Black businesses face concerns over community safety and crime

Sammy’s Eatery on West Broadway

Black businesses are the bedrock of our community. In Minneapolis, Black business owners find themselves frontline responders in issues of crime and community safety. Some business owners have developed effective strategies to respond to these issues. The city of Minneapolis also offers support through its Office of Violence Prevention.

It is important to acknowledge that “crime” is a catch-all term that addresses a large array of legal violations. While many media outlets focus on violent crime, Black Americans know that the conversation about solutions can quickly devolve into “’lock-em-up” quick fixes that don’t address the real problems of economic inequality and systemic racism.

A burgeoning community conversation on the nuances of public safety has led businesses like Sammy’s Avenue Eatery and city departments like the Office of Violence Prevention (OVP) to ask how they can address issues that lead to crime and violence in the neighborhoods.

Sammy McDowell of Sammy’s Avenue Eatery has spent the last couple of years hyper-focused on how to uplift Black-owned small businesses in North Minneapolis. The eatery has become a hub for community members to discuss some of the biggest issues facing the community. Crime in the city and the reluctance to involve the police to solve it is one such issue.

McDowell said, “We just actually had a challenge recently with a young man who was seemingly intoxicated. He was terrorizing maybe three or four blocks, and you know, people were threatened by him. He was acting a little belligerent and all this kind of stuff. 

“And it’s like, who do you call? I don’t want to call the police because I don’t want that young man to end up dead when I know that he has a problem that needs to be dealt with,” McDowell continued.

“Whether it is mental health or this person’s on drugs, and we need to call someone, who do we call? So, we got together, literally, as a community meeting.

“It was [just] the man and community people, and we just, you know, came up with a plan, and we executed the plan to get the gentleman some help to try to get them to drug treatment and all that.”

He added, “But it’s like, that kind of thing right there would be kind of better if there was … a system in place of some sort that we could, as a community, know already. Just like we know to call 911. It would be great if we had a system of some sort to, you know, navigate that whole process. Because it’s not the first time it’s happened over the 10 years that Sammy’s has been on that corner.” 

The city of Minneapolis provides some services through the Office of Violence Prevention that Minneapolis businesses can utilize. 

From opportunities like the Blueprint Approved Institute which helps to build and fund organizational capacity, and the Violence Prevention Fund which resources community-led strategies, the OVP can help businesses create a better sense of safety in their space and community. 

The Minneapolis Violence Prevention Community Champions Institute, which will be held on August 20, is open to any community member—including business owners—interested in information, resources, and training on how to play an active role in supporting violence prevention. 

The office also partners with the city’s Business Licensing Division and has provided de-escalation and crisis de-escalation training to owners of restaurants, nightclubs, and off-sale establishments.

Josh Peterson, OVP interim director, and Jennifer White, manager of Interagency and Community Engagement, spoke to the MSR about some of the ways that the city engages businesses around violence prevention. 

“One of our staff attends meetings of a group focused on West Broadway Livability,” Peterson said. “The group is convened by CPED [Community Planning & Economic Development] and includes some representation from both the business community and community members.”

Jennifer White spoke about the importance of connections that businesses have with the OVP and other city offices, stating, “Our office has supported businesses at George Floyd Square, 38th and Chicago, ensuring that they had a sense of safety, but also work to ensure that they weren’t going under. 

“It’s one of our historical Black corridors in the city. So, I think it was really important that we were able to help connect those businesses to other departments and divisions within the city, in order to ensure that they were able to sustain. 

“Our slogan in our office is that it takes all of us to prevent violence. It’s really how we are thinking creatively and outside the box to ensure that we’re supporting one another, as well as our business community.”

But do Black businesses know about these resources? “We’re working hard to get the word out about the availability of our programs and our opportunities,” White said, “in particular, around the funding.” 

She added, “I think one of the challenges that we’re all experiencing—those of us who work in any public or community safety realm—is the demand versus our capacity. Our violence interrupters, our other programs initiative that we have, and businesses and individuals and organizations, are oftentimes asking for [our team’s] presence and [our] support.”

White continued, “But we only have a limited number of teams who, you know, they employ folks part-time for the limited schedule and availability of them to help show up and provide a presence in community answered and challenge.” 

Peterson also highlighted the interconnectedness of safety and systemic issues, stating. “In this conversation, I think it’s also important that we don’t lose sight of the complexity of violence.

“If we don’t also address the complex, upstream factors that contribute to violence—including longstanding systemic and institutional factors rooted in racism—we won’t be able to sustainably address the community violence that’s unfairly, disproportionately impacting communities of color in Minneapolis and in this country.”

McDowell offered a last word on some simple steps businesses can take to make patrons and community members feel safer. “You know, people … lot of times they don’t feel safe, that’s why they don’t get out and patronize businesses and different things, so it’s important we build the community we want to see. 

“One of the other shop owners, they asked me about, how do I keep people from standing in front of the door because they noticed that nobody stands in front of Sammy’s. And he’s like, ‘How do you get these people to just move?’

“I was like, you go talk to them; they are people—go talk to them. And once I’ve done that, you know, I haven’t had much of a problem with people standing in front of that space. 

“I always say to folks [loitering], ‘You’re more than welcome to come inside. Have a seat, even if you’re hot, or you’re just out here. You can come inside and have a seat.’ And it benefits me too because it makes it look like we’re busy when we’re really not at that moment.”

As the old saying goes, “If you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the problem.” McDowell is one example of how we can help create the spaces we want to see during these harrowing times.

To learn more about resources in the Office of Violence Prevention, visit https://bit.ly/OVPMpls.

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