MINNEAPOLIS — When Shari Albers moved three decades ago into Powderhorn Park, a tree-lined Minneapolis neighborhood known as a haven to leftist activists and bohemian artists like herself, she went to work sprucing it up.
She became a block club leader, organizing her mostly white neighbors to bring in playgrounds and help tackle longstanding issues with crime.
On many nights, she banged on the car windows of men who had come to solicit prostitutes outside her door, she said. She kept meticulous notes when dozens of men would gather in a circle for gang meetings in the park across from her house. After each episode, she called the police.
But times have changed. After the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police, Ms. Albers, who is white, and many of her progressive neighbors have vowed to avoid calling law enforcement into their community. Doing so, they believed, would add to the pain that black residents of Minneapolis were feeling and could put them in danger.
Already, that commitment is being challenged. Two weeks ago, dozens of multicolored tents appeared in the neighborhood park. They were brought by homeless people who were displaced during the unrest that gripped the city. The multiracial group of roughly 300 new residents seems to grow larger and more entrenched every day. They do laundry, listen to music and strategize about how to find permanent housing. Some are hampered by mental illness, addiction or both.
Their presence has drawn heavy car traffic into the neighborhood, some from drug dealers. At least two residents have overdosed in the encampment and had to be taken away in ambulances.
The influx of outsiders has kept Ms. Albers awake at night. Though it is unlikely to happen, she has had visions of people from the tent camp forcing their way into her home. She imagines using a baseball bat to defend herself.
Not being able to call the police, as she has done for decades, has shaken her.
“I am afraid,” she said. “I know my neighbors are around, but I’m not feeling grounded in my city at all. Anything could happen.”
The video of Mr. Floyd’s death and the outcry over racial injustice that came after has awakened many white Americans to a reality that people of color have known their whole lives: The scores of police killings they have seen in the news in recent years were not one-off incidents, but part of a systemic problem of the dehumanization of black people by the police.
In the city where the movement began, residents are not surprised that it is being taken especially seriously in Powderhorn Park, just blocks from Mr. Floyd’s deadly encounter with the police. For decades, the community has been a refuge for scrappy working-class activists with far-left politics. The biggest day of the year, locals often boast, is the May Day parade celebrating laborers.
Though it is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Minneapolis, with black residents making up about 17 percent of the population, white people make up the largest group. About a third of the population is Latino.
Since the camp appeared, the community has organized shifts for delivering warm meals, medical care and counseling to people living in the park. They persuaded officials to back off an eviction notice served shortly after the campers arrived.
But many in the neighborhood, who were already beleaguered from the financial stresses of the coronavirus, now say they are eager for the campers to move on to stable housing away from the park.
“I’m not being judgmental,” said Carrie Nightshade, 44, who explained that she no longer felt comfortable letting her children, 12 and 9, play in the park by themselves. “It’s not personal. It’s just not safe.”
On Friday, she sat in a shared backyard with four other women who live in neighboring houses. The women, four of whom are white, had called a meeting to vent about the camp.
Angelina Roslik burst into tears, explaining that she had spent the past four years fleeing unstable housing conditions and was struggling more than she cared to admit with the chaos the camp had brought into the neighborhood. Linnea Borden said she had stopped walking her dog through the park because she was tired of being catcalled. “My emotions change every 30 seconds,” said Tria Houser, who is part Native American.
The women agreed to let any property damage, including to their own homes, go ignored and to request a block party permit from the city to limit car traffic. Rather than turn to law enforcement if they saw anyone in physical danger, they resolved to call the American Indian Movement — a national organization created in 1968 to address Native American grievances such as police brutality — which had been policing its own community locally for years.
But some people in the neighborhood have already found their best-laid plans to avoid calling the police harder to execute than they had imagined.
Last Thursday night, Joseph Menkevich found a black man wearing a hospital bracelet passed out in the elevator of his apartment building two blocks away from the park. Mr. Menkevich, who is white, quickly phoned a community activist but she did not pick up. He felt he had no choice but to call 911, so he did, but requested an ambulance only, not the police.
Ultimately, a white police officer arrived at the scene. The officer checked the situation out briefly and then returned to his squad car.
“It didn’t resolve in a way that I had hoped,” Mr. Menkevich said. “All they did was offer to bring him back to the hospital. He refused, so they kicked him out on a rainy night.”
The impulse many white Powderhorn Park residents have to seek help from community groups rather than from the police is being felt in neighborhoods across the country. But some are finding the commitment hard to stand by when faced with the complex realities of life. While friends, neighbors and even family members in Powderhorn Park agree to avoid calling the police at all costs, it has been harder to establish where to draw the line.
Tobie Miller, Ms. Albers’s 34-year-old daughter, lives just a block away from her mother, but lately, she said, they have felt a world apart. Ms. Miller began a concerted effort last year to challenge her own privileges by taking a class on racial biases.
She worries that a lot of what has been written about the camp on community message boards has been influenced by racial profiling. To the extent that illegal activity is going on in the park, Ms. Miller does not blame the tent residents. “My feeling around it is those are symptoms of systemic oppression,” she said. “And that’s not on them.”
Some of the self-examination she and her mother have done recently has led them to the same place. Ms. Miller came to see her decision to buy a home in the neighborhood as potentially preventing a person of color from doing so. And while Ms. Albers used to feel only pride about the work she put in to revitalizing the community, now, she sees her work as gentrification that may have pushed out nonwhite residents. The neighborhood’s black population has dropped more than 5 percent since 2000.
Sheldon Stately Sr., 43, grew up in Powderhorn Park with his grandmother, one of the community’s few black homeowners at the time. He returned there recently in a tent. Mr. Stately said he had been homeless for three years after he could not make rent and lost his identification, which he could not afford to replace.
“I would like to get back working and feel better about my life,” he said.
On a recent afternoon, Sarah Kenney and Diane Cullumber, who are both white, were speedwalking behind their toddler sons through the park leading up to the camp. Ms. Kenney had been volunteering there a few times a week.
She said the experience had challenged her to consider not only the safety of her own family, which has a comfortable home and locked doors to retreat behind when they feel uncomfortable, but also that of people living outside without protection. Ms. Cullumber agreed.
Some people of color in the neighborhood, however, said they were skeptical that the community would allow the encampment to stay. “This thing is probably going to last two or three weeks,” said Aza Ochoa, a Mexican and Native American father who was walking through the park with his three children, 12, 11 and 6. Several Spanish-speaking members of the community said they had not been able to take part in collective discussions about the camp because they were in English.
Akhmiri Sekhr-Ra, a black woman who rented in Powderhorn Park for 10 years, said she was making plans to move back with her daughter. Though Ms. Sekhr-Ra said she had had a personal no-police policy for years, she questioned whether her white former neighbors would be able to stick to theirs. “If something really goes down that makes people uncomfortable, I think they’re going to call,” she said.
Mitchell Erickson’s fingers began dialing 911 last week before he had a chance to even consider alternatives, when two black teenagers who looked to be 15, at most, cornered him outside his home a block away from the park.
One of the boys pointed a gun at Mr. Erickson’s chest, demanding his car keys.
Flustered, Mr. Erickson handed over a set, but it turned out to be house keys. The teenagers got frustrated and ran off, then stole a different car down the street.
Mr. Erickson said later that he would not cooperate with prosecutors in a case against the boys. After the altercation, he realized that if there was anything he wanted, it was to offer them help. But he still felt it had been right to call the authorities because there was a gun involved.
Two days after an initial conversation, his position had evolved. “Been thinking more about it,” he wrote in a text message. “I regret calling the police. It was my instinct but I wish it hadn’t been. I put those boys in danger of death by calling the cops.”
What about the fact that the boys had put his life in danger?
“Yeah I know and yeah it was scary but the cops didn’t really have much to add after I called them,” he replied. “I haven’t been forced to think like this before. So I would have lost my car. So what? At least no one would have been killed.”