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Trouble Shooters

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.

Both Moss and Price take pains to note, however, that their support of Olson has roots. Price was part of a coalition of more than 100 people from both the north and south sides of the city who were impressed with Olson's commitment to community policing when he first applied for the job in 1995. When the city council was deciding whom to hire, Price says, "Our strategy was to all be together in that small chamber and show our unity by walking out of the room when the other candidates were being discussed. Then when Olson was called in [for discussion] we walked back in. I believe it had an impact." It's worth noting that two of the other three candidates were African American.

Moss maintains that he has worked well with the chief from the beginning. "[Olson] has always been supportive, offering cooperation from the top. I knew he was a workable chief from our first meeting." Asked about instances of police brutality and the string of MPD shootings involving black and/or mentally ill residents of the city, he and Price both defend the chief by remarking what a thankless, uphill battle it is to try to alter and manage the behavior and attitudes of a force more than 900 people strong.

The recent resurgence in support for Olson on the part of Price, Moss, and many other black community leaders also stems in part from the effort by Rybak to oust him earlier this year. "When Rybak ran, he was endorsed by the Federation," Moss says, referring to the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, the rank-and-file union that has long been a bitter opponent of Olson's regime. "And part of the deal [Rybak] made with the Federation was that he take out the chief. But sometimes right must stand. And so when they were indicting the chief, I had to come forward and say, 'The chief is not the problem.'"

For all of Olson's talk about racial sensitivity and community cooperation, however, there are fewer black officers on the force today than there were five years ago. Olson has also been steadfast in his opposition to an independent civilian review board with subpoena power, which is something a chief who can't control his troops, as Moss suggests, should want--since an effective board would hold individual officers accountable. Finally, although Moss and Price are solidly in Olson's corner today, when the chief faced a tough (albeit ultimately successful) reappointment battle in 1998, both were conspicuously silent.

 

No matter their motives, or their history with Olson, it's hard not to defend the words and actions of Price and Moss since August 22. Too much time has been spent decrying Price and especially Moss as opportunist, especially when you pause to note why their involvement was necessary in the first place. Specifically, the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis has created such a racial divide in this city that it seems ridiculous to nit-pick the motivations of those who are trying to contain the violence that has stemmed from it.

The racial overtones of the Federation's August 7 letter calling for the resignation of council member Natalie Johnson Lee were impossible to ignore in the black community if not the city at large. Johnson Lee's unforgivable transgression was to send out an e-mail noting that two people died at Horn Terrace and Tower the night Martha Donald, a 60-year old black resident of the complex, shot and killed Melissa Schmidt, a white police officer, and was in turn shot and killed by Schmidt or her white partner. The council member gave ample tribute to the heroism and honor of Schmidt. But she also asked that we grieve for Donald's family and those who had loved her.

With needless hyperbole, the Federation equated Donald with notorious terrorist Timothy McVeigh. The officers union also took the stark position that Donald's family was not worthy of sympathy and that Johnson Lee was not fit to represent her constituents. That both women are black was not lost on the African-American community.  

Before the Federation's letter was published, the outpouring of love and support for Melissa Schmidt was a universally healing force in this city. Afterward, Price says, "it racially polarized people. All of a sudden if I am supporting Natalie it means I am not in support of that officer and her family. That is absolutely not true, but that was the perception you had to fight."

"Of course people were mad--we're human beings," Moss says. "Natalie Johnson Lee was representing simple humanity, and for that she was attacked. There was a buzz around here. For many people, that was the last straw."

Less than a week after the Federation's letter, racial tensions were further exacerbated when MPD officers shot a 19-year-old black male on the north side. Before the cops arrived, five people had reported that the youth was waving a gun around in public, making the incident less ambiguous than many police shootings. Yet word spread within the community that afterward an officer had said something to the effect of "You got one of ours, and we got one of yours." Whether true or not, in the wake of the Federation's belligerent letter, more than a few residents were willing to believe it.

Nine days later, the raid at 26th and Knox resulted in another black civilian being shot, this time an 11-year-old boy. The fuse was lit.

This was the opportunity that Moss and Price, with the urging and cooperation of the MPD administration, would seize upon to become high-profile trouble-shooters. Regardless of whether you believe the Federation had any culpability for the angry reaction of residents in Jordan that night, the plain truth is that Moss and Price helped quell the violence in a situation that the officers in charge believed could not be peaceably controlled by their own force.

"For a while Spike and I tried to get people to go home, and they said they weren't going nowhere," Price recalls. "They said, 'You need to decide who you need to be in this, because we aren't taking this shit no more.' So I said, 'What about the babies? They don't need to be here.' They said, 'All right,' and so we got some of the kids home. And then we just stood there talking and talking and as the night went on, the energy finally dissipated."

By 2:00 a.m. on Friday, August 23, the streets of Jordan were relatively peaceful. That night, Moss and his cohorts from the City, Inc., began their ad hoc citizen patrols. "Over the weekend, we were observing, just trying to keep the peace," he said in an August 27 City Pages interview. "Last night we started confronting people over their behavior, and that's when it gets dangerous: confronting them about their right to sell drugs and making them understand 'we are going to bring you a job or something in return.'"

The night of August 27, council member Joe Biernat was the only white member in one of Moss's ten-person citizen patrols. "Having participated in the process, I have done an absolute about-face on this. I think this sort of citizen participation is essential," says Biernat, a stalwart supporter of the police rank and file. "Spike will go up and challenge people, give out his number and tell them to call him if they want a job. A critical component of the walk is having experienced people who stop and talk to youth; I was with a grandmother who was absolutely dynamite. I'm not sure they should be called patrols, but whatever you call it, it is effective--last night 26th Street was as quiet as it has been all summer."

For its part, the Federation is not letting up. Last week police union leaders made headlines by criticizing Chief Olson for offering Moss $6,000 to help finance the patrols (money that was refused by the City, Inc.). This is especially ironic considering that on August 23, the day Olson made the overture, the city council quietly allocated more than $8,000 as a partial payment of the legal fees incurred by the seven MPD officers who shot and killed Abu Kassim Jeilani as he was walking down a south Minneapolis street with a machete this past March.

"People talk about community policing strategies and what it means," Price says. But on the night of August 22, he continues, "my city councilperson called me and got me to talk with the mayor who got me to talk with the police officer in charge, a person I have known for seven years. And we came up with a loose plan. That's community policing. I'm not saying it totally worked, but we worked at it together."  

But Moss, a veteran with more than 30 years of street-level community experience, is wary about what lies ahead. "Right now, we are in the most dangerous time in the history of the black community in Minneapolis. And when it goes, it could last anywhere from a week to two weeks. And people like myself and others probably won't be able to do anything about it."


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