A National Guard helicopter flies over Powderhorn Park neighborhood in Minneapolis in June 2020. Credit: Ben Hovland | (c) 2020

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Lawrence Campbell lives on 38th Avenue in South Minneapolis, not far from where Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd. For much of the last year, his days have been interrupted by the whir of helicopters surveilling his neighborhood. 

In the last few weeks especially, with law enforcement officers deploying across the Twin Cities due to the Chauvin trial and the killing of 20-year-old Daunte Wright by a Brooklyn Center police officer, the surveillance program has taken its toll. Wright’s funeral is set for tomorrow in North Minneapolis. 

“You can’t breathe, man,” Campbell said. “You can’t breathe because it’s every day. Every day. Helicopters flying over you… National Guard — and they’ve got their fingers on the trigger.”

The tension Campbell feels is not unique. Helicopters, as well as drones, have been a near-constant facet of daily life in Minneapolis and the surrounding area since last May, when George Floyd was killed and the metro area erupted in protest. 

Residents say that the surveillance has ranged from annoying to disrespectful to potentially in violation of Minnesotans’ civil liberties. 

While certain communities in the Twin Cities have dealt with helicopter noise and law enforcement surveillance for years, both local and national law enforcement agencies engaged in military-style surveillance throughout the protests over the murder of George Floyd.

The Minnesota State Patrol flew multiple helicopters over protests, as well as a Cirrus spy plane with the ability to shoot high-resolution footage. The National Guard operated multiple Black Hawk helicopters while activated last spring, and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency sent a Predator drone over at least one protest.

That drone collected data that is then funneled into a database managed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that both federal law enforcement agencies and local police departments can access in subsequent investigations.  

Helicopter activity diminished somewhat in the fall, but not completely, remaining particularly acute around George Floyd Square. 

The Minneapolis Police Department and Hennepin County Sheriff’s office heightened helicopter surveillance again in January when they used a state patrol helicopter to circle South Minneapolis for days in an effort to stop a rash of carjackings — retraumatizing and frightening a number of residents.  

In the end, according to a KARE 11 report, no one was charged with a carjacking-related crime. 

Law enforcement has responded to the killing of Wright and the Chauvin trial with a similarly invasive aerial presence.

Minnesota State Patrol aircraft have surveilled the nightly protests at the Brooklyn Center police station, while another CBP helicopter has also reportedly been active in the area and around Minneapolis. That is in addition to drones, some of which may be flown by recreationists, some which have been seen landing on and taking off from the roof of the police station. 

Some of the helicopter activity has come from local news media as well. KSTP and a pool of other news networks led by KARE 11 used news helicopters in their coverage of the George Floyd protests and related events, though KSTP has since abandoned its own helicopter and joined the pool. 

The noise and feeling of being surveilled — coupled with the presence of National Guard troops and armored vehicles in neighborhoods and on major arterials throughout the city — has had a serious effect on people both at home and at protest sites.

Fatiya Kedir, the student body president at Macalester College in St. Paul, who grew up in Minneapolis, said that the surveillance and overwhelming National Guard presence has had a particularly acute effect in her community. 

“So many of us are refugees from East Africa, especially from Somalia, and it’s just wild that so many members of this community have severe PTSD from the Somali civil war and have found safety from being here — and I’ve definitely found that too — until we’ve seen this police brutality and the response,” Kedir said.

Kedir said that she “pretty much [had] an anxiety attack” arriving at her house last week due to the significant National Guard presence in her neighborhood. 

The fact that the fallout from the killing of Wright coincided with the start of Ramadan has made it all the more difficult. 

“The only noise you usually hear is people interacting during Iftar,” Kedir said. “You don’t hear that anymore. There’s barely anyone out, and all you hear is drones and all you see is this military presence.”

The difficulty of distinguishing between law enforcement, news media, and recreational drones and helicopters creates its own feeling of unease — especially when very little information is available to average metro area residents about who is flying what over their housings and public space.

“It’s keeping you up,” Campbell said. “You can’t relax. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know what is going on. And nobody is saying nothing to us about it, so what are we supposed to expect?” 

Operation Safety Net, a joint operation of nine law enforcement agencies that has led the area’s response to Derek Chauvin trial, declined to specify how and where it is using drones and helicopters for security reasons. 

“We can tell you that with Operation Safety Net, we want to keep everyone safe and respond to challenges as they arise,” spokesperson Dave Boxum wrote in an email to Sahan Journal. “The use of helicopters and drones by law enforcement agencies, if needed, can help do that in the area.”

The Minnesota State Patrol did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

Many have interpreted the surveillance program as a sign of both disrespect and hostility. 

“On some levels, especially for the youth, it’s like, holy shit, we’ve heard of the U.S. and other governments doing this internationally, but now, we feel like foreigners in our own nation,” Kedir said.

The law enforcement presence was particularly notable at Wright’s vigil, held on Monday of last week at the intersection at which he was killed, at which moments of silence and speeches from members of Wright’s family were interrupted by helicopter noise and loud phone alerts about a metro area curfew. 

“[The state] caused this to occur, and [they’re] not even giving the people the space to heal and mourn,” Kedir said. 

Even for people who appreciate the law enforcement presence, fatigue has set in. 

Sam Willis Jr., who lives in South Minneapolis and runs a restaurant close to George Floyd Square, said he believes that law enforcement is protecting the area. But if anything, the presence has now gotten to be too much. 

“We want protection, but we also want privacy for citizens as well,” he said. “At night time, I think the drones should be in place, but during the day, I think they should be respectful of people.” 

Over the last week and a half, residents of Brooklyn Center have gotten their own taste of what it is like to live in the shadow of a major law-enforcement presence.

When Daunte Wright was killed, Andrew Wallace was living out of a vehicle parked by the Sterling Square apartment complex across the street from the Brooklyn Center Police Department. He parked his car there, he said, because he thought living near the police would be safe.

Instead, he found himself coughing up tear gas as law enforcement responded to protests outside of the police station. Then, there was the aerial surveillance.

“All day, all night. That’s all they did, just fly those helicopters,” Wallace said. “Even when people left.”

Wallace eventually relocated to a nearby hotel with the help of mutual aid organizers. But he too said that the drones, which at times flew extremely low over protesters and residents, played a role in triggering his PTSD. 

“They’re trying to intimidate the community,” he said. “Point blank.”

It is possible that with the Chauvin trial complete, the helicopter and drone activity will decline. But no one is counting on it. 

“It’s different than it used to be,” North Minneapolis resident Robert Snead said. “This has never happened here. You’ve got to be on edge. You don’t know what is coming.”

Abe Asher

Abe Asher is a journalist whose work covering protest, police, and politics has appeared in The Nation, VICE News, the Portland Mercury, and other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @abe_asher.