Resistance at Near North: Police stand off with activists at Minneapolis homeless encampment

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JoJo Miller, a resident of the Near North encampment, talked with Ward 5 City Council member Jeremiah Ellison after police attempted to clear the camp. Photo by JD Duggan.

By J.D. Duggan

After months of threatened evictions, activists held off police in the city’s first attempt to clear the Near North encampment.

At dawn on March 18, about a dozen police officers showed up to the Near North homeless encampment to evict residents.

When law enforcement arrived, they cordoned off the intersections leading to the camp with police tape, declaring the area a crime scene. Within a half hour, police were brawling with activists defending the camp and its residents from being displaced. Chemical irritants were almost immediately dispersed into the throng of defenders. Some were tackled and multiple were maced while on the ground.

At one point, an officer grabbed the shirt of one individual who was on the ground and, while standing, punched them in the side of the head at least three times before another activist pulled the officer back. 

“What happened to them wasn’t right, they simply were just trying to defend our encampment, our home, our family and for that we’ll be forever in their debts,” said JoJo Miller, a resident of the camp.
“There’s a feeling of comfort knowing that those individuals would risk all of that for us, for some homeless people, and it’s beautiful.”

Within the hour, police left, and no eviction was carried out. 

The Near North camp has faced intermittent threats of eviction for months. This time, eviction notices were posted in the snow giving three days warning for them to leave the city-owned plot of land that has sat empty for years. 

The police offensive gained national attention, as videos of the fight proliferated social media. One video, initially tweeted by MNUPRISING, has more than 150,000 views. 

It shows an officer repeatedly using his full weight to punch a person in the torso. Another cop then slammed his body onto that person’s head, driving their face into the curb. He then kneeled on their neck.

Another officer dragged an activist out of the scuffle and maced them directly in the face while they were on the ground. At one point, the officer grabbed the person’s head to spray the chemical irritants into the person’s eyes from inches away.

Five activists were arrested, and no encampment residents were hurt. 

“I’m feeling good, honestly, right now, just due to the fact that we’re still here,” Miller said on Thursday. “We still have to stay very vigilant. No telling, they could come back any minute. We are all aware of that.”

The altercation came one month after the city  gave encampment residents an eviction notice – and then canceled it. A city spokesperson said in an email on March 16 that the most recent eviction attempt was due to site contamination, fire hazards and safety risks that have “escalated to the point where immediate closure is warranted.” The city has repeatedly pointed to “soil contamination” as reason for evicting the Near North camp.

Mandla Xaba, a resident of the camp, said a domestic violence incident happened in the days prior to the eviction notices, which may have provoked the city to try clearing the camp. But he said residents kicked out the perpetrator of violence and made sure the victim was safe.

“Even though we do the right thing, protect the victim, make sure the other party can’t come back, we were told for our safety that this is unsafe,” Xaba said.

He said that the city still has not worked as a partner to the Near North community. 

Residents and activists are still on edge. Since Thursday, city vehicles have repeatedly circled the encampment. On Friday evening, two fire trucks slowly drove around the plot, shining their spotlights into the camp.

So, what comes next? 

“That’s to be determined,” Xaba said. “I’m not a lawyer but I think this is being done in an illegal manner. It’s certainly a violation of basic decency, peoples’ human rights. This is ridiculous.”

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