Rachel Thunder stands in front of a red tipi erected outside the Roof Depot warehouse in south Minneapolis on February 21, 2023. Thunder is an East Phillips resident and member of the Plains Cree First Nations. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

The city of Minneapolis ousted protestors Tuesday evening who had camped out at the Roof Depot site in south Minneapolis to block the demolition of a vacant warehouse.

Protestors at the site said that city workers flanked by Minneapolis police showed up about 6:15 p.m. and ordered them to disperse within 10 minutes. Police began detaining protestors about 7:15 p.m., according to social media reports from the encampment.

“This evening, the City moved to secure the property at the Roof Depot site,” said a written statement issued about 7:36 p.m. by city spokesman Casper Hill. “This site is not safe for individuals to congregate at and anyone on the site is trespassing. The City wanted to work swiftly today to move individuals off the premises before the impending snowstorm.”

Minneapolis police confront protestors who occupied the Roof Depot site in south Minneapolis on February 21, 2023. The city cleared the site hours after protestors erected a tent and tipi for a days-long sit-in. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Minneapolis police blocked off Cedar Avenue between 26th and 28th streets as the encampment site was cleared. Around 50 people milled about outside the perimeter, chanting for the release of those  detained by police.

“Free Rachel Thunder!” they called out. “Free Nicole Perez!” 

A social media post reported that the two were cited and released at the nearby Homeward Bound shelter. Minneapolis Police public information officer Garrett Parten said he could not confirm the total number of people cited as of 9 p.m. Tuesday. 

Minneapolis City Council Member Jason Chavez, who represents the area, was at the scene Tuesday night and said his office didn’t know that the encampment was going to be cleared. He said he wished that the situation had been handled differently, and that he’s trying to support constituents who are fearful about the demolition. 

“The concerns they have are serious,” Chavez said

Hours earlier, protestors opposed to the planned demolition of the Roof Depot warehouse occupied the site in a last ditch effort to preserve the building as a blizzard loomed. 

Organizers from the diverse and historically polluted East Phillips neighborhood are not giving up on their vision to create an urban farm, affordable housing, and a community hub out of an old Sears warehouse that sits on a former federal superfund site. 

“In order to ensure the safety and health of our community, we need to take a stand now,” said Rachel Thunder, an East Phillips resident involved in the occupation. 

The city of Minneapolis plans to demolish the building as early as Monday, February 27 so it can begin a public works facility expansion project. The pending demolition comes after a years-long fight between the city and the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute, the nonprofit behind the urban farm plan. 

The City Council approved a $1.6 million contract on January 26 to demolish the warehouse. On February 3, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that the city’s environmental assessment of the project was adequate. On February 13, Hennepin County Judge Edward Wahl declined to issue an injunction to stop the demolition that had been requested by the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute. Wahl ruled that the group could not prove that demolishing the building would cause irreparable harm. 

The city plans to expand its public works hub adjacent to the site in an effort to consolidate city services facilities. 

Minneapolis officials told Sahan Journal earlier in the day Tuesday that they are committed to demolishing the Roof Depot, but did not comment on how the city would handle the occupation. 

“After over a decade of planning, conversations with community, lengthy negotiations, and significant taxpayer investment, the demolition of the building is non-negotiable. The city can–and will–demolish the building safely,” the city said in a written statement. 

Members of the American Indian Movement and allies entered the gates outside of the warehouse Tuesday morning at E. 28th Street and Longfellow Avenue, lit a sacred fire, conducted traditional sage and tobacco ceremonies, and began making camp, Thunder said. 

The group, called Defend the Depot, is a coalition of people from the American Indian Movement, the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute, Little Earth Protectors, and other groups campaigning for environmental justice. 

They rallied allies to join their overnight sit-in as a historic snowstorm hits the Twin Cities; the National Weather Service predicts a snowfall of 17 to 23 inches in the Twin Cities. The group had planned to occupy the site continuously until the city grants their demands.

“February 27th is the 50th anniversary of the occupation of Wounded Knee, and we plan to celebrate it right here,” said Mike Forcia, chairman of the American Indian Movement. 

The group has seven demands for the city of Minneapolis: 

  • relocate the public works expansion project
  • give the community control of the Roof Depot site
  • fund the indoor urban farm
  • create plans to remove industrial polluters
  • a moratorium on evicting homeless encampments
  • invest in programs to support unhoused people
  • fund peer support workers

Thunder said the occupation is peaceful and rooted in ceremony and prayer.

The occupants erected a large red tipi in the center of the property. Supply tents were loaded up with food and blankets, and volunteers stacked bundles of firewood. 

Jason Goward, a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, gathered massive blocks of ice to help seal the flaps of a large green Army tent being erected. Goward was involved in protest encampments against the Line 3 oil pipeline in northern Minnesota, and has experience weathering winter conditions to fight for environmental movements. He said the impending snowstorm makes him feel excited that the group will keep pushing. 

East Phillips is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Minnesota, where 70 percent of residents are people of color and 30 percent speak a foreign language at home. It is home to Little Earth, a large and historic urban Native American housing community. 

The 7.5-acre parcel of land, known as the Roof Depot site, sits in what has been dubbed “the arsenic triangle,” a part of south Minneapolis contaminated by a long-defunct pesticide manufacturer. The site and surrounding neighborhood was declared a federal superfund site in 2007, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency removed 50,000 tons of contaminated soil in the area. 

People gathered at the site Tuesday said they fear that the demolition will release toxic chemicals into the area, where state and federal officials have documented high levels of pollution-related health problems like asthma and heart disease. 

Little Earth resident Cassie Holmes lost her son, Trinidad Flores, to a heart condition in 2013. He was 16. She had a close friend lose a child to heart disease, too, and has been involved in fighting to improve environmental conditions in the area for a decade. The demolition is scary, she said, due to the potential of arsenic-laden soil being released into the air.  

“The main reason we started this fight was to make sure our kids have a chance to live and a chance to breathe,” Holmes said. 

The City Council unanimously approved a Memorandum of Understanding with the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute on January 26, awarding the three acres at the site to the group to build an urban farm free of charge. The council also committed to increasing the amount of green space in the neighborhood and to working towards phasing out industrial polluters in the area. 

But Holmes said the nonprofit’s board voted to reject the agreement. 

“Little Earth is not in it for three acres,” she said. 


Andrew Hazzard is a staff reporter with Sahan Journal who focuses on climate change and environmental justice issues. After starting his career in daily newspapers in Mississippi and North Dakota, Andrew...