By Hana Broadbent
We all remember where we were when we heard about the death of George Floyd. It’s a moment in time that touched every corner of Minneapolis, and the Little Earth of United Tribes was no exception.
“I woke up to Facebook one day and saw the video. I knew something was going to happen after that,” said Little Earth resident, Estella LaPointe. “I was home when I saw the Target and Cub being looted which are my stores, that was heartbreaking. Then, a group of people burned the third precinct and everyone was saying they were coming to Little Earth next.”
LaPointe said at that moment she left her house to go stand watch at one of the entrances of Little Earth. She said she stayed out there for 10 hours. She watched residents go in and out of their homes to keep watch as well – collectively, there were hundreds of residences guarding their community from the madness that took place.
“We did not have big machine guns to protect our elders’ and babies’ homes,” LaPointe said. “We came with whatever we had, and we will continue to be here.”
Since that night, a group of Little Earth residents have been at all the entrances of the housing units every night. At first, the hours were long: 8 p.m. to sunrise. The goal was to stop what was happening in Minneapolis from happening in their own community. The main threats were the out-of-state and out-of-town white supremacists and the Minneapolis Police Department.
“The first week was hell,” said Jolene Jones, who’s lived there since 1974, making her the longest residing Little Earth resident. “We took gunfire 5 times, fire from the riot police and the state troopers.
In that first week, Little Earth was showing up with large numbers of over 100 residents who were on every street that surrounded the housing. One night, a day or two after the rioting started, a group of peaceful protestors were making their way onto Cedar Ave from 26th. Residents let them know they were entering a private community and managed to reroute them away.
The residents were facing East on 26th St., moving protestors along, and when they turned around to face the West side of the street, they were met with police brutality. Jones said unmarked trucks and buses were blocking the street and the police were in front, shining massive lights at the crowd. The police in riot gear wasted no time throwing stun grenades (more commonly known as flash grenades) and shooting rubber bullets. The crowd of hundreds ran down Cedar Avenue and retreated into the Little Earth Property.
Police were met with hundreds of residents chanting as one voice “We’re peaceful, get out.” The shooting continued from about a block and half away. Eventually the police stopped firing on the people. The collective power of community won in that moment, but the police were back later that night and the night after. Tire slashing and random gunfire at Little Earth took place in the nights that followed.
“It hasn’t been explained to us why that happened,” Jones said. “They say they can’t tell the difference between rioters and protesters (this was before the curfew began) but it took less than 15 residents to reroute them, so were they going to hit the protestors? Did we get caught in the cross fire? Were they going to shoot us all?”
Jones said it was a group of young men who put the street signs up to block the roads into Little Earth Housing a day before, the same night LaPointe stood outside the first time.
That action prompted the blockades and since then the protection has continued to evolve as needs have change in the communty, including giving the title “The Protectors” to Native people standing gaurd to protect their community.
“Four weeks later it’s a lot calmer. We’re trying to keep the drugs out and do better for our community,” Jones said. “It’s a lot better than getting shot at by the cops.
“We’re basically patrolling our neighborhood and making sure people who are non-residents are not admitted in,” said long-time resident and LaPointe’s husband, John Buehlmann. “We report anything that looks off.”
Buehlmann and LaPointe were out every night for three weeks as part of the night watch. Buehlmann said they are keeping an eye on the neighborhood and were noticing that there were a lot of people trying to come in with drugs – those are the people they want to keep out.
“All this means trying to keep my community safe and helping my fellow neighbor,” Buehlmann said. “We are all Mitakuye Oyasin, we are all related. I look at these younger kids and I am looking out for them. Hopefully, they will look out for me in the future.”
Jones says there are about 1000 people that live in Little Earth and about 600 of those are kids, half under the age of ten.
The Protectors noticed a large dip in traffic early on. Though the riots have halted, the effectiveness of these watches has not. Jones said the traffic that would otherwise take advantage of their residents has slowed down. She said the fact that it is community driven makes all the difference. “Every time we think we’re done, we’re not done,” she said. “This might just become a way of life for us. We’re community policing.”
LaPointe said the night they were attacked, she was amazed at the way community came out to fight for their homes, “We were going to do whatever we could to keep people safe. The mission was and is still to keep our homes safe.”
The Little Earth Protectors, made up of between 30-50 residences, gather every night at 9:30 for a meal before they are sent off to their posts at 10 p.m. On a good night they’ll head in around 2:30. Rain or shine, warm or freezing, there are groups on every corner.
A goal Jones has from this experience is to team up with other organizations to create an official disaster plan. Another goal everyone dreams of is having funding to keep regular, resident-driven security for Little Earth.
“I would like to see our community continue to police itself. There are a lot of people here that would take pride in that,” Buehlmann said. “We could possibly make something of this and see less crime. If we stepped in before the police do, I think we could stop a lot of violence.”
Jones said if they could receive funding then people working, like young men, could receive a stipend. She says to show them they can protect their community would make them feel purposeful. She said it’s the men that have been so badly abused by the authorities.
LaPointe agrees, saying it’s an opportunity for young men to find their identity.
LaPointe and Buehlmann have concerns for the dwindling numbers in protectors as well. Overdoses and gun violence, among a variety of outside threats, continue to be an issue even in smaller numbers. They say funding could be the answer to the longevity of The Protectors, and could also provide much needed income for their men as well.
Though one thing is certain, as their system and needs continues to evolve, the feeling of community remains.
“We were all out here side by side, all together, all for one effort to protect our community,” LaPointe said. “This whole effort branches out to good health, Wicozani – a good way of being with each other. It’s changed and it’s getting better.”
“This is the time. There is so much going on with the police and there are so many good people that would step up,” Beuhlmann said. “I believe we could make a good community that way and build from this.”