Minneapolis Roof Depot Conflict, Explained
This article was originally published in the Southwest Connector, a local newspaper in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
For the Indigenous people and allies living in south Minneapolis, the Roof Depot conflict is an issue of life or death. And they can back it up with data.
Their decade-long fight to stop a city-run expansion of its truck training facility continued with a recent site occupation, protests at city hall and gatherings at the State Capitol in late February and March 2023.
"The community is tired of being a sacrificial zone," said Little Earth resident Cassie Holmes. Her son, Trinidad Flores, died at age 16 from a heart problem she attributes to the high levels of pollution in the area. It includes arsenic and lead, as well as other airborne pollutants from Interstate 94, Hiawatha Ave./Highway 55, Smith Foundry and Bituminous Roadways. Her best friend’s daughter also died of a heart issue.
The area has high levels of asthma and heart disease. Studies have shown that the pollution also gathers over South High School just three blocks directly south of the Roof Depot site, affecting all of the students and staff there each day. Teenagers from throughout Corcoran, Longfellow and Seward attend South High.
The Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors’ (MUID) 25 organizations collectively oppose the Hiawatha Expansion Project. "The membership of MUID believes there are better community-led, green initiatives to be pursued that will better mitigate the negative social determinants of health caused by environmental racism," they wrote in a letter to the city. "American Indian people in the Phillips Neighborhood suffer from the poorest health outcomes and highest rate of health disparities in the state of Minnesota."
"Minneapolis is committing environmental racism that will further the genocide of Indigenous people and community members of south Minneapolis," said Rachel Thunder at a news conference at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023 at the Roof Depot site (named Nenoocaasi Camp by protesters). Thunder is a member of the Plains Cree, part of the American Indian Movement (AIM), a Little Earth Protector, and a community member of south Minneapolis. On Feb. 22, she said, "We are standing together united and in solidarity to say we do not want the city to demolish the Roof Depot. We want to have control of the site to have an environmentally-friendly food center to feed our people and boost our economy."
Marisa Miakonda Cummings stated, "We have suffered. We suffer from the effects of institutional and generational trauma and we live in this every day. Some times it feels like we are being left again to die. ... This is the definition of institutional genocide." She said they are standing up "because it is the right thing to do." She added, "We’re not asking for anything outside of basic human rights."
The community’s plan for the 7.5-acre site includes an indoor urban farm, aquaponics, solar array, very affordable housing, bike shop, and other small businesses. It would reuse the Roof Depot building and leave the arsenic-laden soil dating to the former pesticide plant encapsulated underneath.
"The Roof Depot is the heart of the Green Zone," observed Robert Lilligren, who is a third-generation self-described urban Indian, 36-year Phillips resident, White Earth member, and former city council member. He stated that he was part of the robust citizen input that resulted in the plan for the East Phillips Indoor Urban Farm, beginning in 2014. "The city has never really been interested in the plan. ... The city says things like trust and reconciliation are important. Putting them into action is required. Here is an opportunity to put those beliefs into action in a more environmentally-friendly, community-driven way."
The city is proposing to increase the amount of vehicle traffic on the roads around the Roof Depot site, which include Hiawatha, Cedar, 26th and 28th (near the Midtown Greenway crossing) by 67 percent. Currently, a total of 1,100-1,300 heavy commercial vehicles travel a day on Hiawatha, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation T9 Urban Freight Study in 2018. The city’s proposal increases that to about 2,000.
Also spewing pollution in the air in that area, dubbed the Arsenic Triangle, is Bituminous Roadways and the Smith Foundry, two businesses that have permits that grandfather them in and have purchased pollution offsets from other businesses in the city to continue to exist in East Phillips.
Recognizing the high level of pollution already there, in 2008, the state government passed the Clark-Berglund Environmental Justice Law that prohibits additional pollution in the Arsenic Triangle around the Roof Depot site. Despite that bill, the city has continued with its plans to more than double its public works facility there.
A Community Against a City Plan
Residents question why their elected officials and city staff have continued to push forward a plan that the community is against.
"The city of Minneapolis claims to listen to communities, but we have been systematically denied a voice," observed 25-year East Phillips resident Amy Pass, who has raised two children in the neighborhood. Her brother-in-law, who grew up in East Phillips two blocks away from the Roof Depot site, needed open heart surgery in his early 40s. "Other communities have asked to have the city water yard expansion project located in their space. Why is the city so desperately insistent that it be located in East Phillips? This is about racism and power. It’s about keeping us in our place and making it clear that we can’t have what we want."
The people of south Minneapolis have never supported the city’s proposal for the public works project, and city council representatives have passed measures back and forth over the project. Some council members have flipped their votes, including Ward 8 Council President Andrea Jenkins who supported the EPNI plan last year.
Little Earth resident Jolene Jones questions the narrative that the city held meetings with the community and asked for input on the Hiawatha Expansion project. While working at Little Earth, she learned about a meeting and attended it. No one else from her community was there. When she was told that the city had sent out notifications to Little Earth residents, she pushed back. After investigating the issue, staff told her that none had actually gone out.
"How do you miss a whole community? We get our water bills. We’ve got 220 households. How did you miss us?" she asked.
The neighborhood group, EPIC (East Phillips Improvement Coalition), hosted two large community meetings at East Phillips Park in November 2017 and September 2018 with approximately 250 community members at each. Votes were taken at both as to those favoring the city’s plan or the community’s indoor urban farm project. No one at either meeting voted in favor of any of the city plans.
Public input on the city-fashioned environmental assessment worksheet in March 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic was "unprecedented," according to city staff. Over 1,000 people submitted comments. Only two were in support of the city’s plan. Indoor urban farm supporters point out that says something about the city’s decision-making process when one of the widest margins of citizen comments in city history is ignored.
An Occupation Feb. 21
At a news conference at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 21, at the Roof Depot site, Thunder read out their list of demands (also available at www.defendthedepot.com):
1. Total relocation of the Hiawatha Expansion Project
2. Hand over control of Roof Depot to the community
3. Plans to remove Bituminous Roadways and Smith Foundry
4. Enact a moratorium on encampment evictions
5. Provide funding for peer support workers
6. Invest in pilot programs to shelter and services to the houseless community like the former navigation center
7. Provide funding for the community’s vision for an indoor urban farm at the Roof Depot site
A statement from Defend the Depot pointed out that East Phillips is a neighborhood with over 70 percent residents of color and home to the Little Earth housing development, where 38 tribes come together.
According to a Wilder Foundation Study, Indigenous people make up 1 percent of Minnesota’s adult population but a disproportionate 13 percent of the houseless population. A survey of a large encampment in Minneapolis in 2020 found that nearly half of the 282 people living there were Native. People who are homeless have higher rates of illness and die on average 12 years sooner than the general U.S. population, according to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, and chronic medical conditions are a common cause of homelessness. Unhoused people are more likely to suffer from heart attack, hypertension, diabetes, HIV, hepatitis C, depression and substance use disorders.
Mike Forcia, a member of the American Indian Movement, pointed out that the 50th anniversary of Wounded Knee was on Feb. 27.
He stated, "We were always told to go through the process. There’s always a process. That process is a systemically racist process set up to benefit them. It’s not for us."
The Minneapolis city council approved an agreement labeled as a "compromise" in city documents, that would give three acres on the corner of the 7.5-acre property to the neighborhood for development. "We don’t want them to bring more pollution in. That’s our main point," stressed Holmes, who serves on the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute (EPNI) board (www.eastphillipsneighborhoodinstitute.org) and the city’s Southside Green Zone committee.
"Do we want to convince our people just for three acres and still have them poison us? No."
Jolene Jones agreed. "They can take their three acres and shove it because you’re talking about our children breathing. You’re talking about our children living past 25 and not having heart issues that we don’t understand where they got them. It’s our future and that is our children."
Occupation Broken Up
Over a hundred Minneapolis Police Officers and 50 squads shut down an eight-block radius around the Roof Depot site on Tuesday evening, Feb. 21, 2023, at about 6:15 p.m., and forcibly removed Indigenous people and allies who had begun a peaceful occupation of the site that morning at dawn.
Cedar between 24th and 28th, along with sections of 26th and 28th between Hiawatha and Cedar, were blocked for more than two hours. Neither residents nor the press were allowed within two blocks of the site.
(Note: The Longfellow Nokomis Messenger/Southwest Connector arrived at the scene by 6:20 p.m. before the entire area had been blocked off with crime scene tape, and was the only media outlet at the Roof Depot fence. View video and photographs from the scene on the Messenger website, as well as Instagram and Facebook accounts. Other media, including Unicorn Riot and the Indigenious-led NDN Collective, were prevented from viewing what was occurring at the Roof Depot site, and remained at 27th and Cedar covering the gathering of protesters who were there.)
Thunder, who was arrested with seven others at the site for trespassing and released later that night, stated, "There is no trespassing on stolen land." She was treated on Feb. 22 for a knee injury she said she received when a police officer forced her into the squad car she was stepping into.
A request to the mayor’s office and to the Minneapolis Police Department on the cost of deploying over 100 officers to protests and encampments was not answered. As of press time, an open data request to the city submitted on Feb. 24 had not been filled.
Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center President/CEO Marisa Miakonda Cummings read a letter on behalf of the Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors (MUID) at a Tuesday, Feb. 22, news conference. "MUID formally denounces the militaristic actions taken by the Minneapolis Police Department on the evening of Feb. 21, 2023, to dismantle a peaceful and ceremonial occupation of the Roof Depot site. ... Our membership believes that such community-led civic actions are directly protected by the United States Constitution Bill of Rights regarding the right to peaceful assembly and the right for citizens to petition their government." MUID collectively opposes the Hiawatha Expansion Project.
"Asking the Indigenous people in my neighborhood to compromise with the city is asking them to repeat the same compromises that have left them impoverished, sick, and oppressed for centuries. East Phillips has been given no reason to trust the city. In fact, we have a long history of being lied to. (Go back and read the history of the garbage burner the city wanted to locate here.) I don’t see why we should trust them with a new agreement now," said Pass.
"We are slowly dying. We are slowly being killed," said Holmes. "It’s affecting our kids. It’s affecting generations to come."
Holmes asked elected officals to remember why they ran for office. "You said you were all about climate change. You said you were all about green jobs, green education, green training and all this," she said. "This is going the opposite direction, and we need you to do the right thing."
An Urban Farm Instead?
The East Phillips Indoor Urban Farm project would repurpose the existing 230,000-square-foot former Sears warehouse built in 1947.
The indoor farm at the 7.5-acre site would produce organic aquaponic grown fish and produce. It would provide very affordable family housing along with free housing for people experiencing homelessness with the promise of food, jobs and safety. The project would also include one of the largest solar arrays in the state on the roof; a world café, coffee shop and food market with a gallery to display and sell neighborhood artisans’ works all run by local youth; a bike shop on the Midtown Greenway; and space for many of the burned out Lake St. businesses resulting from the murder of George Floyd.
The project meets every goal of the South Side Green Zone and is in the South Minneapolis Opportunity Zone. It is also supported by the wide range of diverse organizations in the neighborhood that is 83 percent people of color.
Other Public Works Sites: Northeast, Columbia Heights, 394 Bridge
The city’s plan is to demolish the iconic Sears warehouse, and many are worried it will release arsenic in the air that is currently encapsulated beneath the building. It would be replaced by a series of sheds for 400 commercial city vehicles (most of them diesel), a hot asphalt storage facility, diesel-fueling station, and multi-story parking ramp for the 400 employee vehicles that would be coming and going twice a day. They would also store manhole covers, sewer pipes, and sand-salt mix. No water would be treated on the site; that is done at 4500 Reservoir Blvd. in Columbia Heights.
The city’s current water maintenance facility, known as the East Water Yard, is located on 2.4 acres in Ward 3 at Hennepin Ave. E. and 5th Ave. N. It dates back 120 years and is the hub for maintaining the city’s 1,000 miles of water mains, 16,000 valves, and street holes, and 8,000 hydrants. A whistleblower leaked a city-generated report showing that it would be cheaper to expand the building there than the Roof Depot site. It is located in an industrial area near 35W. The city also stores items near and under the 394 bridge, a site that is over four times the size of the Roof Depot location.
Homelessness and Poor Health Link
The connection between housing and homelessness is generally intuitive, but the strong link between health and homelessness is often overlooked. People who are homeless have higher rates of illness and die on average 12 years sooner than the general U.S. population.
Homelessness creates new health problems and exacerbates existing ones. Living on the street or in crowded homeless shelters is extremely stressful and made worse by being exposed to communicable disease (e.g. TB, respiratory illnesses, flu, hepatitis, etc.), violence, malnutrition, and harmful weather exposure. Chronic health conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and asthma become worse because there is no safe place to store medications properly.
Maintaining a healthy diet is difficult in soup kitchens and shelters as the meals are usually high in salt, sugars, and starch (making for cheap, filling meals but lacking nutritional content). Behavioral health issues such as depression, alcoholism, or other substance use disorders can develop and/or are made worse in such difficult situations, especially if there is no solution in sight.
Numerous health conditions among people who are homeless are frequently a complex mix of serious physical, mental health, substance use, and social problems. ~ From the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, www.nhchc.org
Council Considers Actions to Limit Citizen Input
Following recent disruptions at Minneapolis city council meetings by Indigenous protesters and allies, City Council Vice President Linea Palmisano brought forth two items to add to the city’s legislative agenda at the state capitol. One would clarify acceptable conduct at council meetings and the other increase penalties for protesters.
"We have had council members and their families threatened. We have had regulatory service workers have their tires slashed and guns drawn on them. We’ve had public works employees shot at. Harassment, intimidation and bullying is not OK. It is not part of anyone’s job description and we owe it to all people serving the City of Minneapolis to do better," said Palmisano in her e-newsletter.
"It’s very dangerous to conflate Black and Indigenous residents’ genuine and justified fear about a harmful city-led project with right-wing violence. These amendments are a reactionary and retaliatory response to mass protests that we typically see from Republicans," countered Ward 2 Council Member Robin Wonsley. "I’m disappointed to see the conservative city council majority adopting right-wing tactics. From Stop Cop City in Atlanta to Line 3 Water Protectors here in Minnesota, increased criminal penalties are being used as a tool of retribution."
Hodan Sponsors HF 2093
On March 1, 2023, the House Economic Development Finance and Policy Committee passed legislation to invest $20 million into the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute for the East Phillips Indoor Urban Farm project.
The bill is authored by Rep. Hodan Hassan (DFL – Minneapolis). "The East Phillips neighborhood has been burdened with severe environmental racism and injustice for years, with high levels of pollution causing measurable adverse health effects to residents," said Rep. Hassan. "With a third of East Phillips residents living below the poverty line, the community is in great need of affordable housing, investment in jobs and infrastructure, and sustainable development.
"This legislation would provide the community the opportunity and resources to further negotiate with the City of Minneapolis on EPNI’s plan to repurpose the Roof Depot into an urban farm complex, creating jobs, housing, and sustainable food sources.
"I am confident that an equitable and environmentally sound and sustainable agreement can be met, putting this investment to good use in the East Phillips neighborhood."
Pollution Affects South High, Multiple Other Schools
"Our students deserve to be safe and healthy both in and outside of school. That’s why we have organized with our communities/other unions and taken very clear, strong positions against the demolition of the Roof Depot and to shut down the HERC incinerator," said MFT59 President Greta Callahan.
Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has a station on top of Anderson school, directly west of the Roof Depot site. There are none in the Longfellow, Seward, Powderhorn or Nokomis neighborhoods, or at South High.
The South High community currently has 200 plus asthma hospitalizations per 10,000 people annually. Elevated blood arsenic and lead levels are at 69-97 percent. Other nearby schools that fall within the pollution area from the Arsenic Triangle include Anderson United Middle School, Seward Montessori, Folwell, Sanford, Roosevelt, Universal Academy Charter School, and Augsburg College.
On top of that, indoor levels of air pollutants can be 2-5 times higher, and occasionally 100 times higher, than outdoor levels, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
"MPS will continue to implement procedures and systems to ensure quality indoor air inside all our buildings," said MPS spokesperson Crystal Lugo-Beach of the office of communications. "MPS has also recently upgraded building ventilation and filtration systems that were implemented as part of COVID-19 protocols." She directed people to the Environmental Health and Safety section of the district website for more details.
At what point will MPS determine that outdoor athletics are an unacceptable health risk for the South High student body? Will MPS provide options for students who already have respiratory, cardiovascular, or other health issues to request a different school if they live in these attendance areas?
Lugo-Beach stated, "If any school operations or athletics need to be modified, we will work with local and state public health and pollution control officials on a plan to do so."
Roof Depot Conflict Timeline
2007: The federal government declared the "Arsenic Triangle," including the Roof Depot site, a superfund site from 2007 to 2017. The Environmental Protection Agency found unsafe arsenic levels in 600 area homes, and by 2011, had removed about 50,000 tons of contaminated soil. A former company produced and stored arsenic-based pesticides from 1938 to 1963. Sears built the warehouse in 1947.
2014: Visioning begins for the East Phillips Indoor Urban Farm at the Roof Depot site to clean up the Arsenic Triangle, and a group begins negotiating to purchase the property.
2015: The city threatens the owner with eminent domain and purchases the 230,000-square-foot building for $6.8 million. Water and heat at the site are shut off.
March 2021: Over 1,000 people submit comments to the environmental assessment worksheet the city put together on its own project. Only two of the 1,000 were in favor of the city’s plan. City staff label the amount of feedback "unprecedented." This is the widest margin in Minneapolis history.
Feb. 21, 2023: Beginning with a prayer ceremony at dawn, Indigenous people and allies start an occupation at the Roof Depot site. They set up tents and a tepee within the fenced lot that is owned by the city. At about 6:15 p.m., over 100 police officers and 50 squad cars block off an 8-block radius around the Roof Depot and arrest seven protesters. They refuse to allow media to view what is happening. A group of over 100 people gathers at Cedar and 27th for several hours until police reopen the street. A police guard is left at the Roof Depot site.
Feb. 22, 2023: Defend the Depot holds a news conference at the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center to discuss what happened the day before and their concerns about how the city has continued with their plans for the Hiawatha Expansion project at the Roof Depot site despite the neighborhood not supporting the project. At the Roof Depot site, the city installs a taller fence inside the existing one. Rachel Thunder is treated at the hospital.
Feb. 23, 2023: Minneapolis city council reaffirms its decision to tear the building down and proceed with a 6-6 vote. Only 30 protesters of 100 present are allowed into city council chambers. Roll call: Elliott Payne (Ward 1), Robin Wonsley (Ward 2), Jeremiah Ellison (Ward 5), Jamal Osman (Ward 6), Jason Chavez (Ward 9), Aisha Chughtai (Ward 10) — AYE. Michael Rainville (Ward 3), LaTrisha Vetaw (Ward 4), Lisa Goodman (Ward 7), Andrea Jenkins (Ward 8), Emily Koski (Ward 11), Linea Palmisano (Ward 13) — NAY. Andrew Johnson (Ward 12) — Absent.
Feb. 24, 2023: Hennepin County Judge Edward Wahl issues a temporary halt to the demolition at the Roof Depot site while EPNI and Cassie Holmes appeal a decision to move forward to the Minnesota Court of Appeals. A $10,000 bond is required and the stipulation that no protesters go to the Roof Depot site. The city had hired Rachel Contracting to begin demolition the week of Feb. 27. Trial is scheduled for April.
Feb. 27, 2023: 50th anniversary of Wounded Knee occupation. An 1890 massacre left some 150 Native Americans dead, in what was the final clash between federal troops and the Sioux tribe.
March 1, 2023: Minnesota House Economic Development, Finance and Policy Committee votes 6-5 to grant and appropriate $20 million to EPNI. Bill authors are Hodan Hassan (62B), Aisha Gomez (62A), Mohamud Noor (60B), Samantha Sencer-Mura (63A), and Andy Smith (25B). The Senate companion bill, SF1853, is authored by Omar Fateh (62).
This article was originally published in the Southwest Connector, a local newspaper in Minneapolis, Minnesota.