On Saturday afternoon, under a cloudless Minneapolis sky, thousands of people flocked to a 50-block stretch of Lake Street, where for the previous three days, mass protests over the police killing of George Floyd sparked riots and violent standoffs with police and National Guard. Some came with brooms and buckets. Some drove trucks full of freshly cut plywood and portable drills for boarding up the businesses that were left. Many carried hand-painted signs saying “Stop killing black people” and “Justice for George.” Almost everyone wore a mask. And everywhere you looked, people were pointing cell phones—capturing protesters chanting, citizens sweeping up broken glass, and buildings still smoldering for audiences on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to see.
At a gathering a few blocks to the south in Martin Luther King Jr. Park, the ground rules were very different: no livestreaming, no social media posts, only share things directly with people you trust. It may have seemed a bit paranoid to the 300 people, mostly white families and retirees, who had shown up to participate in a neighborhood defense planning meeting. But then again, scores of shops, restaurants, and community bulidings in the city had been damaged or set on fire in the past 24 hours. And they had reason to believe that this night would be even worse.
That morning, Minnesota governor Tim Walz had claimed during a press conference that highly organized outside groups, including white supremacists and drug cartels, were believed to be part of the protests that had turned violent in South Minneapolis, leaving hundreds of buildings damaged and burned in recent days. There were also local reports of armed white men roaming the area in out-of-state vehicles carrying symbols associated with a variety of online fringe groups with different agendas, including far-right militia, white supremacists, and anti-government firearm enthusiasts with pro-protester/anti-police politics.
If the threat of the coronavirus pandemic had forced Minneapolis residents to interact with other people almost exclusively through screens since mid-March, the threat of armed arsonists intent on starting a race war galvanized them into action IRL. They were worried that any organizing information they’d put on the internet could be seen—and therefore disrupted—by people who might mean them harm. So to air-gap these plans from would-be infiltrators, many organizing efforts went analogue, returning to tactics reminiscent of a pre-internet era. All day long, all across the city, citizens met in parks and in front of community centers to build phone trees (remember those?), form block peacekeeping patrols, and draw up plans to defend their homes and businesses from potential nighttime marauders.
The night before—Friday—when the city’s fourth day of protests had become a fiery free-for-all up and down Lake Street, Raquel Sidie-Wagner had been at home, eight blocks south, watching the news, scrolling Twitter, and feeling terrified about what might come up to her door. “I realized the city is not prepared for this,” she said. “And we’re all sitting scared and alone in our houses. If the only thing we can really do is look out for each other then we might as well be proactive about it.” And at first, she had turned to the internet to do something about it. At 2:30 in the morning, while the flames in Minneapolis burned bright enough to be seen more than 30 miles away in Hudson, Wisconsin, Sidie-Wagner created an event in her King Field neighborhood’s closed Facebook group for Saturday afternoon.
But by the time people started showing up at MLK park, Sidie-Wagner had decided things needed to go lower-tech “to keep our exposure as low as possible.” Before the meeting got started, she asked attendees not to livestream or post about it to social media. “We’d been hearing about the possibility of bad actors learning about neighborhood safety protocols through those channels, and we didn’t want that to happen,” she said. Her biggest concern was that instigators might try to learn what residents were planning to do and wear, so they could blend in and escape notice.
People stepped forward to an underpowered microphone to share ideas about how best to prepare for the evening. A man who’d served in the Marines and now works security told people the best thing they could do was to turn on their lights and just be present. “If it’s an empty area, something is going to happen,” he said. A couple who’d just biked over from a similar gathering of more than 1,000 people in nearby Powderhorn Park shared tips from their meeting—like moving in trash cans or filling them up with water so their contents couldn’t easily be used to set fires, and clearing away anything that could be used to break a window.
Then Sidie-Wagner divided everyone into groups by block to trade contact information and sign up for patrol shifts. People had lots of questions: “Should we use our cars as barricades?” (Probably not; that’d be a fire hazard and wouldn’t stop people who are on foot.)
“Can we use messaging apps to talk to each other?” (Yes, but try to get everyone on an encrypted app, like Signal.)
“Will we be breaking curfew if we’re in our yards or houses?” (No, per the department of public safety. However, that didn’t stop police officers in riot gear from firing nonlethal rounds at residents keeping watch from their porch in the nearby neighborhood of Whittier later on Saturday night.)
When the block groups dispersed, about an hour later, each one received a fire extinguisher, with some groups who lived near vulnerable older commercial buildings without sprinkler systems taking extras. One woman who’d been taking detailed notes on the impromptu safety plan volunteered to print out paper versions to hand out door to door.
Will Drescher, a 24-year-old drug counselor, was planning to go back and tell the people in his building about what he’d heard at the meeting. He wasn’t sure whether to be more nervous about extremists or police surveillance, but he’d had his phone in airplane mode for the past few days and hadn’t been texting with his roommates. “My DNA is just fried from all this. I really think I’m coming apart,” he said. “But I know that’s how many of our city’s black and brown citizens feel every day.”
In North Minneapolis, where the majority of neighborhood residents are black, people were also mobilizing on Saturday afternoon for what they feared would be a long night. On Thursday, fires had been set at several black-owned businesses on West Broadway, about 6 miles away from the protests. Firefighters, overwhelmed by the myriad blazes, took hours to respond, and many cherished institutions were destroyed, including the Fade Factory barbershop and a Walgreens, the neighborhood’s only pharmacy. Phillipe Cunningham, the city council member representing North Minneapolis’s 4th Ward, was out that night driving around, responding to calls from constituents who said they’d seen groups of white men setting fires. Cunningham said he didn’t see a single police officer the entire time. “It was eerily quiet. There were no protests. No break-ins. And yet buildings were burning,” said Cunningham. “That was a huge red flag for us, and it became apparent that we were going to have to figure this out for ourselves.”
With the help of his husband, Lane, Cunningham got to work identifying a list of critical, high-risk businesses and recruiting people to watch over them through an open Facebook page. More than 100 people volunteered. Unlike residents in Sidie-Wagner’s neighborhood, Cunningham said he wasn’t afraid to leverage social media to get people involved, because the neighborhood is so tight-knit that anyone out of place would be immediately apparent. “I don’t blame folks in South Minneapolis for being cautious, because the fact is infiltrators have pretended to be community members during protests and other high-tension moments,” he said. But the two sides of the city are experiencing two completely different crises right now, and responding requires two different strategies, he said. “We’re seeing very targeted destruction, not this wanton smash-and-burn approach. So it was more important for us to get folks out in numbers to keep an eye on things.”
Still, Cunningham’s constituents didn’t want to publicize their plans too widely. So after the initial recruiting push, the real organizing moved to closed groups, encrypted chats, and a password-protected Zoom call. Volunteers game-planned where to stash water and fire extinguishers, and picked places to set up floodlights. “We’d seen white supremacists in the neighborhood on previous nights, and we just didn’t want them to have any idea what our strategy was,” said Nate Pentz, a realtor who has lived in North Minneapolis with his wife for 10 years. “Because there was a good chance we weren’t going to have a ton of support from the National Guard if shit went down.”
The Pentzes live in the Camden area, near where a young black man named Jamar Clark was killed by police in 2015. They signed up to sit watch over the corner of 47th Street and N. Lyndale, home to Firebox Deli, a BBQ joint, a Cuban takeout spot, and a Dairy Queen. As the sun started to go down, they set up chairs in the parking lot. They were joined by neighbors and a few other folks they’d not met before, a mix of white and black and LBGTQ Northside residents. They drank coffee and listened to Whitney Houston and Lady Gaga, a diva playlist left over from Pentz’s last birthday. At 12:30, Vong Wang, one of the owners of Firebox Deli, arrived to say thank-you with brisket sandwiches and macaroni and cheese. They stayed until 5 am, relieved to only see a few things that they reported to Minneapolis police, mostly cars without plates driving erratically. And unlike during the previous two nights, this time squad cars responded.
That’s not to say that the entire city was quiet on Saturday night. In Whittier, while 4,000 National Guard troops and police officers were clashing with protesters and journalists, a group of young white men allegedly tried to burn stores at the Karmel Mall, an East African market, according to news reports. A crowd of Somali shoppers chased them out before anything burned. In Longfellow, residents told WIRED that one of their neighbors ran off three white men in their early 20s after they threatened him with a taser. Sidie-Wagner didn’t see anything suspicious on her own patrols, but another block group told her they’d chased a group of young white men out of an alley. Still, having a plan made it “a whole different night,” she said.
They’d made it through Saturday. But on the Northside, victory was short-lived. On Sunday, three businesses near 44th and Penn Avenues burned in a suspected arson attack. The Minneapolis Fire Department said if it weren’t for the neighborhood’s community patrols, the building would have been completely destroyed.
By the time evening fell on Monday, the organizers had changed their playbook. And this time, they weren’t telling how.
More Great WIRED Stories
- A virtual DJ, a drone, and an all-out Zoom wedding
- Remote work has its perks, until you want a promotion
- All the tools and tips you need to make bread at home
- The confessions of Marcus Hutchins, the hacker who saved the internet
- On the moon, astronaut pee will be a hot commodity
- ? Is the brain a useful model for AI? Plus: Get the latest AI news
- ??♀️ Want the best tools to get healthy? Check out our Gear team’s picks for the best fitness trackers, running gear (including shoes and socks), and best headphones