Down & Out in Uptown

           WITH THE EXCEPTION of Christmas, summer is the most profitable time of year for merchants in the Uptown area. But the warm weather means more teenagers, too--kids from the suburbs and the city who converge to hang out, smoke, and talk--and they have always had a strained relationship with neighborhood merchants interested in keeping the sidewalks clean and the customers comfortable. The tensions have only been exacerbated by the fact that in recent years a growing number of youths have taken to panhandling and living under the bridges in Uptown during the warm months.

           This spring there was a much-hyped rash of petty theft by teens in the Uptown area; whether the purported juvenile crime wave represented a real trend or not, it appears to have galvanized the efforts of police and area businesses to get the rabble out. According to some social workers and kids who say they've been targeted by police, the efforts to push the youths out of the neighborhood have gotten more pointed, ranging from relentless verbal harassment to nuisance ticketing to alleged instances of physical abuse. "Rags," a 20-year-old man with a thatch of green hair who says he's been living on the streets of Minneapolis on and off for the past five years, says the new street-cleaning ethic is unmistakable. "The cops don't allow us to wait at McDonald's, even when we buy something to eat," he says. "And we can't even wait for a bus in that area without getting harassed or ticketed."

           Last week, police raided the Uptown McDonald's and hauled off 13 kids, 10 of whom were minors. According to Rags and his girlfriend, Tammi, it wasn't a peaceful encounter. "I was sitting in the bus shelter waiting for a bus, and the cops pulled me out and dragged me into the outdoor patio area. Kids were being rounded up and the cops were shoving some of them onto the ground--and they were eating food they'd bought there," says Rags. Tammi, who was also there, says her head was pushed into a wall and a female cop threatened to "beat the living shit" out of her. The kids were taken downtown in a paddy wagon, where the minors were either released or sent to juvenile detention. Rags claims that the cops "screamed at me for ruining people's businesses" and ticketed him for trespassing, along with the two other adults they had detained.

           The tickets handed out by Uptown police lately have cited offenses such as loitering, panhandling, and obstructing the sidewalk, and carry fines upwards of $25. Tammi has received 20 such tickets in the past month and a half. But while the fines--which she says she can't pay--may not bother her, the fact that police confiscated her and Rags's personal possessions during the McDonald's arrest does. She says they confiscated sleeping bags, blankets, and backpacks containing three years' worth of photographs and personal possessions. "They told us we didn't have proper ID," she says, "so they wouldn't give us our stuff back."

           Sergeant Steve Johnsrud, a beat supervisor with the 5th Precinct, says he finds it "hard to believe" that their items were not returned, and dismisses charges that cops are manhandling street kids. "There have been no specific complaints that kids are being roughed up," he says. "I don't think that the business owners and people who shop in this area would tolerate that sort of behavior." Johnsrud, like other 5th Precinct officers, has worked in the past for the Uptown Association, an area merchants' group, and maintains that cops are only responding to complaints by merchants. (City Pages' calls to the Uptown Association were not returned.)

           Johnsrud maintains that cops first warn the kids off, and if they have not vacated, the cops ticket or take them away. "The only reason we take them in is to make sure we are tagging the right person," he claims. "These kids don't carry IDs."

           While Johnsrud maintains that he and his fellow officers are going by the book, one area street outreach worker says that she receives numerous complaints about mistreatment by the cops. She says she's never personally witnessed any physical abuse, but that she has seen plenty of harassment. "My partner and I have been talking to kids, on the mall or in front of McDonald's," she notes, "and the cops just tell us to get the hell out of there. We're trying to do the same thing--get kids off the street--but they see us as interference."

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