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America Reckons With Racial Injustice

Armed Neighborhood Groups Form In The Absence Of Police Protection

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Armed volunteers take up rooftop positions in a Minneapolis neighborhood; those who are not allowed to carry guns are kept off the roof.
Jim Urquhart for NPR

Armed volunteers take up rooftop positions in a Minneapolis neighborhood; those who are not allowed to carry guns are kept off the roof.

Cesia Baires knocks on the three apartment doors above her restaurant and a neighboring taqueria just before curfew.

A woman opens the door. Her two young children are inside.

"Remember," she says to them in Spanish. "Same thing as yesterday. I'm going to come check on you. If there's anything you guys need, give us a call right away."

Meanwhile, a few men climb through the window and on to the roof to set up semi-automatic weapons as the curfew begins in Minneapolis. It's something Baires never thought she would have to do as a small-business owner, but then she found out these apartments were occupied.

"Material things we can replace, that's true," she says. "But there are families up here. These aren't empty buildings."

As break-ins and fires raged in the first days of mass protests over the killing of yet another black man in an encounter with police, the city seemed to descend into a security vacuum. She says the police disappeared from this neighborhood. That's when she and others started forming patrols to include people with licensed weapons.

"I'm the one that's checking everyone," she says. "If you're up here with a gun and you're not supposed to be here and you don't have a license to carry, then I don't allow you to even go to the rooftop. Only people with guns are on the rooftop."

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But is this a path to vigilante justice?

"It's not something that I would want, but we've seen how, for at least the first couple days, we were left alone," she says. "There were no cops that would come around. So what are we to do? Just stand there and do nothing?"

Her group — Security Latinos De La Lake — is one of many neighborhood watch groups sprouting up across the Twin Cities and in other parts of the country as dozens of mostly peaceful protests continue every day, sometimes in the face of violence from law enforcement: tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray. The Twin Cities have largely calmed, but Baires says she wasn't even able to get through to 911 until Monday.

When asked about the lack of police presence, a spokesman for the Minneapolis Police Department said in an email that the department is facing an "unprecedented situation." He added that citizens who need help should call 911. The department is also aware of these neighborhood groups. In fact, the police chief and officers have met with some, and the department is not concerned as long as they're following the law.

Baires' restaurant is right next to Hector Hernandez's taqueria. The boarded-up windows outside are spray-painted with George Floyd's final words as he begged for his life from police. "Mama." "I Can't Breathe."

This community stands in solidarity with the demonstrations. It is spray-painted on the walls. Tagged on the plank wood boards that cover the broken glass of the storefronts. But many here say they don't understand the destruction, and they don't believe demonstrators protesting police brutality and systemic racism are behind much of the damage on this block. These are businesses and landmarks largely built by black and brown communities.

Just before curfew, the local supermarket manager Mauro Madrigal briefs a group of residents and business owners in the parking lot behind the store. He focuses on safety practices: Move dumpsters that could be set on fire away from buildings, have sand and dirt ready to smother flames, and only share threats you see, not rumors you hear. He passes out a flyer in Spanish and English to the multiracial group.

"Our neighborhood is under threat from white supremacists coming into Minneapolis," it says.

He and others say they came to that conclusion because they've seen trucks and cars without plates or with out-of-state license plates: Iowa, Wisconsin. They've seen men with backpacks coming into the neighborhood. And then there are the online videos circulating: one of a white man in a gas mask, in black, with an umbrella methodically smashing out the windows of an AutoZone. An African American man walks up to stop him, others ask who he is, and he walks away.

All of this has fueled speculation and rumor among protesters on the streets all the way up to state and local officials. Right now, in the chaos of an uprising, the who and why are just not clear. It could be impassioned protesters moved to burn buildings, desperate to finally be heard, it could be anarchists or white supremacists, or opportunists, or all of the above.

But William Martinez is convinced that whoever is doing it wants to destroy the businesses Latinos built in the Minneapolis neighborhood of Powderhorn Park.

"It's important to tell people we're not going to shoot anybody," he says. "We don't have that idea. But we want to prevent people who are going to hurt Latino families."

Martinez says of all the businesses in this community, only two Latino shops have survived where people can buy food.

Now, any unfamiliar vehicle or person sparks suspicion. Martinez's group, coordinates with an Indigenous motorcycle group across the street surrounding the Red Lake Nation Embassy.

He wears a neon yellow T-shirt with black lettering "Security Latinos De La Lake." In part, he says, it's to make sure any law enforcement that might be suspicious of black or brown people know who they are.

"You know, we are brown. We know exactly what's going on," he starts to laugh.

As they finalize plans for the night and pass out fire extinguishers to neighbors, a group of people roll up in a truck, and a white man named Jordan — he wouldn't give his last name but described himself as working with anarchists — walks over in a bulletproof vest with a yellow walkie-talkie attached. He approaches Madrigal and Hernandez. He explains he and others will be in the empty building next door to the market to provide security for a nearby theater.

"So we should have close to 40 people," Jordan says.

"Does anybody have weapons?" Hernandez asks.

"Yeah,"

Everyone armed is licensed. They coordinate channels on the walkie-talkies and share where their people will be.

When Jordan walks away, Madrigal says he has never seen him before.

"All these people, I don't know them. I don't know where they're from. But they're here helping us, so that's all. I'm glad that they're here to help," he says.

As curfew begins, the group splits off into their homes and businesses. Inside Hernandez's taqueria, he and Baires, the owner of Abi's Cafe next door in the same building, work with others to barricade the front door.

"All right. You ready, guys?"

"Ready," the group responds.

Those licensed to carry move to the roof. The rest stay inside with BB guns to scare people off.

"I don't want to be here," Hernandez says. "We don't want to hurt anybody. But if we're in danger, we're probably going to use [our weapons] that's for sure. It's going to be self-defense. We're not going to shoot anybody. But if they start shooting, then it's different."

On the road out of this neighborhood, other groups have blocked off their streets, put warning signs up that people are watching and that trespassing would have consequences.

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