American Indian organizations show support for efforts to stop Roof Depot demolition

Mainstream media missing the story: Minneapolis’ hypocrisy

Marissa Cummings speaks at today’s press conference.

More than two dozen Native American organizations showed their support today for an Indigenous-led, non-violent direct action, occupying the Roof Depot site in the East Phillips neighborhood. The action was a peaceful and prayerful gathering to highlight neighborhood demands to stop city plans to expand its Public Works yard onto the site. It would bring more traffic and diesel exhaust to an already polluted neighborhood, including the Little Earth of United Tribes housing complex.

A massive police response cleared the occupation last night. The city already has erected concrete barriers to block entrance, MPR reported.

For years, the neighborhood has wanted to redevelop the Roof Depot site into a community-owned asset, with an indoor urban farm, affordable housing, large solar array, and more.

At a press conference today, Marissa Cummings, President and CEO of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, read letters from the Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors (MUID) and the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council (MIAC) regarding the Roof Depot controversy.

The MUID letter supported the Urban Farm, a “better, community-led, green initiative” in place of the city’s plans. It would “better mitigate the negative social determinants of health caused by environmental racism,” the letter said. It also denounced “the militaristic actions taken by the Minneapolis Police Department … to dismantle a peaceful and ceremonial occupation at the Roof Depot site.”

Yesterday’s occupation before Minneapolis police took it down.

The full MUID membership signed the letter. Members are: Ain Dah Yung Center, All Nations Indian Church, American Indian Community and Development Corporation, American Indian Family Center.

American Indian OIC, Bois Forte Urban Office, The Circle Newspaper, Division of Indian Work, Fond du Lac Urban Office, Indian Health Board, Indigenous Peoples Task Force, Little Earth of United Tribes.

MIGIZI Communications, Mille Lacs Band Urban Office, Minneapolis American Indian Center, Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, Mni Sota Fund, Native American Community Clinic, Native American Community Development Institute.

Nawayee Center School, New Native Theatre, Red Lake Twin Cities Embassy, Upper Midwest American Indian Center, Wakan Tipi Center, and White Earth Nation Urban Office.

MIAC’s letter was sent to Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, expressing its “strong support of the East Phillips Urban Farm Project.”

It was signed by Robert Larsen, President of the Lower Sioux Indian Community and chair of MIAC, a state advisory board with a mission “to protect the sovereignty of the 11 Minnesota Tribes and to ensure the well-being of American Indian citizens throughout the state of Minnesota.”

Organizing continues.

Robert Lilligren also spoke at the news conference. He is a member of the White Earth Nation, CEO of the Native American Community Development Institute, 36-year resident of the Phillips neighborhood, and a former Minneapolis City Council member.

Back in 2015, however, he was working for Little Earth of United Tribes. “There was this powerful group of grass roots organizations and residents who came together to envision a future for the Rood Depot site,” he said.

That led to the Urban Farm proposal, he said. “It was a beautiful plan and a beautiful process. We took it to the city and … the city has never responded.”

The city has made a lot of commitments to racial justice, Lilligren said. This is an opportunity to put those beliefs into action.

Media critique

Both the Star Tribune and MPR covered the Roof Depot occupation and the police response.

The problem wasn’t with what they reported but what they didn’t.

The city’s Public Works proposal flies in the face of multiple city racial justice commitments: The Green Zone initiative, the declaration of racism as a public health emergency, and even the city’s mission and vision statements.

Minneapolis is an intentionally compassionate city where each of us can reach our full potential while caring for one another, eliminating racial disparities, improving our environment and promoting social well-being. We lead in innovative and creative ways, focused not only on our present needs, but also the success of future generations.

City of Minneapolis Vision Statement

And …

Our City government takes strategic action to address climate change, dismantle institutional injustice and close disparities in health, housing, public safety and economic opportunities. In partnership with residents, City leaders help to ensure all communities thrive in a safe and healthy city.

City of Minneapolis Mission Statement

I hope that Star Tribune and MPR reporters press city leaders, especially Mayor Frey, to explain how the Public Works proposal is consistent with the city’s stated values. They haven’t been forced to explain the disconnect between their ideals and their actions.

The Minneapolis police organized a massive response to the Roof Depot Occupation last night.

A comment in the Star Tribune story caught my attention, a quote from a city spokesperson, who said: “There are very small amounts of arsenic in the soils on the Roof Depot site, in line with naturally occurring arsenic levels in Minnesota soil.”

The area near the Roof Depot was used “to produce and store arsenic-based pesticides” from 1938 to 1963, the Minnesota Department of Health said.

The Roof Depot building wasn’t built until 1947. That leaves nearly a decade’s worth of arsenic pollution that could have built up.

I haven’t seen anything on whether the Superfund clean up addressed the soil directly beneath the building or not. It’s a fair concern for residents to have.

In response to reporters’ questions, the city issued a statement that seemed a bit authoritarian, with a hint of defensiveness.

“The city can – and will – demolish the building safely,” a city spokesperson told MPR. “The city hired third party experts – who have decades of experience and have worked in the East Phillips neighborhood – to assess the building and its surroundings, including the soil underneath and around the building.”

It’s spoken with all the confidence of someone who doesn’t live in the neighborhood.

The city’s message to East Phillips seems to be “trust us, we have experts.” By all indications the neighborhood doesn’t trust the city or its experts.

The city talked to East Phillips residents in 2021 about their thoughts and hopes for the Roof Depot site. The city summarized those discussions in a Racial Equity Impact Analysis.

Here’s some of what residents told the city:

  • Desire to have agency in the planning and decision-making for the site, rather than feeling like something was being done to them.
  • Concerns about increasing traffic and traffic-related pollution in a community that already has some of the most dangerous intersections and some of the worst air pollution in Minneapolis.
  • Vision for deindustrialization of the neighborhood.

Residents have no reason to trust the city given how their comments did nothing to influence city decisions.

The city has done an extremely poor job of being present to the neighborhood, its health disparities, and its aspirations.

City officials should be out in the neighborhood answering peoples’ questions, just like they would for an affluent neighborhood

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