a car. The over-policing of street spaces is sadly an everyday experience for many in our community, and it manifested itself on a mass scale during the militaristic mobilization against protestors last summer.

Concrete barrier topped by a fence in the foreground, lining a path of the road blocked off for pedestrians. In the background behind the fence is Minneapolis City Hall, which is brown brick and topped by a green roof with spires and towers.
A concrete barrier blocks the sidewalk and creates an alternative pedestrian path on the road leading up to City Hall. Photo by Taylor Dahlin

Now with the trial of Derek Chauvin to begin on March 8th, that militarization has already begun in the form of infrastructure. Starting in mid-February, concrete barriers and fences went up around the Hennepin County Government Center, the Minneapolis Public Service Building, City Hall, and police precincts across the city. More and more go up each day. Fences form designated “free speech cages” , stoking fear over the brutality that could be inflicted on protestors. Armored vehicles roll through the city streets. Cops are parking their cars on Nicollet Mall and other pedestrian walkways. The militarization is drawing outrage from many, including Ward 5 City Councilmember Jeremiah Ellison who tweeted “this is not how you care for a city traumatized by police violence,” going on to say that “Council did not approve this plan.” Ellison also called on the city to “affirm peoples’ pain,” and de-escalate, noting that affirming would prevent unrest while walls would not. Ellison’s sentiment reflects the pain and anxiety many have experienced the past year, and the dread many hold for the upcoming trial.

The hostility of street spaces caused by these barricades only serves to exacerbate this harm. From start to finish, these barriers will likely remain up for at least two months, and they show blatant disregard for the residents of Minneapolis, prioritizing buildings over people. Sidewalks and pedestrian paths have been significantly disrupted, many times cutting off routes for safe passage out of certain buildings or areas entirely. A particularly troubling image from downtown is the coil of razor wire sandwiched between two concrete barriers along 3rd Avenue. Mayor Frey stated at a February 24th press conference that the city needs “to make sure that our communities, our businesses, families throughout the city are safe and feel safe.” But how are we supposed to feel safe when city leaders and the police have clear disdain for us, and are already escalating tensions before the trial has even started? How can we feel ease when our beloved city has been militarized and turned against us?

Two concrete barriers on the left and right of the frame, topped by chain-link fences. Between the barriers is a coil of barbed wire that extends along the length of the street
Infamous razor wire path along 3rd Avenue. Photo by Taylor Dahlin

Concrete barriers and fences went up around the 2nd precinct in my neighborhood on February 22nd. Instead of containing their hostile barriers within the bounds of their massive parking lot, thereby minimizing disruption to the community, the police decided to cut off the sidewalk around the building completely with a double barrier, splicing the bike lane into a makeshift pedestrian path. I was enraged when I walked by the first time; the sidewalk along Central is wide and safe, with a boulevard of trees protecting from traffic, and I assumed that the pedestrian detour would more than likely not be maintained in the event of snow. My ire increased when someone on Twitter pointed out to me that the street crossing button, which provides an accessible pedestrian signal for those with limited vision, was likely out of reach behind the concrete barrier. This is an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) violation. Continuing to inflict harm, the city and police showed cruel disregard for the well-being of disabled residents along a busy street, all while touting that these structures are for the purpose of “safety.”

In the foreground, a concrete barrier blocks the audio cue street crossing button, which is on a yellow pole. Extending along the street into the background, there are concrete barriers cutting off the sidewalk . On the right, an orange detour sign marks the new pedestrian path, which is protected by a concrete barrier on the road. On the left behind a fence, the parking lot of the police department's 2nd precinct is visible. The sky is cloudy
Concrete barricades cut off the sidewalk on Central Avenue NE at 20th. The audio cue crossing button is unreachable behind the barrier.

I decided to report the infraction to the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) and City of Minneapolis ADA managers. I was very concerned about someone getting hurt, especially because Central is such a wide road with a high speed limit. Though I am able-bodied, seeing, and hearing, I went out to see if I could even reach the button. Upon reaching the barrier, I leaned as far as I could and stretched my arm out to hit the button, but still stopped a good six inches short, nearly falling in the process. Later in the week, Ian Buck of St. Paul went out with a measuring tape, and discovered that the button was a jarring 52 inches away from any accessible point. I sent along this video of my attempt to MnDOT and the city, and was told the situation would be remedied within a few days.

The author, clad in a red Buffalo plaid mask, demonstrating how out of reach the crossing button is due to the Minneapolis Police Department’s barriers at the 2nd Precinct.

Now it’s been a few days, and I’ve been told that the barriers cannot be moved from their current configuration, so a solution involving secondary speakers for the pedestrian signal will be implemented; such a fix is surely to take more time. A small, simple accommodation could not be made to protect residents, with property prioritized instead. It feels like the city puts in massive amounts of effort and money to show off their power, harm communities, and divide them from public spaces, but it can’t spare an ounce to engage in healing, affirmation, and reparation. Some city leaders have abandoned us, so who will protect the people?

The answer is that we must protect each other, in any way we can. I feel helpless and angry about these barriers, and maybe you do too. It often feels that there are many injustices we can’t change, the sheer size and weight of them overwhelming. But during this time you can still watch out for your neighbors and make sure your spaces are as accessible as possible, both physically and emotionally, even while city leadership and law enforcement are intent on cutting us off. We heal through openness, by coming together to listen and comfort, not by putting up walls.

An array of flowers and posters in the foreground, with "BLM" written in chalk on the pavement. In the back is a light blue mural with a golden sunflower that contains the names of Black lives lost to police violence. In front of the names is an image of George Floyd, and his name in large golden block letters.
The intersection of 38th and Chicago, George Floyd Square, looks different than it did last year, with new artwork and sculptures. But it still remains a hallowed community gathering space

I’ll leave you with an image of hope: George Floyd Square. Streets that have been claimed by the people for healing and love. A place where all are secure and welcome, as streets are supposed to be. Hallowed ground for reflection and kinship, where a community can come together. There’s sure to be a lot of stress, yearning, and pain the next few weeks in Minneapolis.  Be there for one another, help your community in any way you can, uplift your neighbor. Our city has already seen so much heartbreak, and justice is long overdue. We can get through this time, and the many fights ahead, if we stand together and strive to make our spaces and streets open and safe for all.

11 thoughts on “Barbed Wire and Barricades

  1. Bill LindekeBill LindekeModerator  

    The fortification of public space is such a depressing turn of events. With increasing right-wing violence and national gun culture, I wonder when we’ll ever get our public buildings and spaces back.

    1. Ben

      This comment is how I feel as well. I see these barricades as a reaction to right-wing militia groups and very credible threats to our institutions. It’s hard for me to feel safe in my city knowing that anyone can be carrying a gun at any time, and the threat of an armed angry mob storming our spaces seems very real after what happened two months ago in Washington DC.

      1. Emilie WilleEmilie Wille Post author

        Ben, I am also afraid of white supremacist violence as you are. However, I interpret these barriers differently and see them as the city making racial justice and Black Lives Matter advocates an adversary. The “free speech cage” indicated to me an intent to kettle and subdue protestors. Also, last year the city and MPD did not protect against white supremacist violence and chose to brutalize protestors instead. Additionally, because MPD harbors right-wingers and upholds white supremacists, I do not believe they would fortify against right-wing extremists. I see it as direct disdain for those fighting for justice

    2. Emilie WilleEmilie Wille Post author

      It is a sad thought. Even without physical barriers, what are the mental ones we must carry in public spaces? The fear of guns from extreme gun culture has changed our spaces and how we view them forever.

  2. Pine SalicaPine Salica

    It’s genuinely (re-)traumatizing to see this and to live in it daily. Thanks for writing about it so I can know it’s not just me.

    1. Emilie WilleEmilie Wille Post author

      It’s not just you <3 I think many are experiencing the renewed trauma right now and that’s why I think it’s important we remain open and accessible to each other. I’m glad this resonated with you, please take care

  3. Northsider

    Honestly, this is nothing compared to the Super Bowl. Entire blocks of our city were barricaded off from the public then for the NFL’s private use.

    Ellison should be more concerned with the trauma we’re having in his Ward from gunfire and a spike in homicides. I can’t find a bullet that hit my house last weekend, maybe you or Ellison can come help me find it. Or maybe Ellison can get the O’Reilly that is still burned out torn down in his Ward.

    In June there will be an Anniversary of a gang killing. It seems like every year when that death is being remembered next to North Commons someone else is at the very least shot, if not killed. There are candles there and a etc all the time. I saw a young man pull up to the corner in tears in his car and then burn rubber out of there. Maybe you and Ellison can sit on that corner at 16th and Morgan N and talk to the folks and help them with their trauma and hopefully no one will get killed again. So much blood spilled on that corner if feels sacred.

    A young African American wrote a recent Op-Ed how the Northside is a cemetery. It sure feels like it. We know the corners and memorials and stories off those who died on our streets. I remember walking with my wife and hearing shots. Yup, that’s when a Realtor was executed in an Alley in my neighborhood. Flat out executed like the mob or a Dictator would. OR maybe I’m getting it mixed up with the time someone did a fake drug deal and really tried to rob the fella and they shot him and he crashed into a tree a few blocks later in front of an elementary school. The tree still has the scars. Just like the tree where 3 Northside youth died in a carjacked vehicle over on Emerson Ave N. last summer. I’ll never forget those kids.

    Ask Ellison why there are no Violence Interrupters 6 months + since they were launched? Phillipe knows, he bungled the job and now Cure Violence is working with OVP to relaunch the program. Too many will die before they get it launched and implemented.

    Streets and trauma? How about streets dangerous because we have so many stolen cars hitting houses and other cars and shooting at people. Or how about when I came home from a run and there was a car crashed into my neighbors yard and MPD everywhere trying to find someone who threw their guns out the windows and then leaped out the car and went for a run, but not the same type of run I had just come back from.

    Oh, then there was when I was talking to kids and behind me they saw a young man fire a gun into a car and then he turned around and walked up the street toward us and I had to rush them into my house and then in latter weeks explain to them what to do next time that happens since they were so very traumatized and afraid.

    George Floyd’s murder was a terrible terrible thing done by someone I see as evil.

    But trauma? Oh…I’m surrounded by it. There is no “Reimagined Public Safety,: yet. They are still taking feedback on what to do, and trying to launch the mental health responders the Mental Health Providers told them not to do and their just doing an RFP for the Violence Interrupters now.

    Have fun in Northeast, good luck getting the concrete barriers fixed so you can cross the street.

    I’ll keep looking for that bullet.

  4. Megan

    “prioritizing buildings over people”

    As someone who has a spouse who will be inside one of those buildings during the trial I’d remind you that those buildings do have people inside them, and just like all people they deserve the right to go home to their families. While I don’t adore the barriers I recognize the complex reasons why they’ve been put in place, especially in light of the events from small numbers of extremists last summer and this January. If they allow my spouse to come home each night to our children then I’ll tolerate their existence for the coming months.

    1. Emilie WilleEmilie Wille Post author

      I hope your spouse stays safe and you’re right, the buildings contain people. However this isn’t just buildings, it’s streets and sidewalks being blocked off and lined with razor wire, and also the fact that protestors have been designated a “cage” where they can likely be kettled. I worry about the ability of protestors (and people generally) in downtown to get around safely without being injured or brutalized

  5. Bill LindekeBill LindekeModerator  

    Moderator’s note: I removed a comment that was becoming too negative. This is a tough conversation but try to stay respectful of each other, and listen to different perspectives.

  6. Brian

    What would the public reaction be if the courthouse was not protected and it was breached by an angry mob?

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