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Last Saturday, Franklin Avenue between 24th and 26th Avenue was closed to traffic. Light rain fell on volunteers staging the street for a Somali Independence Day festival that would run through the evening. The street was cordoned off, and a mobile stage positioned and adorned with a Somali flag: a white star on a blue field.
By the time the event officially began at one that afternoon, the first festival goers had already arrived. Many dressed in blue and white to honor the Somali flag and commemorate the day Somalia, which had been divided by colonial powers, was unified as an independent nation.
As the day wore on, the small gathering grew into a block party. A DJ played hip hop while festival goers danced and children played in the street. The smell of hot oil and fried food blended in the air with music and smoke from vape pens to create the atmosphere of celebration. The day had nearly everything you would expect from a Minneapolis street festival, but one thing was absent.
To close down a street like Franklin Avenue, event organizers must provide traffic control. Almost always, that means armed Minneapolis Police Department officers, but local business owner and event organizer Saida Mohamed committed to a different approach for the festival: In place of MPD officers, security and traffic control was overseen by Nonviolent Peaceforce, a nonprofit that has provided unarmed security services in conflict zones from Ukraine to Iraq since 2002.
Celeste Robinson, a resident of the Seward neighborhood, helped Saida organize the festival. She said the city official who navigated them through the permit application told her and the other organizers it was one of the largest events to be permitted in Minneapolis without a police presence.
A spokesperson for the City of Minneapolis said officials were not able to arrange an interview in time for the story to go to print.
Saida was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, and came to the U.S. in 1999. She settled in Boston originally, but in 2008 she came with her family to Minneapolis. “They told me, ‘We can have businesses here, you can open your own pharmacy.’ So I said ‘Why not?’ If I can make my own money, I don’t need a boss,’” she said. “And it’s been good. The state is good, most of the people are good. It’s just that the last three years we had absolutely no support from any type of government at all.”
Saida owns pharmacies on Lake Street and Franklin Avenue which together have been robbed three times since last summer. Most recently, the Franklin Avenue location was looted in April during the unrest following the police killing of Daunte Wright. Security footage from her store shows an MPD police cruiser driving past around the time her pharmacy and a nearby corner shop were robbed, and Saida believes they allowed the robbery to take place.
Distrust of the police is common among East African business owners, Saida said, many of whom have stopped calling them. “What’s the point? They don’t help you, they don’t want to talk to you, they don’t respect you, and they don’t protect you.”
When the organizers began planning the festival, Saida was resolute. “If we’re getting robbed left and right and we can’t call the police, if we can’t depend on them, then if we had this festival I believed we could do it without them.” However, to get the permit to shut down the street, they had to show the city they had a plan for security and traffic control.
Amira Warren Yearby is a volunteer coordinator with Nonviolent Peaceforce, which is best known for its unarmed response to violent conflict around the world. Currently, it provides security for refugee camps in Iraq and trains civilians to monitor ceasefires in Myanmar. It also has programs in *South Sudan and the Philippines, and its past work is an atlas of conflict: Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and even North Dakota during the Standing Rock protest.
The organization is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, but is not a stranger to the Twin Cities. It was originally based in Minneapolis and has maintained an office in the Twin Cities for nearly 20 years.
Warren Yearby described Nonviolent Peaceforce as “a global protection agency. Our strategic mission is to protect civilians in violent conflicts through unarmed strategies.”
The basic philosophy behind Nonviolent Peaceforce’s work is “unarmed civilian protection,” Warren Yearby said. In a violent conflict, strangers with guns are threats. But unarmed civilians are third parties outside the conflict who can interrupt the cycle of violence. Putting this philosophy into practice, they enter conflict zones unarmed in uniforms identifying themselves as members of the Nonviolent Peaceforce.
The program has been successful internationally, and this year the group launched a new program in the Twin Cities “reimagining public safety and security,” according to its website. It works with local groups including Democratic Socialist of America, SEIU Local 26 and Little Earth, Warren Yearby said, training local community members in the same unarmed civilian protection techniques it has used around the world.
Warren Yearby explained that the organization *does not take a specific policy stance on the movement to abolish the Minneapolis Police Department. “We are nonpartisan in the international context,” Warren Yearby said. “We don’t take sides, but we’re not neutral. We’re committed to the dignity, security, and wellbeing of all in the struggle against violence.”
When Saida and other organizers were looking for security for the Franklin Avenue festival, they learned about Nonviolent Peaceforce through a neighbor who had attended one of the organization’s trainings, Saida said. The collaboration was a natural fit.
“Just us being there in the space, and being diligent, and being aware, chatting with people, being opening and welcoming, is how we can and we did provide safety in that space,” Warren Yearby said.
Saida estimated that about a thousand people attended the festival over the course of the day, which unfolded without incident.
Shifts of volunteers, 15 at a time, patrolled the space and directed traffic. “There was a vulnerability on 25th Avenue,” Warren Yearby said, “There is an apartment complex and people had to drive out to get supplies, and they got annoyed, you know, ‘I live here!’” Warren Yearby’s biggest fear going into the day was that someone would drive a car into the crowd, so the interactions kept her focused. But security engaged with the drivers, explained what was going on, and helped them get in and out of the parking garage without incident.
Derrick Howard cuts hair at Nomadic Oasis barber shop at the corner of Franklin and 26th Avenue. During the event, he chatted with the security volunteers. He was intrigued by the absence of police, who he faults for lacking diversity and cultural sensitivity.
“Inner city, they’re all white,” he said. “Someone’s pants will be sagging, and they don’t understand that,” Howard said. “They think it means the guy is carrying a gun.” Howard said the event was more relaxed because police weren’t there.
Reached by email, MPD spokesperson John Elder said the department was not able to provide a comment before the story went to print.
On the far side of the festival at the corner of Franklin and 24th Avenue, Abdul Mohamed was working the counter at *Ahlan Restaurant. The event brought in business, but nothing else was noteworthy. “They organized it, cleaned up after, they did everything for the people,” he said. The absence of police was “satisfactory,” he said.
And that might be the highest praise of Nonviolent Peaceforce’s work that day: it was unremarkable.
“The only awkward moment was when the police came,” Warren Yearby said.
Before the event, Metro Transit Police reached out to Ahmed Ismail, one of the organizers, and asked to come. “He told them they could come as people,” Saida said, “but there was a misunderstanding and they showed up carrying their guns.”
The officers came into the space and began to talk to and take pictures with children, but Saida said she approached them and asked them to leave. An awkward conversation ensued, but Saida was resolute. “We said they could come back without their weapons, but no guns are allowed in the space.”
Despite the tension, the officers respected the wishes of the community and left, Saida said.
A video from the event posted on Facebook shows an intimate moment. A man, maybe 30 years old, stands with a girl, maybe 5, in his arms. She has a serious expression, like a little scientist examining a specimen under a microscope. She cradles his cheeks with her hand examining the details of his face. She probes his ear with her fingers. He flinches and shoos her hand away, then smiles and kisses her nose. She throws her arms around his shoulders and rests her head there.
To Saida, the festival was a family event, but it was also a political statement. “We wanted the people to know Minneapolis is not what they are saying it is. We can have an event without policing,” Saida said, “We can do so many things without policing.”
*Correction and clarification: This article has been changed to note that Nonviolent Peaceforce maintains a program on the ground in South Sudan, not Sudan. It’s also been updated to reflect the organization’s position on initiatives to abolish the Minneapolis Police Department. The original article also misspelled Ahlan Restaurant.