When punks and police clashed: Remembering the Bomb Shelter riot, 20 years later

A '90s Bomb Shelter flyer.

A '90s Bomb Shelter flyer.

Last week was yet another exhausting maelstrom of breaking news.

Nationally, updates on Russian election incursion continued to roll in and the honeymoon between adorable political sweethearts Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions ended. Locally, the fallout from yet another shooting by Minneapolis police included the resignation of Chief Janee Harteau. It'd be easy, then, to miss a tiny milestone of local rock and roll interest: Thursday, July 20, was the 20-year anniversary of the riot at the underground DIY punk venue the Bomb Shelter.

The riot, as I detailed here two years ago, pitted “almost 150 punks against dozens of police.” The latter allegedly chased a suspect into a crowded, unventilated basement-punk show on Bloomington and Lake and, according to witnesses, started macing everyone in sight. Unable to breathe, showgoers rushed the door to escape and the situation exploded into a full-blown riot, with rocks and bottles thrown, injuries on both sides, and 13 people arrested.

It's hard to imagine what both the punks and the cops must have experienced that night. The sheer adrenaline would have been incapacitating. An unventilated area filled with mace meant scores of people running around blind, howling in pain. Predictability and rationality would have evaporated in the chaos.

It was, to say the least, a situation ripe for tragedy.

The ’90s weren’t exactly the easiest time for either punks or police. We were still “Murderapolis,” competing with Washington, D.C., as the nation’s most deadly city—a fact modern-day whiners might want to remember before their next Facebook post on how bad the city's gotten. Only months before the riot, a cop had been shot and killed on that very corner where the Bomb Shelter stood. And in 1997 Minneapolis was still getting used to the inevitability of kids with weird hair and weirder jewelry wandering the streets, implicitly demanding acceptance and tolerance from the squares. This was still a place where punks gravitated to the relative safety of their carved-out tiny little corners of community.

But—at least for a white kid of 22 like myself—Minneapolis was still a place where a rational conversation with an authority figure could avert the worst sort of conflict. At the time, as a dirtbag-looking punk rocker working in a downtown music venue, I considered myself quite the “cop whisperer.” Maybe I’d learned a little something about sucking up to authority in my 12 years as a Boy Scout. Maybe growing up in a small town where having funny hair was an invitation for an adult to toss you into a locker or against the hood of a car taught me how to talk my way out of things. Maybe I’m just charming. Maybe – to state the glaringly obvious—it’s just that I was white. But I was good at talking to police. I was very lucky in that way.

I also got to watch downtown beat cops deal with drunks and chuckleheads of all races booted out of any number of bars and clubs bordering the cracked pavement that was the '90’s Block E. And I got to watch cops use—and occasionally misuse—their authority to get the result they wanted, even if it meant standing inches away from some drunk, middle-aged woman from the suburbs who'd been ejected from a downtown club and shouting “go away or go to jail,” then mocking her once she’d finally wandered off.

My experience makes the riot at the Bomb Shelter even more chilling to imagine. It was light years away from the indifferent-to-friendly chatting between the cops and the skinheads and punks who manned the counter of the SA on Franklin and Nicollet, or from the routine weekend herding of people who’ve had too many shots. This was a chaotic meltdown between two opposing groups. With numbers on one side, and superior training and weapons on the other, everyone must have been terrified.

And yet, everyone made it out alive. It’s a goddamned shame that, viewed through the lens of today’s world, this comes as a surprise, or at least sounds like a story of a different age that now seems sadly quaint. Nobody got shot. Nobody died.

Now, the racial component of the tragic deaths of Philando Castile and Jamar Clark cannot be ignored, and I don’t mean to do so. That racial component existed 20 years ago as well. But as a white kid of 42 now, I know I’m not wise enough to speak to those issues without ending up looking like a fool.

So back to rock and roll: Twenty years ago last week, a riot that will remain legendary in the history of Twin Cities punk rock happened. Some people were maced, some people were hurt, a cop broke his arm, some people went to jail. But I’m glad to say that no one—cops or punks—died. And I’m ashamed and fearful that I can’t imagine the same outcome in the modern era of trigger-happy policing.