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 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.
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?
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.”
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.
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.
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.