Trouble Shooters

A violent night in north Minneapolis and the community activists who helped the cops stop it

On the evening of August 22, as a piece of the Jordan neighborhood in north Minneapolis was beginning to erupt in violence, Spike Moss was enjoying a repast at a local restaurant with his wife, along with some friends and relatives; his trusty cell phone was back at his house, on top of the television. Returning home sometime after 9:00 p.m., Moss, a vice president at the social-service agency the City, Inc., found a cadre of friends and co-workers waiting in his driveway.

"I asked what was happening and someone said, 'Spike, the brothers are going off. If you don't get up there, somebody is going to get killed,'" Moss recalls. "I ran inside, got my phone, which was full of messages, changed my clothes, got some of the guys in my truck, others followed me in their cars, and we all went straight up there. The deputy chief, Greg Hestness, saw me the minute I arrived. I told him, 'Look, I can cool this out and calm this down, but you've got about 50 police cars lined up here. I need you to clear all this out. Because that's an occupying force; it's too intimidating.' He immediately moved the cars and I immediately went to work."

Hestness had been attending a community meeting on the southeast side of town when he first heard the news. Shortly before 8:00 p.m. an 11-year-old African-American boy had been injured by police outside a house that was the target of a high-risk search for drugs at the corner of Knox and 26th Avenues North. With Minneapolis Police Chief Robert Olson on a plane heading back to town, Hestness was the person in charge.

Arriving at a command post at the corner of West Broadway and Penn Avenue North, Hestness learned that an angry mob was gathering near the house, fed by false rumors that the cops had intentionally, fatally shot the boy. He decided to cut short the drug raid and withdraw police from the area. When he learned that members of the media were trapped in and around a convenience store across the street from the house, however, he says, officers returned to the scene to engage in a "rescue mission." That's when he saw Moss arrive, solicited his advice, and agreed that a continued police presence would only inflame the situation.

"Spike and I go back a long ways. We had a similarly successful relationship back when Kevin Brewer was shot [in the Cottage Grove neighborhood in August 2000] and he did some street work that helped keep a lid on hostilities. His grapevine is very effective."

Later that night Hestness unsuccessfully attempted to contact Minneapolis City Council member Joe Biernat, whose ward includes the Jordan neighborhood. He and fellow deputy chief Bill Jones also went to the home of council member Natalie Johnson Lee and left word of what was happening. "Her ward is near the area and I thought it was important to engage as many leaders in the north Minneapolis black community as we could on this," he explains. When she got the news, Johnson Lee called Shane Price, coordinator of Hennepin County's African-American Men Project and Biernat's opponent in last year's Third Ward city council race. Price, who was working out at Lake Calhoun at the time, immediately drove to Jordan.

After evaluating the still volatile situation, Price called Johnson Lee and asked her to connect him with Mayor R.T. Rybak. Rybak in turn connected Price with police inspector Tim Dolan of the Fourth Precinct, who had taken over for Hestness on the scene. As Moss had done with Hestness, Price asked Dolan to keep the cops back while he tried to quiet the crowd. Dolan did just that. "Dolan and I have known and respected each other for seven years, and I appreciate the way he responded to me," Price says. "I grew up under Charlie Stenvig as chief, who had a very anti-black posture, and it was always clear to me that the police were going to kick my butt whenever they could. Subsequent chiefs, including Chief Olson, have struggled with the residual feeling from that agenda. Under Chief Stenvig, and probably many other chiefs, I believe we would have lost some lives in Jordan that night."

 

As the night's events continue to reverberate throughout Minneapolis, what many seem to find most interesting is not that a botched police raid resulted in the shooting of a child or that the event touched off a near race riot (or rebellion) in Jordan. It's that MPD leaders essentially ceded control of the situation to outspoken black activists like Spike Moss and Shane Price. In the days following the melee, various neighborhood groups in Jordan complained that Moss and the City, Inc., were grandstanding outsiders who moved in with little regard for other, longer-standing grassroots community efforts. Chief Olson was criticized for issuing Moss a batch of MPD ID cards and offering to pay $6,000 to a "citizen patrol" group organized by Moss, which walks through the neighborhood at night discouraging drug sales and other criminal activity.

There's no question that the increasingly chummy relationship between Moss, Price, and the MPD's top cop is, in part, a matter of mutual political convenience: being anointed as a community peacemaker in a time of crisis won't hurt Price, should he decide to run again for city council in a ward where the incumbent is currently under indictment; Moss is always looking for ways to raise his profile and the budget of the City, Inc.; and Olson stands to further improve his image among some segments of the black community by associating himself with high-profile allies in one of the city's most volatile areas.

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