Phillip Murphy isn’t a person of color, but what he lacks in melanin, he makes up for with colorful language.
When discussing how police officers have handled the growing problem of violent crime in North Minneapolis, he described them as "pusillanimous pipsqueaks" and "cowards." As for the criminals, Murphy said he once referred to them as “thugs,” but after being called racist, the 53-year-old started calling them “urban terrorists.”
"Because that's what they're doing to the community," Murphy, who has lived in the area since 1992, told me over the phone.
Murphy is the founder of True North, a Facebook group that obsessively monitors police activity in North Minneapolis, the center of the region's minority population (black people make up half of all residents in North Minneapolis, while they comprise under 20% of the city's overall population). The area is also ground zero for an alarming, sustained uptick in violent crimes. Day and night, Murphy listens to police scanners, and posts information about crimes happening around town.
"People deserve to know when shitbags are running around here with guns," he said. Police and local media only shed light on a select few crimes, Murphy argued, but his page tries to present the whole picture of crime in North Minneapolis.
With around 6,000 followers, True North is one of a growing number of like-minded Facebook pages in North Minneapolis. Others, such as North Vent and NE Minneapolis Crime Watch & Information, have become places for residents to share information about crimes, and air their frustrations over lack of police intervention. Several page administrators told me that police routinely check their pages for information that might help them with investigations. In some cases, I found that the pages were days ahead of local news reports.
But critics say the moderators and administrators of these Facebook pages are predominantly white and middle class, while the community on which they’re keeping tabs is mostly black. The problem, then, is a racially tinged, class-divided clash between different segments of a community that share the same goal of stopping violence.
So, can a group of white people track and vent about rampant crime in their black neighborhood without being labeled racists?
"What these groups do is that they pit 'us' on quote unquote 'them,'" Felicia Perry, 36, a black clothing designer and local activist, told me. "It's a place to be validated for your bigotry, really. Complaining about things or even being a police scanner hoe all day long—I just want to know what that's changing. How is that making the neighborhood better?"
Perry said she sees the issue as a matter of both classism and race. Community members who oversee these Facebook pages hope that the more awareness they bring to crime in North Minneapolis, the more police will offer resources, and the more crime will drop. But recently, there’s been an uptick. The week of Aug. 16 saw the most gunshots ever recorded since Minneapolis released its gunfire-tracking system, which posts weekly data online, according to Murphy who tracks the data. And the bulk of the city's gunfire is almost always in North Minneapolis.
"Things are getting worse," Murphy said with a sigh.
A page admin for NE Minneapolis Crime Watch & Information, who requested anonymity because they’ve dealt with "too many stalkers and threats" over the years, told me that "people's perceptions of what is posted are formed by their own agendas."
They added, "Some people think that posting facts about crime is racist or hating on poor people."
Diana Fisher, an administrator for the group North Vent who is black, said some community members in North Minneapolis are turned off when they have to face the racial reality of crimes in the area. When page members post mugshots, crime reports, and criminal histories, the offenders tend to be black more often than not, she said.
"My son is black; he was robbed three times for his bike, held at gunpoint for his cell phone. Each time, it was another black male. My daughter was mugged by a black man. My home was robbed, and the police caught him; he was a 17-year-old black man," Fisher told me in an email. "[Some people] are offended because it’s put out in the spotlight."
But others feel differently.
In July, a black woman complained about racism on Fisher’s page.
"I have been in this group for less than a week, and I had no idea this group was filled so many racist people living in North Minneapolis.” she said. “The comments and generalizations made of people of color, people on public assistance, basically people that are not white and middle class, are absolutely disgusting!"
In response, a white man wrote, "I can help you spend that EBT [food stamps] of yours.” (Fisher promptly booted him from the group.)
That comment aside, postings on the Facebook pages are mostly innocuous, or explicitly anti-whoever is committing crime in the community. From what I’ve seen, after weeks of monitoring the pages, admins remove and address inflammatory comments quickly.
"People come on the page often and post these rants about what a racist page it is, and I always ask them to point to racist content and explain why it is racist, so the page can learn and admins can deal with it more effectively," Daniel Field, another administrator for North Vent, told me on Facebook messenger.
Conflict arises when some people see racism and bias in places where he, Fisher, and other don't see it, Field explained. "I wish there was a medium where people's intent was clear, and where all of us could read comments without filtering it through our own bias, but that doesn't seem to exist," he said.
If nothing else, the pages enable members to share hyperlocal news, most of which doesn’t make the daily papers. And judging by the size of the communities, which range from 6,000 in True North to nearly 15,000 in NE Minneapolis Crime Watch & Prevention, a fair number of people are invested and engaged.
"I'm an advocate for access to information. People who think that spreading information is contributing to the problems we have here don't wanna deal with the facts of the matter," Murphy said.
"What we have in North Minneapolis is a people problem—there's a complete breakdown of family values, here. It's not a race problem."
But for local activists like Perry, focusing on the bad things in North Minneapolis means people are overlooking the good. For her part, she participates in local campaigns organized by other community groups like Neighborhoods Organizing for Change. Earlier this month, it held a community forum with Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein in which Perry participated.
"It's not that we turn our eyes [away from] the things that are happening in the community,” she said. “What we do is we address them in a way that builds and empowers the community to make the changes we need to make things better.”
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.