Demonstrators gather during a protest outside the Brooklyn Center police station on April 17, 2021 in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota.
Demonstrators gather during a protest outside the Brooklyn Center police station on April 17, 2021 in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota.
AFP Photo

As protests intensified in the Minneapolis suburb where a police officer fatally shot Daunte Wright, a group of Black men joined the crowd intent on keeping the peace and preventing protests from escalating into violence.

Hundreds of people gather outside the heavily guarded Brooklyn Center police station every night since Sunday, when former Officer Kim Potter, who is white, shot the 20-year-old Black motorist during a traffic stop. Despite the mayor's calls for law enforcement and protesters to scale back their tactics, the nights have often ended in objects hurled, tear gas and arrests.

The Black men at the edge of the crowd wear yellow patches on protective vests that identify them as members of the Minnesota Freedom Fighters, a group formed to provide security in Minneapolis' north side neighbourhoods during unrest following the death of George Floyd last year.

They are not shy about casting a forceful image - the group's Facebook page features members posing with assault-style weapons and describes itself as an "elite security unit" - but on Friday the Freedom Fighters didn't appear to be armed and said they intended only to encourage peaceful protesting.

As several people began to rattle a fence protecting the Brooklyn Center police department, the Freedom Fighters communicated to each other over walkie-talkies. They declined to say how many are in their group.

On recent nights, the Freedom Fighters have moved through the crowd in formation, wearing body armour and dark clothing, weaving past umbrella-wielding demonstrators to create separation along a double-layer perimeter security fence.

Their passive tactics are intended to deescalate the tension, preventing agitators from pressing forward and provoking the law enforcement officers standing at attention with pepper-ball and less-lethal sponge grenade launchers at the ready.

"We can keep it peaceful," said Tyrone Hartwell, a 36-year-old former U.S. Marine who belongs to the group. "There's always somebody in the group that wants to incite something," adding that throwing objects at the police takes the focus away from their calls for justice and saps energy from the movement.

Minneapolis is on edge - simultaneously watching the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin in Floyd's death and reeling from the shooting of Wright. In the midst of that, Hartwell said the Freedom Fighters are trying to push the movement for racial justice forward while keeping at bay the violence and destruction that often acutely affects minority communities.

"This is a very difficult time in the history of this country," said US Rep. Maxine Waters, a Democrat from California who joined the protest on Saturday.

"We have to let people know that we are not going to be satisfied unless we get justice in these cases." The 82-year-old congresswoman decried the 11 p.m. curfew set by authorities as a way to tamp down demonstrations and encouraged the crowd of roughly 150 people to "stay in the street."

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