Until recently, Iglan Ahmed hadn’t seriously considered moving from the 2900 block of S. 18th Avenue.
But when a 12-year-old boy shoved a handgun in her face during a robbery attempt outside of her south Minneapolis home, the mother of eight decided that she’d had enough.
“I’m scared for my life,” Ahmed said of the troubled block just north of Lake Street, which she says had turned into a haven for drug dealing and prostitution. “If no one is doing anything, there’s no way for me to live in this neighborhood.”
Ahmed and her neighbors say the block has become even less of a priority for police and City Hall after the unrest that followed when George Floyd was killed in police custody, leading for calls to reimagine policing in the city. They say it’s one reason the area stands out as the city’s most notorious open-air drug markets. And while some sympathize with the long-term goals of the “Defund MPD” movement, they say they’re facing a number of other issues that require more immediate attention.
Like the surrounding East Phillips neighborhood — which is 84% people of color — the block is home to many working-class families from Latin America and East Africa.
Drugs, gangs and prostitution have long been prevalent, and last month the area was battered by the rioting and looting that spread through the South Side after Floyd died. Located in the 3rd Precinct, East Phillips also saw violent crime jump roughly 16% in the decade between 2010 and 2019.
Ahmed and others say the block feels isolated from E. Lake Street, the area’s main commercial drag. But it’s far from quiet, with dealers openly peddling bags of marijuana and heroin in the middle of the street, day and night. Vehicles pull up like customers at a fast food drive-through, with drug users sometimes getting high in neighbors’ front yards and porches. The stench of urine is overpowering in some places. And employees of a nearby day care center start each day by sweeping their playground for used syringes and condoms that may have been dumped there the night before.
“Before everything with George Floyd, we had been calling the police and asking for their help, but unfortunately the only thing that the police department was willing to do or able to do was just driving down the block to say, ‘You’ve gotta keep moving,’” said Jeremy Gray, a block captain.
Minneapolis police spokesman John Elder said police are aware of the ongoing crime in the area and have added patrols and been in contact with neighbors in the area.
“The MPD has long supported neighborhood watch and neighborhood watch patrols for those who wish to do it,” he said.
In an e-mail to residents, Kali Pliego, a crime prevention specialist for the 3rd Precinct, said that she was “sincerely concerned” after visiting the block recently, and promised to station a mobile police camera nearby whenever one became available.
“Status quo is not serving your families justice,” Pliego wrote. “I want to help, but am not in the position to be able to offer more police resources at the moment. 911 calls will be answered, but temporarily, we cannot count on directed patrols or other proactive measures.”
What sometimes gets lost in the post-Floyd conversation around policing is that communities blighted by poverty and neglect have also often deprived of “effective policing,” said criminologist Rod Brunson.
“It’s not an either-or: it’s the combination of under- and over-policing that occurs simultaneously that undermines police effectiveness and police legitimacy,” said Brunson, a professor at Northeastern University’s school of criminology and criminal justice, noting that “extreme calls for abolishing police altogether” would prove “dire” for people in high crime areas.
On the day of the attempted robbery, Ahmed says she was sitting in her car behind her house and glanced up at some point to find two youngsters armed with handguns walk up and they demanded she hand over her car keys and wallet. One of the youths stuck a gun in her face as he tried to grab Ahmed’s phone, letting let off a shot in the air that momentarily startled her. Ahmed wasn’t injured, but she says the episode left her shaken.
Councilmember Alondra Cano, who represents the area, said that she is “equally unsatisfied with the current system” of policing that has alienated residents, while failing to put a dent in the area’s problems. For years, she says, the department’s focus was on cracking down on low-level offenses like public urination, while allowing more serious crimes to flourish. Cano, who has supported dismantling the police department, says a harm reduction approach is needed to address the area’s problems.
“It’s been really frustrating for me in that MPD hasn’t been able to deliver results on that front,” she said.
But neighbors said that Cano has been equally unresponsive to their pleas for help, and that calls to her office often go unreturned.
Minneapolis may yet serve as a national model for a new approach to public safety, but not if it doesn’t first “protect its most vulnerable citizens,” according to Sarah Lageson, an assistant professor at the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University-Newark.
Like her neighbors, Devika Ghai sees the block’s problems as a symptom of a general neglect by city leaders, but she isn’t convinced that more police is the answer. After Floyd’s death, she said, much of the country woke up to the reality that its “Black and brown” citizens have long known, of a public safety system that has touted justice for all, but rarely delivered.
“There just isn’t any political will to address any fundamental issues here, which is people don’t have housing, people don’t have dignified employment and people are criminalized over and over again, so people end up in criminalized industries,” Ghai said. “I think the problem is that there’ve been so few alternatives for so long.”
After months of frustration, some residents have banded together to take back the block. They set up private WhatsApp groups to share photos and videos of illegal activity, and later began round-the-clock monitoring of the area while wearing yellow T-shirts that read “Neighborhood Watch” on the front and “Security” on the back. Some started carrying guns. Then in the past few days, they blocked off both ends of the street with metal barriers and garbage bins filled with concrete to cut down on speeders who used to fly down the block.
Since then, neighbors say they’ve enjoyed their first stretch of quiet nights in months, but some doubt the uneasy calm can last long without help from police or Cano.
Residents say that some police officers have shown an interest in their plight, like the sergeant who helped defuse a tense standoff Wednesday between locals and city worker, who showed up to remove the fencing. The sergeant eventually negotiated an agreement that allowed residents to keep the barriers up, so long as they could guarantee a path for ambulances and other emergency vehicles.
Abdi Hassan, who works for the state pollution control agency, says things got so bad that some neighbors were afraid to use their front doors out of fear of being harassed by dealers, who seem emboldened by the lack of police presence. A few weeks ago, Hassan says he decided to move his wife and two young kids into his mother’s house in the south suburbs.
“We told them about the encampment and the drugs and the vacant house,” said Hassan, adding that he’s left numerous messages with Cano about an abandoned house on the block that seems to attract trouble, to no avail. “Cops don’t help, nobody helps — we don’t know where to go.”