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Jan 10, 23

Defending Encampments and Fighting Evictions in Minneapolis: An Interview

Over the past several years, various groups have mobilized in defense of encampments in so-called Minneapolis, working to provide mutual aid, standing in solidarity with the houseless, and fighting against evictions. Wanting to know more about this organizing, especially in the wake of a recent campaign in solidarity with the Quarry encampment, we caught up with two organizers who discussed their efforts to build solidarity between renters and the houseless.

IGD: People have been standing in solidarity with residents of various encampments in so-called Minneapolis for some time now. Give us a history of this activity and how people have been fighting back?

No Dakota, Lakota Sioux or Ojibwe Anishinaabe people were homeless before European settlers and United States imperial expansion violently took control and then imposed an alien property rights regime.  “No evictions on stolen land” and “Land back” are more than rhetorical demands, they are a practical strategy to end homelessness.

The Wall of Forgotten Natives encampment begun in the fall of 2018, with 200+ residents, it was the largest and most visible encampment in Minneapolis in living memory at that time, and succeeded in extracting interim shelter that many unhoused Native and non-Native people found acceptable, although less than half of people from the encampment made it into long-term housing. By 2019 it was clear that the city of Minneapolis was committed to never allowing an encampment to grow to the size where it could effectively demand housing— least of all, at the Wall itself.

The George Floyd uprising of 2020 brought a flourishing of mutual aid and street battles against repressive policing that reopened space – physical space – for unhoused people to be visible and gain support. See Antidote Zine for one recap of this time, which really kicked off the current situation of more-or-less large, visible encampments being violently dispersed and reconstituting themselves in some new spot.

At any given moment in Minneapolis, at least 500 people are living outdoors, usually closer to 1,000— not in county or city shelters and transitional housing programs, which is another thousand or two; or in jails or prisons, another couple thousand; or doubling up with friends or relatives, which would be around 5,000 people if national estimates hold. All this, in a city of around 445,000. The state of so-called MN only started collecting even county-level data on its unhoused population in the past several years, with its Point-In-Time surveys, which are an absolute joke.

With that said, while I can’t speak personally to the history of this fight before 2020, this is definitely not a new thing – it just got a shit ton worse in 2020 as the pandemic killed people and economic forces pushed people out of their homes.

Since the uprising, the city and public works have worked with park police to violently evict unhoused encampments all around the metro area. There were two encampments in Powderhorn Park that made national news when nine city council members went to the camp and pledged that they would “Abolish MPD.” This ended in the violent eviction of over a hundred residents with many comrades arrested in the process of defending the camp.

Flyer Calling for Eviction Defense of the Quarry

Defenses have been mounted at a good number of the larger encampments, including Powderhorn, Near North, North Loop, Hiawatha, Bloomington, 5th & Lake, and Cedar. The surprise attack on 5th & Lake was characterized by police and traffic control setting up a huge perimeter and public works and regulatory services leading the destruction, with no credible presence of social service workers at all. This tactic of unannounced attack with massive show of force was repeated—and exceeded—at Near North camp on October 6th, and again at the Quarry camp.

So we’ve seen lots of developments in the State’s tactics for these operations over this time, and the recent pre-dawn eviction of the encampment at The Quarry is a representation of the major escalation in the amount of resources and tactics that they’re willing to devote to putting people out in the cold.

Defenders too have been developing our tactics and doing our best to stop or delay these evictions, while always trying to center the needs and autonomy of the residents. Eviction defense features doughnuts, coffee, community, building barricades, and building solidarity with residents. Huge amounts of coordinated, autonomous organizing makes this happen. Ever since successful defenses at Near North camp and North Loop camps took place on announced or widely anticipated eviction dates, people have shown the collective power of determined defenders, concerned neighbors, and progressive politicians to hold space and stop the bulldozers. In response, the city of Minneapolis has stayed away when the community rallies, and has opted for later, surprise evictions. The mayor and his goons have also spread the lie that threats of violence (against them), are the reason they do not attack on the dates they make public.

When a government attack does succeed, invariably the defenders and supporters provide far more aid in transportation and immediately needed resources, than the government that demanded people leave

IGD: Minneapolis is seen nationally as being run by progressive politicians, who during the George Floyd uprising agreed to defund and even abolish the police. Of course this didn’t happen, but explain how the city has moved to attack encampments and why.

The national media perpetuated the myth of Minneapolis’ progressiveness at the same time as promoting panic about “carjacking” and murders “caused” by “defunding the police.” This is part of the reason we ended up with a fascist in Democratic clothing, Mayor Jacob Frey.

We were lucky enough to get the participation of some (more genuinely progressive) city council members in encampment defense and this outrages reactionary forces to the point that they rammed through the “strong mayor” policy, which essentially cut council members out of any discussions that could allow them to share advanced notice on eviction with defenders. It basically gave Frey carte blanche to do whatever he wants as far as throwing our neighbors out of their homes, with zero democratic input. He’s got a vile amount of blood on his hands.

In large part due to the vigorous defense of unhoused people, some of the violence deployed by local governments to destroy these communities is more visible in Minneapolis than other cities. But this is clearly a national problem. A recent and timely Citations Needed podcast episode makes that clear.

Not many radicals would argue that ending homelessness would topple capitalism— but an awful lot of capitalists act that way, so we should consider this a key pressure point.

For many of us, our initial understanding of the cruelty of capitalism needs to be updated. It’s not merely the inhumane “deal” of “work without rest for someone else’s profit” or threat to enter the world of wage-work or “starve and freeze in the streets”; it is that starving and freezing will be enforced with the full repressive force of the police and the state.

“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread,” Anatole France observed this injustice 129 years ago. It’s worse now. The fear the ruling-class has for people visibly living “outside” capitalism is evident in the destruction of encampments on out-of-the-way unused land, the harassment of people who are not asking for charity, and the constant police attacks on people’s dignity.

IGD: How has the city and police responded to people resisting the eviction of encampments?

With bulldozers, dump-trucks, hundreds of police in squads, SWAT, and on bikes, as well as hundreds of city workers, private contractors, and collaborationist non-profits. There have been really violent kettles and teargas, as well as quieter almost ‘self-evictions’ run by counter-insurgency aid people – but usually some combination of all these forces.

The ability of defenders to anticipate evictions and be there on the ground has been really dependent on the size of the encampment and how much information has been released from the city. The reason these encampments form in the first place is because the dangers and casual cruelty of living unsheltered without some community for support is absolutely overwhelming. Obviously, that’s what the city wants – for those who are “resistant to services” (wonder why that might be?), to be completely atomized and transient, living without the ability to support one another or be visible to the ‘paying public’ in any way.

Eviction defense has been really successful in the past in holding off the city for varying chunks of time. The Quarry had been occupied by an encampment for over two years, and had been a known safe place for people to stay, semi-off-the-grid for some time, and there had been announcements of plans to evict before this one. These announcements are obviously extremely stressful and traumatic for residents, making an already unstable situation worse, and makes it more difficult for us to organize when there are just vague signs put up threatening evictions that sometimes never come.

That’s been something defenders have struggled with in general. This is a war of attrition, and the city knows that they can grind us down by making people wake up early at the crack of dawn, just to prepare and show up and have nothing happen. On scheduled eviction days like the one that happened on the 28th, the best case scenario for us is a non-event, that’s what winning is – outside of longer term support efforts with residents, and building those ties of solidarity. It’s hard to keep people invested and organized in a movement that when it wins, nothing happens. And I think the city has figured this out to some degree; threatening evictions and feeling out the response, then striking with even more viciousness when people are exhausted and residents have already half-planned to leave.

We are always hoping to increase our militancy and get more people out there to help support their neighbors in having some place to live (not that encampments are in any way a solution for people, but evicting them is so, so much worse), and more organizing within our communities as well as building strong ties and personal connections with residents are both a must. The more people that know about the city’s cruelty and can work with residents/defenders to fight back, the better.

IGD: In Minneapolis and many other cities, police and politicians often play this game where evictions will be called off in the face of mass resistance, only to be pushed back to a later date. What are you all seeing on the ground in terms of a State strategy?

This is consistent with their previous strategy in that they have fucked around with residents on the eviction date in order to intentionally misdirect activists and even just people hoping to help residents safely move their things. They have increasingly done everything they can to take residents completely by surprise, almost always in the wee hours of the morning, and as quickly and violently as possible rip everyone out before bulldozing everything that residents couldn’t carry.

I’ve worked as a medic in encampments for years, both through mutual aid work with other medics from Freedom Street Health, and a bit as part of my job, (so I’ve seen the non-profit industrial complex’s nasty underbelly), and I can’t tell you how many people I’ve known who had ongoing medical conditions or wounds in need of consistent care and attention who either arrived back to their place to find everything they own completely gone, including meds and wound care supplies. In other instances, people who were finally figuring some things out and were in the process of getting a case worker who’d help them, or signed up for the right programs or medical treatment, whatever it may have been – have all that work smashed to nothing because their homes were literally destroyed in a sweep.

I’d like to see boy-mayor Frey navigate the city transit or figure out how to proceed with no money or phone or support, just to get from his bougie apartment in Central to Downtown, just to walk around to any of the various buildings scattered around the city that have some small sliver of help in one capacity or the other. Let alone being forced to actually navigate the convoluted mess of programs meant to ‘help’ that can be nearly impossible, even with a case worker.

It’s absurd, and almost genocidal. They just want encampment residents to disappear, and following evictions in the past, we’ve seen spikes in overdoses in close proximity to where evictions have taken place and at encampments where people have resettled.

IGD: People mentioned that many in the encampments are Indigenous. Can you say more about this reality.

Even based on the city’s own numbers (which are inaccurate) the majority of unhoused people in this city (which is 63% white) are people of color, a plurality of which are Black and the other major proportion are Natives. The proportion of indigenous people living without homes here is astronomical compared to the 1.3% of the population that they make up.

This is directly tied to the brutally bloody colonialism that was perpetrated here (largest national execution just miles from the Mississippi), where we have encampments literally feet from Little Earth, which is the birthplace of the American Indian Movement (AIM), and is the last swatch of semi-sovereign land left in the city.

IGD: According to Unicorn Riot, the call to defend the Quarry encampment was met “upwards of 100 to 150 encampment defenders [who] showed up to the Quarry over the course of the morning. The city said the eviction was put on hold due to the large activist presence.” Going forward, what is the strategy of residents and camp defenders?

We have shown repeatedly if we know the date and time the city plans to attack with police, public works, regulatory services, traffic control and all, that we can rally enough people and attention that the city backs off. We need one person of conscience—not courage, just conscience—to share this information, identity will be kept secret, to [email protected] or (612) 712-9191 text/voicemail/Signal.

IGD: Folks mentioned that the city continues to destroy peoples sleeping gear. Can you say more on this?

In the case of the Quarry: they were woken before dawn (this was the second eviction this year to start in the dark) blasting: “Come out of your tents with your hands in the air!,” out of loud speakers. People were violently intimidated into running out of their homes in the dark at a camp that had been there for two years. People were surrounded by fully armed police, and then sent across a parking lot for ‘resources’ that were never there. In these circumstances, people left their boots, coats, their IDs – everything – and had to start over with whatever they could carry.

While people were recuperating from being violently thrown out of their homes, the police and city moved in to bulldoze all of their belongings and carry them away in dump trucks. This happened in freezing temperatures, and the city is trying to say that they were “afraid of violence?” The only violence that was expected was the state coming to throw people out into the cold. The ‘violence’ of people defending their neighbors from the state’s brutality, is the only thing that the media could focus on.

IGD: Are there demands of camp residents for permanent housing? Have these avenues already been tried?

The lists for coordinated entry housing, which is the state’s waiting list for affordable housing, consistently has a waiting list in the thousands. Safe and permanent housing is an absolute human right and everyone here fights so hard for it. The amount of money the city uses to destroy peoples lives in evictions could literally house SO many people and activists have been screaming for them to do this for YEARS and they just respond by arresting people.

The bottom line is that we know how to solve this problem. I went to school for public health and in that super neoliberalized hellscape of a field, the question of how to deal with all the problems that liberals love to blame houselessness on: addiction, lack of mental health resources, etc, are all solved by giving people universal access to housing and a basic income. If people don’t have somewhere to lay their head at night where they feel safe and can maintain the basic necessities of life, no amount of access to or state/federal money towards addiction and mental health treatment programs will be enough to solve these issues.

How is somebody supposed to ‘get clean’ (whatever that means for them) or ‘get a job’ (many residents do or could have jobs if they had any ability to shower and eat and use the internet, ya know, the basic fundamentals of life), if they keep getting violently forced out of the shelters and communities they’ve been able to build and chased around the city by bulldozers and riot cops?

So many residents have their phones and important documents destroyed or lost when they are woken up at dawn to guns and loudspeakers telling them to ‘come out with their hands up,’ and these things are required to even stay in contact with the agencies that keep them on the list for housing. These ‘sweeps’ completely undercut whatever bandaid-ass liberal attempts there have been at the city or county level to bring services to people.

Every single resident of the Quarry who could, (barring a few who, for whatever legal reason it was impossible), has already signed up for every possible housing list that is available to them, and some even have dates promising them placement within housing at some point soon. But now that they’ve been thrown out of their homes, some don’t have their phones, or lost important documents or things of sentimental value – I mean, some people didn’t have time to put on their pants before being forced out into below freezing temps!

Instead of even just letting these dates for housing come to pass, so that residents could get into the housing that some had finally been offered (or providing any sort of temporary housing that would actually allow residents to live dignified lives or keep their stuff) the city decided to violently evict them on the first day that was above freezing after a week of historically cold temperatures and snow.

IGD: Across the US we’re seeing a growing attack on encampments at a time when many are being pushed from their homes due to rising rents. What is your advice to those living in areas where these sweeps continue to take place?

Get to know your neighbors. Organize with the people around you. Go to camps and introduce yourself and find out what people need. Watch for burn out and keep showing up consistently over a long period of time.

Connect the fights against eviction. In many cities, a majority of people are housing insecure, rent burdened, or even unable to keep up with mortgage payments and property taxes. Housed and unhoused people who come together for mutual defense of camps are on board with helping stop homelessness “at its source”— when people lose their housing. This greatly broadens the struggle in a way that can bring much more support to the defense of encampments, but it requires the organization, effort, and discipline to start going door-to-door offering eviction defense resources and talking about the connection between homelessness and rising rents.

The mayor and his real estate cronies will continue to try to turn the city into a playground for the rich and drive up rent, as long as they think they can bully unhoused people out of the city, out of sight, and to their deaths.

IGD: Anything else you want to say? How can people support, follow online, and possibly donate?

Supply Depot is a fucking amazing collective run out of a rad bookstore here in the center of town. They work tirelessly to get supplies out to encampment residents and neighbors trying to support mutual aid.

There’s an open collective that is collecting funds going straight to Quarry residents to help them recover from the ordeal that the city just put them through. This is all going straight to camping supplies and the necessities for surviving these bitter ass winters (we’re about the get another huge snow storm), hotel beds, phones, etc.

Minneapolis Northside Mutual Aid is still supporting people displaced in the October 6th eviction of the Near North encampment, which stood for two years.

Freedom Street Health is a local street medic collective formed by medical professionals during the 2020 George Floyd Uprising that provides medical support and assists in mutual aid to encampments and defenders alike. They also teach online and in-person workshops that you can find on their website.

Follow local journalists like Unicorn Riot covering the story and social media accounts such as Twin Cities Workers Defense Alliance and Twin Cities Encampment Responder to get updates.

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It’s Going Down is a digital community center from anarchist, anti-fascist, autonomous anti-capitalist and anti-colonial movements. Our mission is to provide a resilient platform to publicize and promote revolutionary theory and action.

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