On The Corner

Overwhelmed activists, embattled police, and perplexed politicians brace for a long, hot summer in South Minneapolis

Bray, 46, isn't wearing a shirt--just a black leather trench coat that drapes below the knees of his black jeans. He wears cowboy boots and a leather fedora, and his dull eyes reveal the life of someone who has had to constantly look over his shoulder--a life, he says, that has been peppered with drug abuse, domestic abuse, and petty crime. When he took the caretaking job, he had just done a stint in prison for forging checks and was determined to help the owners clean up their building. "I want to live and prosper here," he says.

But about four months ago, Bray started smoking crack again when he could afford it, and he let things slide at the apartment building. "The pressure from the top dogs of the gangs was relentless," Bray explains. "They wanted to reclaim the building, and they were jumping the fence at night to get in. I got beat up all the time."

After a while, Bray started letting dealers into the apartment he shares with his girlfriend, Debra Perry. He tries not to make excuses for his behavior, but is careful to note that he takes people in off the street when they are cold or need a shower. "I did succumb to the pressure somewhat, and there was some crack being smoked in my apartment--I'm no angel in this. But suddenly, I call the police, and they're treating me like I'm the criminal. There's no way out of this for me. I've got eight kids, and I can't let any of them come here and see this. They can't even visit me.

"I want to stay, but I don't think I can live in this anymore," Bray concludes, standing in the backyard, waving his hand out toward the sidewalk. "I'm five-foot-six and 150 pounds soaking wet, but I'll fight as much as I can. I'd rather die on my feet than live on my knees, but right now, I'm on my knees."

It's a Saturday evening in late April, and on the sidewalk in front of Bray's building there's a rally going on. The gathering is a direct response to the increased level of activity on the street, which includes a pumped-up, paranoia-inducing police presence and the threat of nightly fights turning into bloody, summer-long turf battles. Just four nights ago, on April 16, there was a shooting half a block away on Bloomington. One 17-year-old boy was killed; two other people were injured.

MAD DADS, a community outreach group that patrols drug-infested streets in the inner city, is hosting the get-together, trying to let drug dealers know that they are no longer welcome. More than 50 people grill burgers and hot dogs, hold signs with slogans like, "Hope not Dope," and groove a little to some classic R&B coming out of a makeshift PA system.

V.J. Smith, the president of MAD DADS, makes an introductory speech to pump up the crowd. "We care about this neighborhood more than ever," he concludes, before passing the microphone to council member Dean Zimmermann.

"We have to stand together and make it too uncomfortable for the druggies to be here," Zimmermann says. "We have the worst situation possible here--with young kids growing up on this block disenfranchised, on the fast track to jail, or being shot. We have to change the culture here."

Inspector Sharon Lubinski takes her turn, saying that she wants to increase police presence on the street when the weather turns warm. "But the only way to do this is together," she cautions. "I want you to know that I look forward to being here while we do this."

There are some "amens" and applause, but for many residents, like Bray, it rings hollow. The shooting finally got some people's attention, but rhetoric at a rally won't change the block. In some ways, the mere presence of MAD DADS--a small group with little money and no authority--indicates how little hope there is.

Smith then introduces a frail black woman who's been "out on this street for 12 years." She bravely takes the microphone and faces the crowd. "I don't like what I do sometimes when I'm on drugs, and I don't want to be out here no more," she says, her voice breaking. "I've been raped out here. I've been jumped on. It's something I got to fix. I don't like what I do. I love my kids."

Then she breaks down and cries.

Later, she tells me her name is Gloria Thomas. She is 38, grew up in Mississippi, and came to Minneapolis 12 years ago via Chicago. She says she was physically and sexually abused as a girl. She's been to 15 different treatment programs. She's illiterate. She sleeps under the bridge on 29th Street. She has ten kids.

"I could write a book, if I knew how to spell," she says. "I love myself, and I hate myself. I know people don't like me because I'm a crackhead, but I accept it."

She starts yelling that she's not embarrassed to be who she is; then she says she's ashamed of her drug abuse. She says she loves crack; then she starts sobbing again.

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