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 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.