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October 2020 Issue [Letter from Minneapolis]

The Sanctuary

Life in a cop-free zone
Illustrations by Hokyoung Kim

Illustrations by Hokyoung Kim

[Letter from Minneapolis]

The Sanctuary

Life in a cop-free zone

Abu Bakr Bryant had been sleeping in his red Monte Carlo for three weeks when George Floyd was murdered by the police. Most nights, he parked his car near the Cup Foods market in South Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed. But as he headed back across town from a temp job on May 29, four days after Floyd’s death, protesters blocked the streets. Bryant watched from the driver’s seat as crowds marched, chanted, and overturned trash cans. Looting had begun in the neighborhood the previous night, and protesters had battled the police for hours at the nearby Third Precinct station, breaking windows and vandalizing squad cars. Bryant himself wasn’t prone to demonstrations of rage. A convert to Islam, he tried to lead a peaceful life, a worldview that he embodied in his white dishdasha and matching kufi. Yet as a twenty-nine-year-old black man who grew up mostly on the streets, he understood the protesters’ anger. Officers had called him a monkey when he was caught selling crack as a teenager, and he had been beaten up by Third Precinct officers in 2016 after his boss called the cops following an argument. For a few months, he had lived at the Harbor Light Center, the homeless shelter where Floyd sometimes worked. Watching the video of Floyd’s murder, he said, “I pictured myself.”

Bryant left his car in the road and stepped into the crowd. He joined a group of men on a street corner listening to a speech by a member of the Mad Dads, a nonprofit organization run by the fathers of young people who have been killed by the police. As the man spoke, someone shouted: “Hey! There’s a car on fire!” Bryant turned and saw smoke. He sprinted back to the Monte Carlo—which contained everything he owned except the clothes he was wearing, his cell phone, and his wallet—to find it engulfed in flames.

Along Lake Street and Chicago Avenue, which form a cross through the heart of south Minneapolis, plumes of fire soon consumed a Speedway gas station, an AutoZone, a Wells Fargo, and the Third Precinct station, which was ransacked by protesters around 10 pm that night. Police helicopters slalomed between skyscrapers of smoke. Bryant abandoned his burning car and wandered dazed through the destruction.

A few days later, as the protests continued, Bryant came upon one building in the neighborhood that remained unharmed, save for a few smashed windows: a Sheraton hotel. Handwritten signs reading sanctuary had been placed in the ground-floor windows. I don’t think I’m allowed to go into a sanctuary, Bryant thought. But he entered anyway, and inside found dozens of others milling about—mostly street people like himself, their possessions piled in shopping carts or stuffed in backpacks, as well as some harried organizers with clipboards and cell phones. “I’d never been in a Sheraton before,” Bryant said, “so I didn’t know if this was out of the ordinary.” After he used the restroom, he walked up to a woman in a mask and asked her what was going on. She explained that “the community” had commandeered the hotel—did he want a free room?

Bryant had inadvertently stepped into a radical experiment that in less than a week’s time would become a flash point in discussions of homelessness and police brutality. The Sheraton had been taken over by a group of mostly middle-class activists, including health-care workers and social-service providers, to function both as an emergency refuge for people caught on the streets during the riots and as an ambitious attempt at police abolition—the belief that communities are better off policing themselves than outsourcing the task to traditional law enforcement agencies and the prison system. Residents, many of them suffering from addiction or mental illness, would help make the rules that would govern their daily lives, and under no circumstances would law enforcement be called or allowed inside the hotel.

Across the country, Floyd’s death had unleashed a powerful burst of activism and political imagination—from Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, to land seizures by homeless people in Philadelphia, to the removal of Confederate statues in dozens of states. Legislatures in many cities, including in Minneapolis, were suddenly debating the extraordinary measure of defunding their police departments. But at the Sheraton, perhaps more than anywhere else, activists’ most revolutionary ambitions had all come together under one roof. There, they hoped to take the first step toward the realization of a world without cops. “People have been theorizing and conceptualizing abolition for a long time,” said one of the organizers, Rachel Bean, who was checking in guests at the front desk when Bryant arrived. “But [we] have not had many opportunities to actually try things outside of the police model. We’re in a moment where things that were completely impossible to conceptualize three months ago, six months ago, are now wide open and on the table.”

That night, after receiving his room key, Bryant was too exhausted to fully make sense of the alternate universe he was now inhabiting—he was mostly baffled by his good fortune. For the first time in a month, he was going to sleep in a bed, and for the first time in his life, he was going to sleep in a three-star hotel room with fresh sheets and pillows, a working television, and a door that locked. “It was magical,” he said. “The first nice thing to happen to me in a long time.”

The Sheraton on Chicago Avenue is a four-story, 136-room slate-gray building that, until recently, was well maintained if a little worn out. A guest who visited in April described it on Tripadvisor as a “comfortable, quiet and friendly oasis,” though another reviewer complained that “it was definitely located in a somewhat sketchy neighborhood. Lots of kids hanging around the parking lot and back patio area of the hotel, lots of people asking for money as you walk by the bus stops.” Across the street is a Popeyes and Uncle Hugo’s Science Fiction Bookstore; next door is a substation for the Third Precinct.

Behind the hotel runs a bicycle path called the Greenway. Once part of the rail line that hauled grain and steel from factories on Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River, the converted tracks now shuttle gentrifiers to and from newly constructed condos. The trail’s various trestles and overpasses, meanwhile, serve as roofs for some of the hundreds of Minneapolis residents who sleep outside on any given night. Rents in the city are relatively affordable by U.S. standards—in part owing to recent upzoning laws, a one-bedroom averages about $1,000 per month. But, as is true in much of urban America, rents continue to rise while incomes and wages remain flat. In a 2018 address, Mayor Jacob Frey described the shortage of affordable housing in Minneapolis as “a crisis unlike the city has ever seen.”

When Minnesota issued a stay-at-home order in late March, the services that many homeless people relied on—food pantries, shelters, public restrooms—were either reduced in capacity or shut down entirely. Worried about possible exposure to the novel coronavirus in crowded shelters, several hundred people formed a homeless encampment near the Sabo Bridge, a mile down the Greenway from the Sheraton. It was nicknamed Camp Quarantine.

In response, the Metropolitan Council, a regional governmental agency, erected a chain-link fence around the camp, and stationed police officers at its gates. Photographs of the scene caused a minor scandal, drawing comparisons to World War II internment camps. As one resident, Naukeya White, put it to a local reporter: “We are scared of [the fence] because that puts us in the mind frame of prison.”

Shortly after the fence went up, Rosemary Fister, a nurse practitioner who was once written up in a local paper for disrupting a white-supremacist rally, began distributing food, masks, and basic medical and hygiene supplies to the homeless population in a park downtown, working alongside a group of other nurses, social workers, and anarchist community organizers called Mobile Outreach and Outdoor Drop-In, or MOODI. The crowds of homeless people using their services swelled, as did the group’s ranks of volunteers. By April they were able to support three separate teams: one providing food and supplies at the park; another coordinating phone calls and letter-writing campaigns to local politicians, urging them to provide hotel rooms for people in the tent cities; and a third focusing on more confrontational ways to acquire shelters.

Inspired by Moms 4 Housing, a group of three African-American mothers who squatted in a house in Oakland, California, as both an immediate remedy to their own homelessness and a savvy way to call attention to high housing costs, Fister began riding her bike around town, scouting out potential properties to take over. Eventually, through a city council member, she heard that the Sheraton on Chicago Avenue might be failing. The owner, Jay Patel, allegedly hadn’t been paying the franchise fee that allowed him to operate as a Sheraton, and the hotel was running at only partial capacity. In the event it went bankrupt or was otherwise abandoned, Fister and fellow activists dreamed they might be able to commandeer it for the purpose of housing the homeless. By late May, Fister said, “We’d been eyeing the Sheraton for quite a while.”

Meanwhile, as the riots grew in intensity, city officials had identified the Sabo Bridge encampment as being at high risk of getting “swept up in the civil unrest,” according to Cathy ten Broeke, the executive director of Minnesota’s Interagency Council on Homelessness. “It was right in the heart of the protests and fires and violence—it was filled with smoke and chaos.” Social workers and police officers set about clearing Camp Quarantine and three other homeless encampments, placing about 190 people in local hotels but leaving many others behind with no place to go.

On May 29, the day Bryant’s car went up in flames, the mayor imposed an 8 pm curfew and the governor sent in the National Guard. Homeless people were technically exempt from the curfew, but National Guard soldiers weren’t going to check anyone’s address before shooting rubber bullets or tear gas to disperse a crowd. Concerned that those living on the streets might be caught in the riots, Fister and a fellow activist, Zach Johnson, rented a room at the Sheraton for a couple they knew who’d been displaced from the Sabo Bridge camp, paying the $140 nightly rate themselves. That night, arsonists torched nearly every building on the Sheraton’s block, including the Popeyes, the Third Precinct substation, and Uncle Hugo’s Science Fiction Bookstore. “It was a hellscape,” Fister recalled.

Around noon the next day, she and Johnson returned to the ravaged block to find that Patel intended to evacuate the hotel—it wasn’t safe to stay there, and his insurance company would no longer cover the building if people remained inside. Everyone had to be out by 3 pm. “Well, this is our chance,” Johnson said to Fister. They made Patel an offer: They would pay for rooms themselves, in part with funds they’d secured from an anonymous philanthropist, and suggested he tell his insurance company that the activists were seizing the place without his permission. In exchange, they offered to protect the building from rioters, looters, and the National Guard.

Patel was intrigued. (Whether by the possibility of renting out hotel rooms that would otherwise have sat empty, by the opportunity to act charitably, or simply by the idea that these people might keep his hotel from burning down, is hard to say, as Patel has declined to speak to the media.) He spent hours on the phone with his lawyers before deciding to accept the activists’ offer. He showed them how to create room key cards and how the laundry facilities worked. At first, he agreed to rent only twenty rooms, but as the evening curfew approached, dozens and dozens of homeless people had started showing up, and he eventually agreed to let the organizers pay for ninety.

Activists filled the lobby and the parking lot as Fister drove a van around the city searching for more potential residents. By four in the morning, they’d nearly filled their ninety rooms. “We rolled up [to a group of] twenty people standing on a corner, and asked if they wanted a hotel room, and everyone said yes,” Fister recalled. “But they were really skeptical. This one guy was like, ‘I don’t know, this seems really suspicious.’ ” When Fister drove him to the Sheraton, his suspicion turned into awe. “I can’t believe you fucking did this,” he said.

By dawn, it was clear what an enormous victory Fister and her group had achieved—and what an enormous undertaking it was going to be running the hotel. The activists converted the bar into a canteen serving free meals, along with sandwiches, Cup Noodles, coffee, and Gatorade. In a conference room, nurses and EMTs set up a station with basic supplies, condoms, clean needles, and herbal tea. The walls were decorated with posters featuring Black Power fists and the words justice for george floyd. Within a few days, there were nearly four hundred residents and one hundred and fifty volunteers staffing the hotel.

Residents were invited to attend daily meetings to establish their own rules for the space. “We are not gatekeepers,” the organizers wrote in a set of guidelines shared internally. “There isn’t even a gate nor do we want one.” Sixteen residents attended the first meeting, twenty-eight attended the next, and the numbers continued to grow. They discussed the practical considerations of operating a hotel with no professional staff: What to do about the garbage cans, which were already overflowing? How to get new linens? Some residents complained about piles of dirty towels in the hallway and the lack of hot water, because the city had shut off the gas line in response to the arson on the block. Others expressed concern about security and personal safety. They agreed on some core values, including “mindful consideration for others,” and established prohibitions on loitering in hallways, smoking in rooms (a fire hazard), and violence of any kind. To replace the police’s most essential public-safety functions, Maria “Moon” Beaumaster, a Native American resident, assumed leadership over an internal security force. “I’d go to the protests and then walk my happy ass back here and defend this place,” she told me.

The activists also set up a GoFundMe campaign, which raised more than $30,000 almost overnight. As donations arrived by the truckload, dozens and dozens of new volunteers were schooled by the original organizers in a set of guiding principles:

*Autonomy: we believe individuals & communities have the right to choose what is best for them.

*Harm Reduction: we believe that people have the right to make their own choices without being judged. We provide supplies and education that allow people engaging in risky behavior, such as drug use and sex, to lessen the risk of injury or infection.

*Mutual Aid: we engage in cooperation and mutual sharing of material goods and services for the good of the community.

*Abolition: we believe communities can prevent violence without police or feeding into the prison system.

Of course, this isn’t how most American homeless shelters operate. So-called supervised injection sites, which provide spaces for drug users while also offering services and support, are common in Europe and Canada but are illegal in the United States, and virtually all shelters in the country prohibit drug use and alcohol consumption. At the Sheraton, activists warned visitors that they would “see dirty needles” (numerous residents overdosed daily; volunteers stocked Narcan to prevent fatalities) and that they should “basically assume coronavirus is rampant in here” because few residents chose to wear masks, though they were available.

It was tricky to square the core activists’ lofty goals with the urgent needs of hundreds of residents, many of whom had been living outside or in shelters with strict rules before they arrived. “Who supports the volunteer when violence/medical stuff happens? Who handles that?” one person wondered in a daily activity log. Another worried about “retaliation” from residents, and a third about the difficulty of navigating power dynamics in a place where most of the volunteers were white and most of the residents were black or Native American. (People of color make up two thirds of Minnesota’s homeless population.) “Tension with trying not to gate-keep, but also needing to set boundaries,” one volunteer worried. “Thoughts on people having sex in bathrooms?” asked another.

Bryant quickly threw himself into the work of the hotel. He attended resident meetings and volunteered for cleaning shifts. “At a regular shelter the staff treat you kind of like an inmate,” he told me. “And in my car, I was cut off from the world. I thought I was just one man alone, but now I realized the world was so much bigger than just me.” In his room, he read the Qur’an, watched television, and happily made his bed each morning. He used the computer in the lobby to search for temp jobs, and eagerly gave interviews to the press—he wanted to be an ambassador for the hotel. To share his good luck, he invited his “protest brother” Hamsa, a longtime friend with whom he attended demonstrations against police brutality, to share the room.

Desmond Carthron, a resident who worked shifts doing laundry, told me that he’d never seen anything like the Sheraton. He’d been laid off during the pandemic and ended up homeless. The city provided him with a hotel room in the suburbs for a few nights in May, but it felt too confining—he wasn’t allowed any visitors, and he was lonely. A few nights before Floyd’s death, Carthron abandoned his room, got arrested for joyriding in a car a friend had stolen, and spent several days in jail. When he was released at 1 am that Saturday, May 30, the entire city seemed to be on fire. Outside the county jail downtown, activists from the Sheraton had set up a table with cigarettes and snacks to help protesters who’d been arrested. Carthron told them he had nowhere to stay, and they arranged a ride for him to the Sheraton. When he arrived, he sat in the lobby for two hours, nervously observing the chaos. It seemed as if residents had as much control as the volunteers. Eventually, he had an epiphany—this was an opportunity from God to “put my grown-man pants on.” He worked up the courage to ask for a room. For the first time in his life, he said, he felt that a shelter was treating him with respect. After he settled into the hotel, his boss called and offered him his job back, which he accepted. “This place is a test,” Carthron said. “How good is your decision-making without nobody standing on you? How good is your integrity with nobody looking?”

Past experiences of police harassment were common among the residents at the Sheraton. While reliable data isn’t collected by city or state agencies, experts such as Eric Tars, the legal director for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, say there is ample evidence of high levels of police violence against homeless populations across the country. Homeless people experience higher rates of addiction and mental illness, and many activities they are forced to engage in are criminalized—sleeping in public, for instance. Many end up “cycled through prisons and jails, which exacerbates discrimination, exclusion, and violation.” A 2019 UCLA study found that, on average, a homeless person has more than twenty interactions with the police over a six-month period. “The more opportunity you have to interact with the police, the more likely that confrontation will become violent,” said Tars.

Scholars trace the origins of laws criminalizing homelessness to the Jim Crow era, when vagrancy statutes enabled authorities to force non-landowners, who were usually black, to serve on chain gangs. “In time these same laws were used not just against African Americans,” said Tars, “but against poor whites as well.” Today, experts argue, laws prohibiting camping, panhandling, and sleeping in public are continuations of the same methods, and as a result, many homeless people of all races share the fear of police that exists in minority communities across the United States.

“I’m a citizen, I deserve the same rights as anyone else,” Vaughn Yaints, a sixty-two-year-old white hotel resident, told me one day. “I deserve to be able to walk down the street and not be harassed when the only crime I’m committing is that I look homeless.” Yaints had been living alone under a bridge for nearly a year before finding his way to the Sheraton. He didn’t drink or use drugs, and hadn’t lived in a house or apartment since he was seventeen, when his mother died of cancer. He’d spent thirteen years in prison for burglary and had gotten out only a year earlier. He recounted the time that two police officers handcuffed him and dangled him from the Stone Arch Bridge, twenty-five feet over the Mississippi River. Last year, he said, he’d been stopped while walking on public sidewalks three different times. “Floyd’s death and the protests mean a lot to me because it sends a message,” said Yaints. “It’s a message to the police that they can’t do this shit to us anymore. They killed him over twenty dollars. That’s what they think our lives are worth.”

Part of the rage unleashed locally by Floyd’s killing centered on the brutal reputation of officers from the Third Precinct, whose population is largely black and Native American. Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who killed Floyd, had been the subject of seventeen excessive-force complaints, including one case in which the suspect died, and had been disciplined only once. Between 2007 and 2017, the city paid $2.1 million to settle misconduct lawsuits involving Third Precinct officers. In one instance, an officer kicked a handcuffed suspect in the face, leaving his jaw in pieces. In another, two officers from the Third Precinct picked up two homeless Native American men, forced them into the trunk of their squad car, and drove around the city at high speeds. According to Paul Applebaum, an attorney who specializes in civil police-misconduct cases in Minneapolis, the precinct was “kind of like a playground for rogue cops.”

It’s particularly hard to hold police accountable when their violence is directed at the unhoused, Applebaum told me. He receives calls “constantly” from the relatives of homeless people who have suffered abuse, but because of the victims’ transient circumstances, it’s difficult for them to participate in lawsuits. “They don’t know where they’ll be living in eighteen months,” he said. “Why would they care about making sure a cop is held accountable for beating them up?”

Such brazen police violence had made Minneapolis a hub of abolitionist organizing as early as 2017, when black-led groups crafted MPD150, a detailed plan for the “dismantling of the Minneapolis police department.” On June 12 of this year, when the city council voted to consider disbanding the police force, council members drew guidelines from MPD150 and similar efforts. The groups Reclaim the Block and Black Visions Collective are now petitioning for the city to take $45 million from the police department’s $193 million budget and reallocate it to social services. The Sheraton experiment sought to channel much of this radical energy toward the particular problem of homelessness.

As a result of the police’s track record, many Sheraton residents and volunteers were inclined to believe that law enforcement was as likely to cause trouble as to provide help. This assumption was confirmed on the first night of the occupation, when police officers showed up and shot rubber bullets at the front doors for no apparent reason. On the second night, an officer was caught on video bending down near a truck in the parking lot. The next morning, one of its tires was found to have been slashed. (A police spokesman denied any knowledge of the incident, but conceded that officers had “strategically disabled” some vehicles throughout the city.) Another evening, the cops showed up alleging that someone inside the hotel had called 9-1-1. Cara Carlson, a fifty-seven-year-old therapist and one of the original organizers of the hotel takeover, insisted on accompanying them up to the room where they claimed the call had been made. The officers refused, and left the hotel without investigating. “They cared more about their absolute power than about doing their jobs,” Carlson said.

By day four or five, the hotel had been written up in numerous national media outlets—Mother Jones called it a “utopian sanctuary” and New York magazine reported that its residents “hoped to stay . . . for good.” Activists received so many donations of supplies that they had to stop accepting them. But privately, they had already begun to panic, as an avalanche of residents’ needs threatened to crush the entire endeavor. On Signal, an encrypted messaging app, they worried that there was no way to account for who was in the building, and that some residents were selling their room keys or trading them for sex or drugs.

A pimp named Cash had taken up on the fourth floor. A sex-trafficking ring was suspected to be operating out of room 230. There were rumors of sexual assaults. Bullets had been found in a first-floor bathroom, and armed dealers were hanging around the lobby and parking lot, intimidating residents and volunteers. One man who kept a rifle in his room had threatened several people, according to internal documents, “including one woman who is very shaken.” Then the activists couldn’t figure out where he’d gone. “Now trying to figure out how to find him,” one wrote. Eventually, they tracked him down, and put him up at another hotel owned by Patel.

Some of the less experienced volunteers were horrified and quit when they realized that residents were openly doing drugs and engaging in sex work. Courtney Kiernat, a fifty-year-old employee of a philanthropic organization, heard about the hotel when a friend called and invited her to volunteer. Within thirty minutes, a resident overdosed in front of her. No one present knew what to do, and when a volunteer called an ambulance, nobody could give the dispatcher the hotel’s address. “I felt like the only adult in the room,” said Kiernat.

“What some volunteers perceive as very violent situations happening, it’s scary to them,” said Bean, who has spent twelve years working as a service provider in homeless communities. To seasoned activists like herself, some amount of instability and risk was inherent in the project. The insistence that people who don’t fit into the shelter system still deserve a place to live—even if they use drugs or drink or engage in prostitution—is a provocation to think about whom our current laws exclude, harm, or push into the margins. “If we didn’t have the hotel, these people would still be ODing, they’d still be engaging in the sex trade,” Bean said. “They’d just do it invisibly, which is how they’ve been doing it all along.”

That argument failed to persuade many of the city’s more traditional advocates for the homeless, who remained wary of the experiment. Michael Goze, CEO of the American Indian Community Development Corporation, runs eleven residential facilities in Minneapolis, housing about 180 people in total, mostly Native Americans. He acknowledged the difficulty of helping people who didn’t fit into facilities like his, which, for the most part, prohibited drinking and same-sex room sharing. And he agreed with abolitionists that prison isn’t a productive place to put sex workers or drug addicts or the mentally ill. But when he visited the Sheraton to see if he might help connect residents with services, he told me, the situation seemed too dysfunctional, and he decided not to get involved. He believed the organizers had underestimated the complexity and dangers of trying to house addicts, especially alongside others who didn’t have the same issues. “Their goal is to reduce harm,” he said. “I get it. But I’m seeing new addicts, new young girls turning tricks over there, new people being preyed on and introduced to that lifestyle. So how is that reducing harm?”

On June 7, I volunteered to work a shift at the Sheraton. I had arrived in Minneapolis shortly after the protests erupted, and first visited the hotel a few days into the experiment. A mask-clad activist in a black sleeveless T-shirt had replaced the receptionist at the front desk, and scores of people who were homeless only days earlier were sprawled on red leather couches in the lobby and around tables in the dining room—but otherwise the place still looked much like a mid-scale hotel. Framed black-and-white photos of historical Minneapolis hung on the walls beside glowing sconces, and above the wood-paneled bar, cursive neon letters spelled out hotel. On the back patio, overlooking the Greenway, barbecues were being held around commercial-size grills, and activists were leading training sessions for seated circles of fresh volunteers.

Since the occupation began, the front, side, and back doors of the hotel had been kept unlocked, in part to accommodate the four hundred people who had been put on a wait list for a room, some of whom were now sleeping in the halls and lobby. These common spaces had become a free-for-all, with music playing all night and people openly shooting heroin and dealing drugs. The evening of my volunteer shift, however, the activists had decided to implement a new system that would give them greater control: First, no one would be allowed to sleep in the lobby. Second, after 10 pm, only residents would be permitted inside the hotel. Anyone else who showed up that night would—for the first time in the life of the sanctuary—be turned away. The only door left unlocked would be a small entrance off the parking lot. Additional security, including some members of the Democratic Socialists of America, were scattered around the parking lot and lobby to assist Moon’s team.

My job was to check IDs while Steve*, an anarchist with the curt demeanor of a mall cop, monitored the door. This was much more difficult than one might expect, because many people experiencing homelessness don’t have IDs, and because the spreadsheet listing each room’s occupant was wildly disorganized, incomplete, and often incorrect. Instead, Steve and I relied on a quaint, haphazard stack of Polaroid photos of residents that one of the volunteers had started taking, though only a few dozen residents had actually been photographed so far. I prepared for a long night.

Outside, a line of people had begun forming. Some were residents, anxious to get back inside; others were newcomers who wanted a room. When we told them the hotel was full, many pretended to be residents, or just pleaded for us to let them stay. A few got angry, but many of those I was forced to turn away just said “okay” and walked back out into the street to sleep who knows where. They had the steely, expressionless faces of people used to being disappointed. I gave out tents until there were no more tents, numbers for other shelters, granola bars and Gatorade. What else could be done? The need, the problem the sanctuary was designed to confront, was greater than any one building could handle.

Though the experiment had only been under way for a week, I thought I could see in some of the volunteers the type of hardening that occurs in any social-service worker or public servant who labors in a desperate situation. The brusque “no” of the cop or the prison guard, the stiff refusal of the social worker who has learned that people will cross your boundaries if your boundaries aren’t firm. Steve barked at people who wanted to step out of the building: “If you leave, you’re not getting back in until morning.” The curfew had just been announced the previous evening, and some residents were understandably confused or angry. One woman said she needed diabetes medication from Walgreens. She had glassy eyes and seemed high, and it was unclear whether she was telling the truth. Steve was unmoved. For this, and similar displays of discipline, he quickly earned the ire of the other volunteers, who were there in large part because they didn’t believe in, or were at least skeptical of, the value of imposing rules at all.

At one point, another security volunteer kicked out two men who were sleeping on the fourth floor. He was clearly pained by his decision. “Why the fuck did I even do that?” he said. “They were just sleeping, they weren’t going to hurt anyone. Like, why am I even here if I’m just telling people what to do?”

Frequently, the decisions about who could stay and who couldn’t felt arbitrary. One volunteer would refuse to let people use the bathroom, for instance, but then another would let a pregnant woman in to pee, or let someone hang around the lobby because they possessed some combination of harmlessness and desperation that proved impossible to refuse. No children were allowed in the building—a rule that I heard wasn’t always followed—but just past midnight, a woman named KC came in with two little girls, one in a wheelchair. Her apartment had burned down in the riots, she said, and she’d been living in her van for four nights. Volunteers debated kicking her out—“with drugs and everything, it’s not a safe place for a kid.” Eventually, they gave KC and her children a first-floor room by the medic station. “But you’ve gotta leave first thing in the morning,” a volunteer told them.

At 1:20 am, rumor spread of an overdose on the third floor. I was relieved of duty at the door and went with Barbara, an EMT, to search for the victim. Despite the volunteers’ best efforts to clean up, the floor of the elevator was so sticky that people walked as if they were on the moon, lifting their feet in the air to detach their shoes from the linoleum. When the doors opened, we could see a man in the hallway nodding off in an armchair.

No one knew where the alleged overdose had occurred, but someone had mentioned to us that they thought it was room 331, or maybe 341. Barbara knocked at the door to 331. “This is Barbara with medical, I’m doing a wellness check, is anyone in there?”

After a minute, a woman answered, “Who is it? I’m not dressed.”

“Are you okay? Is everyone in there okay?”

“I’m sleeping.”

We knocked on a few more doors, with no luck.

Around 3 am, a fistfight broke out in the parking lot, just outside the hotel’s entrance, visible to everyone in the lobby. Surrounded by a crowd, a woman with a neat Afro and a man with dreads squared off and—there’s really no other way to put it—started beating the shit out of each other. Steve, who was now outside doing crowd control, walked inside with his hands up in the air and said, “I’m not getting involved in that.” The other security guards did the same.

In the end, the fight fizzled out, but I wondered what Steve or anyone else would have done if the violence had escalated even further, as it was clear the volunteers didn’t have the ability or willpower to intervene. Did abolition really mean letting people fight one another? Were the activists just so overwhelmed that they were giving up? Or did they simply have to set the boundaries of their experiment somewhere, deciding that the parking lot was beyond the reach of their ideals?

The answer was probably a bit of all three. I was sympathetic. I didn’t rush to intervene, either, nor would I have wanted to. And I knew it was unlikely that law enforcement would have improved the situation. If the police had come, the results could’ve been far worse, especially for two African Americans. So, no, it wasn’t that the fight showed that we needed the police, or that the abolitionists were naïve idealists—they didn’t want a thousand Sheratons, they wanted a world in which no Sheratons were necessary—but it did show that the abolitionists weren’t yet sure what to do when the actions of some threatened the well-being of others. In a sense, it was an instance of the problem that the activists faced more broadly: What to do when their experiment’s failure was in many ways guaranteed precisely because the problems it aimed to alleviate were so great? What to do in the indeterminate space between reality and utopia?

The next day, June 9, a fire broke out, triggering the alarms and prompting everyone to evacuate. It turned out to be a small blaze set in a trash bin on the fourth floor, but in the event that the fire had been more serious, dozens of people could have been trapped, as the key to the stairwell didn’t always work. Then four people overdosed, and one of them died—the first death at the hotel. Yaints held the door as city EMTs carried the body out of the lobby.

That same day, Patel—who had, astonishingly, been living in a room on the third floor of his hotel the whole time—demanded all the money he believed he’d been promised. The activists had given him a credit card for an initial payment, but he’d never charged it, and now he was demanding a vastly higher sum—more than $100,000. He called the police to evict everyone, but the officers refused, citing the state’s pandemic moratorium on evictions. Some suspected they wanted to teach Patel a bitter lesson about the dangers of abolition.

That afternoon, the activists called a press conference to announce that they were closing the hotel. On the same stretch of pavement where the fistfight had taken place, residents, organizers, and reporters gathered around a microphone. Carlson, the activist who had tried to accompany the police responding to the 9-1-1 call, announced to the assembled press that the volunteers were leaving and that they’d urged the residents to do the same. “It was clear people were in extreme danger,” she said, nearly in tears. Behind her, Carthron and another resident held up a large dry-erase board on which they’d written, in huge green letters, all life matter. I saw a few activists wince. The moment underscored how the many residents and volunteers had perhaps never fully understood one another. “It was very hard to know how to live out abolitionist ideas in a situation where people had so much need,” Carlson later told me.

Local news crews filmed the subsequent scene: Huge crowds emptied out of the hotel, gathering in the parking lot with bottles of tequila and rum and Heineken and packs of Pall Malls. Mattress coils and Cup Noodles containers littered the sidewalk. People carted away their possessions in wheelchairs, in garbage bags, on their backs. A resident named Brandon Villa Fuerte and his family carried their belongings in backpacks and a shopping cart. “I knew we’d be able to stay for a little bit but I knew we weren’t gonna be able to stay for long,” Villa Fuerte said. “We just stayed in our room, stayed to ourselves, stayed away from everyone,” he added. “We were probably one of the few people not doing drugs.” His family had no idea where they would go now.

A bevy of right-wing media websites celebrated with a mix of glee and hysteria that, as Jim Hoft of Gateway Pundit put it, “the Marxists are very upset about the eviction.” far left rioters and homeless squatters trash minneapolis sheraton, read the headline. Their conclusion, it seemed, was that the disastrous end of the Sheraton sanctuary proved that abolition led inevitably to death and property destruction. Some volunteers, exhausted and burned-out from the project, were tortured by the idea that they may have inadvertently harmed some of the people they set out to help. Others criticized the group for the whiteness of its leadership. Activists eventually enlisted the help of Black Visions Collective, but only after the hotel’s closure had been announced. “We knew there needed to be more African-American and indigenous elders and leaders,” Carlson said. “Did we succeed? No.”

Yet there was still a sense of cautious optimism among some of the organizers. “I don’t think it was a failure,” said Bean. “There were things that were tried and things that didn’t work and things that did work, but in ten days you’re not going to get a perfect, magnificent iteration of what abolition can be.” Or, as Fister put it, “You think people would have been better off on the streets for those ten days?”

Some residents’ assessments were similarly positive. “I felt safe, and I felt like we had a community,” said Bryant. “It was a chance to exhale. In the end, people told us it wasn’t safe to stay there anymore, and I was like, it ain’t safe out there on the streets.”

On Chicago Avenue, the Sheraton became a ruinous monument. Some residents tried to clean up the space out of respect for Patel, but after the volunteers and security teams left, others destroyed the place, their sense of betrayal and disappointment turning to rage. Windows were smashed; doors were axed in half (Patel had disabled the key cards with people’s possessions still inside); a glass wall that surrounded the empty swimming pool in the basement was shattered. One night in mid-June, a neighbor saw a group of people on the roof, shooting handguns into the sky.

In the wake of the sanctuary’s collapse, Bryant, Yaints, and others I’d met moved to Powderhorn Park, a sixty-five-acre swath of grass in a liberal, middle-class neighborhood. Within days, it became a refugee camp with nearly two hundred tents. Many of the volunteers from the Sheraton followed, set up a kitchen and a medic tent, and started all over again. A month later, the police arrived with bulldozers and evicted most of the campers, who once again drifted back to the bushes and underpasses of the Greenway.

Earlier in June, when it was still possible to believe that everything at the Sheraton just might turn out okay, Yaints had taken me to visit his old tent, which was still set up under a bridge near the city’s edge. Theft was common in Camp Quarantine and other encampments, so he’d settled way out here, preferring to be lonely rather than hassled or kept awake at night. Now he wanted to check on the tent, in case things at the hotel fell apart and he needed to return.

Dressed in black Velcro sneakers whose soles had come unglued, a black T-shirt, and a pair of black cargo pants, Yaints scuttled down a steep dirt track under a Minnehaha Parkway overpass. In the year since he’d been out of prison, he’d had quadruple bypass surgery, an operation to repair a ruptured disk in his back, and a toe amputation following complications from diabetes. He recalled slipping and falling on the steep, snowy hill that winter and waking up with ice in his hair.

Next to a giant concrete buttress was a red-and-white two-person tent. Yaints unzipped it and peered inside—his possessions, besides the essential ones he carried in his backpack, were still there. A crucifix, several tattered sleeping bags, a tiny treasure chest “where I keep money if I have it,” a little wand filled with catnip that he bought when, for a few weeks, he had been visited by a stray. Sometimes, neighbors had dropped off home-cooked meals. “Those were my best days down here,” he said.

“I’m sixty-two years old and I’ve never lived in a house or an apartment,” he added, zipping up his tent. He groaned as he stood, dusting off his knees. “Before I die,” he said, “I’d like to have my own apartment. My own place, just once.”

“Do you think that’ll happen?” I asked.

“No,” he said. He didn’t even pause to consider the question. “I think I’ll die homeless.”

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August 2020

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