Little Earth: The Troubles

Another accusation of police misconduct reopens the old rift between cops and residents at south Minneapolis's Little Earth housing complex

An evening rain has just cleared, and some of the residents of Little Earth are emerging from their apartments to enjoy the summer night. Vinnie, a 36-year-old mother of four, is out for a stroll along the grounds of the low-income housing complex, just east of Cedar Avenue South, in the 2500 block. Like most of the residents of Little Earth, Vinnie is American Indian. She's lived at the complex for about a year.

It's just after 8:00 p.m. on a Saturday, and Vinnie is feeling cheerful in spite of the previous year's troubles, incurred since she moved to town from South Dakota. She came to take care of her mother, a longtime Little Earth resident who is recovering from a kidney transplant. Just a couple of weeks back, she found herself at the business end of a knife in a confrontation with neighbors who had been harassing her mother.

And the rest of the family—well, that's why she's carrying her two- year-old niece with her as she walks. "Her mom and dad are smoking crack right now," Vinnie explains. "They smoke it right in front of her. I'm like, it's my niece. I don't want her smelling that shit."

Vinnie tells this with the assurance that her real name won't be used; retaliation for speaking out about anything is commonplace at Little Earth. The baby's parents live in the apartment next door to Vinnie's, in a row of dwellings that face south toward what used to be 25 1/2 Street, but recently was renamed E.M. Stately Street after one of the people who initiated plans for the housing complex more than 35 years ago. There's a steady stream of folks going in and out of both apartments, a flimsy storm door clattering behind them.

"Weed, cocaine, crack," Vinnie continues, ticking off the drugs of choice—aside from alcohol—found at Little Earth. "People go to the hospital and get drugs and sell them. You can get a Percocet for three dollars, and a Vicodin for four."

There's a pause. Rain clouds still linger, bringing an early darkness. Suddenly there are kids everywhere, riding dirt bikes on sidewalks and makeshift paths all around the complex. Teenagers dressed in athletic jerseys, ball caps, and blue bandanas roam about in groups, teasing, roughhousing, and flirting with each other. Many of them have been drinking; some are in local gangs. Several older adolescent girls are pushing babies in strollers.

Someone lights off some fireworks in the distance. "I hear shootings every weekend," Vinnie says, prompted by the rat-a-tat pops outside. "This will go on all night, and something will happen. Every weekend, they light off the fireworks just to fuck people up, so pretty soon you can't tell what's a real gun and what isn't."

In early June, Little Earth was briefly in the news following the public disclosure of an incident on Friday, May 26, involving the Minneapolis Police Department. That Memorial Day weekend had been unseasonably hot in the city. According to a police report, later verified by surveillance footage, cops arrived at Little Earth shortly after 7:00 that evening to break up a fight. After a long conversation with the two officers, Lt. Rick Thomas and Lt. Michael Fossum, one of the brawlers tried to flee, and was immediately handcuffed.

Over the course of the next few minutes, the suspect, identified as Juan Trinidad Vasquez, and the two officers somehow remained out of sight of the 32 security cameras scattered about the complex. When they reappeared on surveillance video, one officer was walking a handcuffed Vasquez to a squad car. The other officer approached and bumped into Vasquez, who doubled over as though he'd received a blow to the mid-section. Onlookers say Vasquez passed out. Though Vasquez was, according to the tape and the incident report, given "medical treatment," many eyewitnesses claimed that he was detained in the back of a squad on a hot day by himself—windows up, AC off—for some 30 minutes.

Both of the officers implicated in the episode were put on paid leave while the MPD and the FBI conducted investigations. They returned to their jobs June 24 in a "non-enforcement capacity" while the case remains open. Vasquez, a 24-year-old American Indian-Latino who does not live at Little Earth, was charged with a narcotics violation (the incident report notes the officers observed him "with a baggie of suspected crack cocaine").

The incident was made public 11 days later when Little Earth executive director Bill Ziegler held a press conference outside the complex's administrative offices. Ziegler was joined there by MPD interim Chief Tim Dolan, Deputy Chief Lucy Gerold, and Third Precinct Inspector Scott Gerlicher. About 100 residents, activists, and journalists showed up as well. "We have worked to make Little Earth a safe, hope-filled community," Ziegler began on a conciliatory note, praising the response of Dolan and Gerlicher. "We cannot allow this incident to destroy the relationship we've developed with the Minneapolis Police Department."

If Ziegler, who has been on the job for all of 18 months, was trying to walk a fine line, it didn't work. His apparently cozy relationship with the cops infuriated some Indian activists who have long viewed the MPD as a mortal enemy. The press, meanwhile, wanted to know why Ziegler wasn't making the tape of the incident public. "Does everyone want to see a big Indian uprising here?" he countered. "How would that help the residents? You don't live here. You'll all go home to the suburbs. You aren't stuck with the fallout from your reports."

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