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Residents near Brooklyn Center police station fear unrest may return as Potter trial begins

7December 2021

Shay Johnson remembers protesters on their knees and vomiting amid thick plumes of tear gas outside her apartment window last spring as her teenage daughter begged her for milk to wash the irritant from their eyes.

She remembers law enforcement officers yelling at mother and daughter to stay inside.

“I’ve never seen nothing like that in my life. I couldn’t even believe it,” Johnson said.

The 33-year-old mother lives in the apartment directly across the street from the Brooklyn Center Police Department, where protests turned violent after the police killing of Daunte Wright on April 11. Many of her neighbors have since moved away, she said, but like her, many rely on Section 8 housing assistance and had no choice but to stay.

Now, with opening statements in the trial of former police officer Kimberly Potter set to begin Wednesday, Johnson and her neighbors are on edge again as the high-profile court proceedings dredge up memories of unrest and spark fears it could all happen again.

“I don’t want this to be going on, like [my daughter] is already stressed, a lot of people are stressed,” she said. “The kids are traumatized; it’s just not me. It’s just the whole building.”

During jury selection last week, demonstrations throughout the north suburban city were peaceful and small. City leaders hope to keep protests calm this time and are preparing by partnering with several law enforcement agencies and community-based interveners. They will issue emergency public safety alerts if necessary and provide resources such as mental health hotline numbers and assistance for businesses.

“Our community is going through a very difficult time,” City Manager Reginald Edwards said in a news release. “The City of Brooklyn Center remains committed to providing various resources to and prioritizing the safety of our residents, businesses, families and employees throughout the community.”

The scars of April’s unrest, which erupted within hours of the shooting and continued for a week, are still visible: The police station remains a fortress of concrete barricades and two layers of fencing adorned with protesters’ signs. In a nearby strip mall, some storefronts stand vacant. Boost Mobile was looted, and so was the Dollar Tree store, which was set on fire and burned in the chaos.

The threat of unrest weighs heavily on the minds of Johnson and other residents of Sterling Square Apartments, a group of four buildings and home to mostly low-income families.

“We are on edge right now,” said Roberta Tullis, 66. “Just imagine how uncomfortable we were. We didn’t know whether we could sleep on our bed or sit on our couch or if we had to get on the floor.”

Tullis said it’s “trauma on top of trauma” for Black people who saw Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, killed and then for a neighborhood of mostly Black residents to endure the subsequent unrest outside their doors.

Tullis’ neighbor, 67-year-old veteran Tommy Jackson, said he fears that if Potter is found not guilty, “they’re going to riot again” and he’ll lock himself inside his apartment holding a pistol, just as he did during the unrest of last spring.

“The scariest part for me was them firing off all that stuff,” he said, referring to the rubber bullets, flash bangs and tear gas that shattered the neighborhood.

During jury selection, most demonstrations were held outside the Hennepin County Courthouse in downtown Minneapolis, and Brooklyn Center officials said they are establishing a protest area along Humboldt Avenue. Edwards, the city manager, wrote in an e-mail that the city is “identifying the area as a protest area and indicating families live there, asking participants to be courteous.”

Sterling Square resident Monica Ford said a demonstration with free food and music early last week outside the apartment complex was peaceful, but “we don’t know for how long.”

“They’re all in downtown [Minneapolis], but they will make their way up here,” Ford said, adding that she was not bothered by the April protests because they were for “a good cause.”

The same wasn’t true for Brenda Clark. The tear gas filling her Sterling Square apartment triggered her asthma and forced her to find refuge in a hotel room. Meanwhile, her children missed school because the bus stop was shut down by neighborhood road closures.

“I’m 16 — I still have to wake up for school in the morning,” son Xzavion Martin said he remembers thinking during the late nights of protests.

But Clark said she understood why hundreds of people filled the streets, and she expects them to return if they don’t like the outcome of the trial.

Johnson said she is trying to get in the holiday spirit while worrying about what could ensue on Humboldt Avenue in the coming weeks. Her Christmas tree is decorated, and the gifts underneath are beginning to pile up. But so is her anxiety.

“It doesn’t feel like Christmas,” Johnson said. “I’m just trying to move from here. … I don’t want to experience this no more.”

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