Ana Vergara, Katherine Vasquez, and Ayda Vasquez have been keeping watch by night over the Mercado Central, where their family has a clothing store. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

GET STORIES IN YOUR INBOX

Sahan Journal brings you reliable and authentic news about our newest Minnesotans. Get the week’s must-read stories delivered to your inbox every Sunday.

Sahan Journal brings you reliable and authentic news about our newest Minnesotans. To receive a weekly email with a roundup of our stories, sign up for our newsletter.

As fires raged through their block last week, Raja Ziadi and her family and neighbors called the police over and over again. “Too many thousands of times,” Ziadi said. “We call and call. Nobody comes.”

So Ziadi and her neighbors took matters into their own hands. 

Ziadi, whose family owns the Moroccan Flavors restaurant at the Midtown Global Market and lives in the building, joined a volunteer effort of up to 100 people that keeps watch over the Market at night. 

Nearly two weeks after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck, killing him, and sparking a wave of protests — some of which resulted in extensive damage and destruction to Lake Street businesses — many immigrant business owners on Lake Street have organized overnight patrols to protect the buildings that are still standing. The community patrol strategy has spread throughout the city, from the American Indian community to North Minneapolis to newly formed south Minneapolis block clubs.

“If people aren’t protecting [the Global Market], it’s gonna burn,” Ziadi said.

When law enforcement has shown up, it has sometimes been to cite night watch volunteers for curfew violations. On Sunday night a law enforcement mission including National Guard soldiers with long guns and military fatigues pulled up on the community watch effort past two in the morning and wrote citations for six of the volunteers.

“We are all of us angry,” Ziadi said. “The people are helping us, and four of them live in the Market. You feel too sad when you see that.”

Eighteen-year-old Katherine Vasquez, left, says she and three of her siblings were raised in Mercado Central. Her mom Ayda, right, wants the Mercado to be there for her children and future generations to know their Latino roots. Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle

Between May 31 and June 2, law enforcement cited or arrested at least 12 volunteers keeping watch over immigrant-owned businesses on Lake Street at night for curfew violations, according to a Sahan Journal tally of reports from community patrols. The Department of Public Safety did not respond to requests for comment before press time. 

The curfew was lifted for Friday night, but the night watch volunteers will still be on duty, looking for signs of trouble. 

At Mercado Central on Wednesday afternoon, volunteers in neon yellow shirts that read “Security: Latinos de la Lake” accepted donations of food and water to distribute to the community. 

Ayda Vasquez, whose Jhoaleymat clothing store has sold traditional clothing and dresses for quinceañeras in the Mercado for 16 years, was at the Mercado with her daughter Katherine in advance of their night shift on watch. They, too, had difficulty getting through to police in the early nights of the unrest. Their store was broken into and their cash registers and computers were stolen — another blow after being closed two months because of the coronavirus pandemic. The financial strain for the family is especially tough as Katherine, 18, is about to head to college. They’ve organized a GoFundMe to help the store rebuild.

But it’s not just a business to them. Katherine grew up there along with three of her siblings. Ayda, who is from Colombia, wants her children and future generationsto have the Mercado to learn and stay connected with their Latino roots.

So Ayda and her daughter and sister started keeping watch for people trying to break in and yelled at them to go away. “Our voice has been one of the major weapons we are using,” Ayda said.

Over the course of the week, other nearby businesses, including La Mexicana, Las Cuatro Milpas, and the Red Lake Nation embassy joined efforts with Mercado Central and other neighbors. “That’s when we got our second weapon, which is fire extinguishers just in case people tried to burn the place,” Ayda said.

Instead of the large crowds on Lake Street in the first nights of the unrest, Ziadi says she is now seeing small groups of white Americans hiding in the ruins of the nearby Family Dollar and US Bank. She doesn’t know who they are, and she’s worried about them. 

Across the street from Mercado Central, La Mexicana is one of the few grocery stores still open in south Minneapolis. Employees ask customers to take a dollop of hand sanitizer as they enter. Maria Gutierrez, the owner, who’s had her business on Lake Street for 22 years, gave directions to passersby as they stopped in.

“This is our home,” Gutierrez said. “This is my store because our neighbors support me.”

As the unrest rippled down Lake Street, she removed the computers and many of the important papers before they could be stolen or burned, but someone broke in through a back door, stole a cash register and trashed the back half of the store. Police didn’t answer their calls. They’ve been keeping watch at night ever since with 100 other neighbors and volunteers, monitoring security cameras and keeping water ready in case of fire.

“It’s horrible. It’s a pesadilla,” Gutierrez said — a nightmare. “All this. Every minute.” She said she is taking medication for anxiety every night, and many of her friends are too.

In addition to her fears about her business, she’s concerned being around more people than usual will expose her to the coronavirus. Several of her friends have been sick, and Gutierrez has asthma, which could exacerbate the virus if she contracts it.

The Department of Public Safety reported that three people were arrested at the corner of Lake and Bloomington, where Mercado Central and La Mexicana are located, for curfew violations on Monday night. Business owners from the block said the people arrested were part of the community protection patrols. The patrol at the Midtown Global Market reported an additional nine citations and arrests over two nights. 

Gutierrez said she was “super sad” to see that people were arrested who were trying to protect her neighbors’ building. “We felt so bad,” she said. “But everybody knows the risks.” They respect the police and the curfew, she said, adding that people should stay inside.

At Mercado Central, Ana Vergara, Ayda’s sister, said they feel safer when the National Guard comes, and they worry about what will happen when the Guard leaves. But they’ve been coming by less frequently as days have gone by. And even with the National Guard in town, many Lake Street business owners haven’t been able to take their eyes off their buildings and neighborhoods long enough to get a night’s rest.

Ayda and Katherine Vasquez said they haven’t called the police since they started protecting the building. But they need their help, they said. They are exhausted from keeping watch over the building at night, and still have to work during the day.

“We need at least a couple of minutes of resting, you know?” Katherine said.

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.