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."

There was also a split between the activists who were angry with the cops and those residents who sided with Ziegler's decision, and a fight nearly broke out. The next day, Clyde Bellecourt, the longtime Indian activist who had a huge hand in shaping Little Earth in its infancy, held a similarly contentious press conference. He called for the termination of Lt. Rick Thomas, and the release of the surveillance tape. Within two hours, Ziegler, citing "ongoing tension," gave out DVD copies of the tape.

But a day's delay was enough to feed the suspicion and hostility of many Little Earth residents toward the police. Though Ziegler, Dolan, and Gerlicher all say the MPD's relations with the complex have never been better, a bad history runs deep.

News accounts from the pages of the Minneapolis Star and the Minneapolis Tribune in the 1970s and '80s record a number of nameless, faceless criminal incidents ranging from assaults and murders to allegations, some subsequently confirmed, of police brutality. The past 15 years have included a number of highly publicized allegations of police wrongdoing in connection with Little Earth:

• In July 1993, a pair of MPD officers were accused of putting two Native Americans, one a Little Earth resident, in the trunk of their squad car before taking them to detox. Then-Chief John Laux drew praise for his actions, which included suspending one officer, Marvin Schumer, for 90 days without pay, and another, Michael Lardy, for 20 days without pay. The two men, Charles Lone Eagle and John Boney, were awarded $100,000 each in a subsequent civil rights suit.

• In December of that year, a 16-year-old boy at the complex was wounded by a gunshot from a cop after he waved a "realistic-looking replica" of a handgun at a cop. One officer, Anthony Diioia, was working off-duty and in uniform at Little Earth; another, David E. Campbell, was out of uniform and helping Diioia on an unrelated case. As Campbell approached a group of youths, one boy pulled out the toy gun. Both officers fired, according to news clips, wounding the boy. It was never clear which officer shot the 16-year-old. According to the StarTribune it was the "first violence at Little Earth in quite some time."

• In March 1994, two officers were accused of kidnapping a man they had stopped for a driving violation at Little Earth. According to the Star Tribune, the two cops, Richard Gonion and Malcolm Johnson, allegedly offered to let Tesfai Kashai Dirar go if he paid them $300. The officers, according to news accounts, were arrested in handcuffs at the 3rd Precinct and forced to turn in their weapons and badges. (The officers eventually pled guilty to misconduct and resigned.) City leaders decried the situation, but shirked responsibility. "I can't police from City Hall. John Laux can't supervise from City Hall," then-Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton told reporters. "These officers have failed us."

• In September 2002, according to a complaint filed in U.S. District Court, MPD officers broke down the door of an apartment and allegedly proceeded to kick and batter several residents in the process of throwing them to the floor and handcuffing them. One woman, Danielle Long Crow, who was eight months pregnant, was purportedly yanked from the shower and forced to lie naked and stomach-down on the floor, the complaint says. The suit, which was eventually settled for $60,000, named as one of the defendants Lt. Richard Thomas—the same Rick Thomas who was a party to the May 26 incident this year. An MPD internal investigation apparently cleared Thomas of any wrongdoing in the department's eyes; his personnel file indicates he was never disciplined for the Long Crow incident.

• In January 2003, two MPD cops were accused of urinating on an intoxicated man and then leaving him and his female companion outside in freezing temperatures at a Little Earth parking lot off Ogema Place. "We've got a good thing going and then wham, this happens," then-Chief Robert Olson said at the time. "It's just disheartening." Clyde Bellecourt roared at a subsequent press conference, "What happened in our community would never take place at Hennepin and Lake or Edina or Bloomington."

Unfortunately for the MPD, the collective memory at Little Earth is uncommonly long. "We're a tight-knit group," says one resident. "And with that comes old wounds that never heal."

Little Earth is often mistaken for an inner-city reservation, a characterization that pisses off many residents and local Indians. They call it "the compound." It is actually public housing, devised in 1971 as a low-income enclave operated by American Indians. Initially, it was just Section 8 housing funded by the federal Model City program and the Housing and Urban Development office. By 1973 it opened, with one news account quoting a building manager saying that "A strong effort has been made to keep the complex from becoming an Indian ghetto." But almost immediately the complex faced money problems. Over the years, it has survived a number of financial distresses, the prospect of imminent foreclosure, and an 11-year lawsuit with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

It is often referred to as the only urban Indian housing complex in America, and to a large degree that's true: Some 96 percent of current residents are Native American. But it's also open to anyone who qualifies for Section 8 housing and can get approved from a waiting list. It features 212 units—efficiencies, one- and two-bedroom apartments, and townhouses with as many as four or five bedrooms. The rents are based on tenants' incomes, which are usually meager. According to Little Earth's official numbers, some 800 residents live there, but even Bill Ziegler concedes that the number is more than 1,000, and some residents say it gets as high as 3,000, with relatives and friends regularly crashing there—sometimes for long periods.

As Faith Bad Moccasin, who is 66 years old and has lived there for 10 years, puts it: "It's the Indian way to take care of your family, but a week turns into two months, and pretty soon the bad elements are living next door."

What this brings is a sense that outsiders, not residents, are inflicting problems on Little Earth. But the first identified American Indian gang in contemporary Minnesota, the Naturals, started here in 1979. Since then, there have been various offshoots of what are historically considered black gangs, like the Native Gangster Disciples and the Native Vice Lords. And there is something to the notion that people come from reservations in search of work or whatever else in the city and end up squatting at Little Earth.

But there is also an element of conflict between residents of different tribal backgrounds. Over the years, as Little Earth has become predominantly Indian, it has historically been Ojibwe-dominated. In recent years, however, members of other tribes, such as Lakota Indians, have moved in, and there are divisions between the differing bands. "But natives want to live among natives," says one resident, "and that's why I live here."

In recent years, as south Minneapolis has seen an influx of Mexican immigrants, the face of Little Earth has changed slightly as Indian and Latino cultures gravitated toward each other. "They're both indigenous peoples," notes Vince Hill, an Ojibwe reporter for the Native American Press/Ojibwe News, "but now you see native tongues dying out"—in some cases replaced by Spanish, or the collective tongue of poor America, hip-hop vernacular.

Geographically, "the compound" comprises a couple of parcels of land in a neighborhood now known as East Phillips, bordered by 24th and 26th streets on the south and north ends, and 18th and Hiawatha Avenues on the west and east. A pedestrian bridge, the main visual element of Little Earth, arches over Cedar Avenue. There are six or seven clusters of sloping, stucco buildings in the west side of the complex. It's not hard to imagine Little Earth as decent public housing, at least cosmetically, back in the day. There are patios, and gates, and patches of yard in some of the clusters. There's a bucolic park on the west side of Cedar Avenue—which runs right through the heart of Little Earth—that appears to epitomize what urban green space can do for a community, complete with playground equipment, public grills, and towering trees. The units on the west side were rehabbed and fitted with central air conditioning units not long ago.

They don't have central air on the east side of Cedar. But they do have a security center, as well as a majority of the compound's 32 surveillance cameras. The dwellings on Ogema Place (the name is Ojibwe for "king" or "leader") have a pervasive air of poverty. They face east toward a high retaining wall that's part of Hiawatha Avenue. On the ground, there are wrecked cars, broken screens, fast-food litter, and an occasional lampshade or abandoned Styrofoam cooler. Judging from the forensic evidence scattered everywhere, the canned beverages of choice include Diet Coke, Bud Ice, and Colt 45.

East side or west, the one unifying theme at Little Earth, besides native heritage, is poverty. Some 80 percent of households are led by single mothers, according to estimates of those who live and work there. "Of the families and individuals currently occupying the units," according to a current Little Earth press release, "99 percent are very low income and 1 percent are low income." Further, "69 percent of the households have annual incomes less than $10,000."

As of 2000, the official population of Census Tract 73.01, which encompasses Little Earth, was 1,733 people in 485 households. Of the roughly 400 renter households, 225 had no car, 206 were below the federal poverty line, 95 were on public assistance, and 49 had no phone service. Demographically, some 1,500 residents were American Indian or mixed-race. More than 58 percent were under the age of 18, and just 11 percent older than 45. Married couples made up only 18 percent of the population, single mothers 45 percent. And of the 950 residents over the age of 16, 9 percent were unemployed and another 41 percent were "not in the labor force"—making for an effective unemployment rate of 50 percent. About 96 percent of the households made less than $25,000 a year.

Going back a decade, MPD maps of violent crime in the area for 1996 and 1997 show a steady wave of aggravated assault, rape, domestic assault, and a handful of homicides. In 1998, some 2,373 serious crimes—such as aggravated assault, rape, or murder—occurred in the Phillips neighborhood, which was a huge part of town before it was split into four separate neighborhoods. A good quarter of those crimes, by MPD estimates, happened near or at Little Earth. (That figure for all of Phillips nearly doubles the total in impoverished north side areas like Jordan and Hawthorne during the same period.)

In 2001, the MPD started keeping statistics for Phillips East, which is a more precise sample, an eight-block area that consists mostly of Little Earth. There were 320 reported crimes in the area that year alone. And nearly every resident recalls a period of slightly longer than six months, from November 2004 to June 2005, when there were five homicides on the Little Earth grounds. Little Earth used to have private security patrol the complex, but for nearly a decade now, off-duty MPD cops have been hired to do so.

"I made 20 calls a night," says Martha Fast Horse of her days working as a dispatcher at Little Earth. (Residents at the complex are hired to monitor security cameras and call police when necessary.) "And you have to make them, even though you know you'll be a target. Otherwise you get the feeling that this stuff will never end."

Rick Thomas, a 25-year MPD veteran, has patrolled Little Earth for several years. Nearly everyone at Little Earth knows him, and he surely knows the place better than most outsiders. He's been there to apply the community-policing touch, too—working with youth programs and sitting in on regular meetings with a Little Earth crime committee.

Thomas, like the MPD itself, inspires vehement if surprisingly varied reactions from the people who live there. Take the 2002 Long Crow episode: Not everybody at Little Earth was outraged by the raid. "I went without sleep for two years living next door to them," attests 30-year resident Lori Ellis of the Long Crows. "Those were types of problems that Rick was good at dealing with.

"I think he just had too much on his plate," she says of Thomas's alleged misconduct. "He's been very effective in dealing with crack houses here, and he's often here overnight. I can understand why something would go wrong." She stops short of a hearty endorsement, though. In general, Ellis says, "I am in-between on Thomas and the cops. I don't have nothing bad to say about them. But I wouldn't use the word 'love' either. I don't know that we're that close."

(Thomas declined to comment to City Pages about the May 26 Vazquez incident, citing MPD policy that forbids officers to discuss ongoing investigations.)

Thomas "has done a lot for the community," wrote Martha Fast Horse in a recent letter to MPD acting Chief Tim Dolan. She went on to recount a 2004 incident involving a group of kids who had beaten up her 15-year-old son. Afterward, "I went over to their unit and nearly knocked the door down pounding on it," Fast Horse wrote. "I am not ashamed to admit that I am a mother bear when it comes to my children, and I was ready to do battle with the whole group. They called the police on me. Rick showed up to save their lives. So, nobody can tell me that he doesn't care about all people equally, even the gang members.

"From where I stood, I could see him coming from the 2501 building where the police substation is housed," Fast Horse continues. "He looked tired like he had been up working all night; I later found out that was in fact the truth. He walked up to me and said, 'Doesn't this ever end?'"

At the same time, numerous younger residents can recall unpleasant run-ins with Thomas. Some of them call him "Mr. Bigguns" in sneering testament to his swagger. "What he does, it creates a lot of tension," says 27-year-old Isaac Dennis St. Clair-Jones, a lifelong resident of Little Earth.

Joho Ellis, who's part of a very distinct minority as an African American living at Little Earth—he lives with his Ojibwe girlfriend—says he's seen Thomas around plenty. "I know him," he chortles. He declines to say more about Thomas specifically, then adds: "Look, most people get out of hand here. But I gotta keep it clean because my friends are black. Too many black people outside my place, and the cops show up. Every time."

Make no mistake: There are a lot of people at Little Earth who despise the cops utterly. (One 19-year-old woman tells me that MPD cops are "the harassers of all native people.") But most residents make at least a practical accommodation with the MPD. They agree among themselves that the problems at Little Earth are so pervasive and so intractable that a police presence is required; they also seem to concur that shoddy treatment at the hands of the MPD is a way of life, the price of the ticket for getting law enforcement when you need it. "There is a fine line between the enforcement that people demand," says Bill Means, an American Indian representative on the city's Police Community Relations Council, "and brutality that comes with that enforcement."

Still, residents call the police when there is serious trouble, even though a certain portion of the callers have outstanding warrants for their own arrest. It happened once to John Goose, 39, who has lived at Little Earth since 1999. "There's a lot of gang activity here," he notes. He called the cops one night earlier this year to report shots fired. By the time they showed up, he had gotten into a fight with his wife—who promptly won that round by telling officers her husband had never paid the fines on a 2003 DWI. Goose spent a month in the county workhouse for that offense.

"Do I regret that I called the cops?" he asks now. "No, man. I wanted the cops here. Tell the truth, I did the right thing. I protected my children and did my time. I don't have to look over my shoulder no more."

One of the more brutal memories MPD Sgt. David Burbank carries around from his days patrolling Little Earth involved the fatal cocaine overdose of a 12-year-old girl. "That's the sad reality of that place," Burbank notes. "How the heck does a 12-year-old get a hold of cocaine, let alone a lethal dose?"

Burbank, who is a Chippewa Indian, worked a beat that included Little Earth for more than two and a half years. During that time, a stint that concluded in October 2005, he was also a member of a local law enforcement consortium called the Native American Gang Task Force. By his own admission, his native status did little to get locals to open up to him. "The biggest problem is that it's always difficult to get somebody to come forward," Burbank says. "Gaining trust is the biggest obstacle."

The feeling is pretty much mutual. When he patrolled the place, Burbank remembers, "You're always looking around. You can see that [gangs] have little scouts out. You show up and there's movement all about the complex, and it's always like, 'where is he going?'"

Burbank says he agrees with residents that much of the criminal element at Little Earth stems from outside forces, not residents. Even so, he notes, gangs constantly jockey for turf at the complex: the Native Mob, Native Gangster Disciples, Native Vice Lords, Project Boyz, and MAKK MOB—which stands for Money Associated Kold-Hearted Killers, Money Over Bitches.

It's the last two, Burbank claims, that have led to a recent uptick in crimes. "It's the 15-to-17-year-old set of kids that claim to be in gangs, but they're really just about trying to act like it," Burbank says, adding that the Project Boyz in particular practice a sort of "guerrilla warfare" without much regard for consequences or codes of conduct. If anything, this spells more random violence than old-school gang activity: "In the Native Mob," he notes, "before you actually tried to do something, you had to ask a higher-up beforehand."

Burbank recalls incidents that still trouble him. One was a double homicide in November 2004 that everyone at Little Earth still talks about, the killing of two Project Boyz by members of the Native Mob. Despite the anguish it caused in the community, he recalls, there was very little cooperation from residents. The police only got one conviction out of the killing, which in turn further damaged the MPD's credibility among American Indians in the city.

Kids regularly play on their elders' historic animosity toward police, Burbank claims: "I confront the kids, and they know what's going on. They tell their grandparents, and turn it into a conflict with the police. So if we even ask anybody what's going on, it becomes that. Cops messing with them. They're just pulling the wool over their parents' eyes.

"In a way, it's a game," Burbank continues. "We're just a piece of the puzzle. There's a lack of male role models, and there's no one there to talk to them. The kids behave bad, and we have to talk to them."

Burbank transferred to another position with the MPD when his stint with the gang task force was up, even though he could have stayed on. "I try to be as professional as I can be, but you have to have your guard up the whole time," he says. "Everyone's looking at you. You can know one household, and the next day you've got to arrest four of their next-door neighbors. You try not to let that influence the relationship you have with the family you know. It does take its toll."

Burbank sees the problems at Little Earth as intractable, the kind of troubles police have no way to solve. By the time he left the assignment, "I was at the end of my rope. You feel like you're moving in circles. You clean up one part, and then something happens somewhere else."

Acting MPD Chief Tim Dolan main- tains that the department only puts its best and brightest on the job at places like Little Earth. "If you're cynical about answering calls to a place like that, we're not going to put you there," Dolan says, adding that he patrolled there in the early 1980s. "There was an attraction when I was working there. The most ambitious cops wanted to work there. It was troubling, and difficult, but ultimately rewarding. They are a proud people, and if the cops were hustling, they appreciated it." And it's working, he adds, citing as evidence a trend toward fewer crimes, yet more calls to police, at the complex in recent years. (By the MPD's own accounting, however, "calls to service" have tapered off there recently, while crimes involving theft, assault, narcotics, or murder have increased. In 2002, the total number of serious crimes reported was 73; in 2005, it was 92.)

"It's not any different than some of the other areas around town," Dolan says of the place. "I'd say 99 percent of the people there are just trying to get along."

Getting along at Little Earth is often a full-time job. Lifelong resident Isaac Dennis St. Clair-Jones recalls his own experiences with crime and cops at Little Earth. When he was 12, he claims, his head was bashed into a brick wall by a cop on the northwest side of the complex. His offense? He had laughed out loud with a group of friends after the officer had slipped on some ice. "I always wanted to be a cop, too, but not after that," he says.

St. Clair-Jones got involved in a gang at Little Earth, but got out a few years ago, he says, because he has two children now. Tonight he's "smoked a couple fatties" and plans to chill at home with his family. He recalls an incident last summer when his children, who are seven and nine, were sleeping in the front room of their apartment with some of their cousins. At about 4:00 a.m., St. Clair-Jones says, a gunshot blew out the window, and glass shattered all over the kids.

"I pulled the slug out of the wall, and it looked like a .357," he says, adding that he learned later it was a gang shooting gone awry. "I wrapped the thing in a bag and took it to the police station. The cop just looked at me and threw it in the garbage."

He motions toward a gathering of teenagers nearby who are swilling from a bottle of brandy. "It was probably one of those guys," he says.

Two of them are from Little Earth originally, though they now live in Roseville. They both look to be about 17, and they come to Little Earth to party on the weekends.

"I had to get out of here," one of them explains without any hint of irony. Pretty soon he and rest of the group drift off into the recesses of the clusters of apartments, looking for a party where there's booze.

A little while later they reappear nearby, not far from where Vinnie is cradling her niece. "I have an uncle in Lincoln, Nebraska," she says wistfully, prompted by nothing in particular. Right now she's taking classes to become a nurse. "I have to get out of here, as soon as I can," she says. "These projects are no good." 

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