Minneapolis’ Downtown Dark Alliance

Part 3 in the series: 21st Century Jim Crow in the North Star City

Minneapolis, MN – Multinational retail giant Target Corporation has weaponized its public-private partnerships with nonprofits, law enforcement, the offices of the Hennepin County prosecutor and the Minneapolis city attorney to criminalize and incarcerate the lowest level offenders in downtown. This policy targeted predominantly Black homeless youth populations leading to a feeder program from the streets to prisons, all for the sake of increasing Target’s brand and increasing profits

SafeZone explainer video by the People Power Podcast

Table of Contents 

[Listen to the audio version of Part 3 Minneapolis’ Downtown Dark Alliance by People Power Podcast]


The SafeZone/Safe City program was piloted in downtown Minneapolis following 9/11. It began with a downtown surveillance camera system donated to the city by Target, but soon grew into a corporate surveillance state. 

Following unrest in the 1960s, cities experienced white flight and the loss of major capital investments such as malls and sports stadiums, which moved to the suburbs. In the 1990s, cities across the U.S. put concerted effort into rebuilding their downtowns after decades of “decline”. Corporations used their massive headquarters and the jobs they generated to influence local governments and real estate markets to convert downtowns into viable, trendy neighborhoods.

By erecting high-end lofts and condominiums, developers sought to attract “young urban professionals” back into the heart of the city. Visible homelessness amongst other things was viewed as “preventing the re-concentration of investments back into cities’ downtowns by corporations, according to sociologist Michael McQuarrie. This meant homelessness got pushed out of downtown to other parts of the city using brutal tactics based on “broken windows” policing

The right-wing “broken windows” think-tank theory posits that when small issues like broken glass, graffiti, panhandling, people sleeping in public, etc. go unattended, criminal activity becomes increasingly violent; thus focusing police efforts on minor infractions can prevent greater atrocities from occurring. Major cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles have all developed law enforcement practices based on this theory.

The Minneapolis SafeZone was based on this theory and it created the Downtown 100 Initiative (DT100 for short). The DT100 was supposedly a list of “top offenders,” with the same purpose in mind as “broken windows” law enforcement. Target explicitly expressed their goals of keeping unwanted elements out of downtown: 

“It sounds silly, but the word that people used to describe the downtown area was “icky.” So we asked exactly what they meant by this “ick factor,” and they told us that when they came downtown, they were bothered by lifestyle offenders—people who were panhandling, loitering, swearing, urinating in public, and so on.”

Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) 2010 report co-written with Target (Read the full report here.)

The public-private partnership with the 2004 SafeZone collaboration between Target, the Downtown Council, the city of Minneapolis and Hennepin County has blurred the boundaries between government responsibility and corporate profiteering. This has resulted in criminal “justice” and law enforcement relinquishing unprecedented power to Target Corp. and its associates. One Target executive spoke publicly about their desire to transform downtown Minneapolis into a playground for its suburban base.*

“In fact, we try to create a shopping experience that’s not just commodity exchange, but a pleasurable experience… The guest experience, as we call it, is a very big contrast in that we want to be a lot more like Disney World and a lot less like a flea market.”

Brad Brekke, Vice President of Assets Protection, Target Corp. (Security Info Watch, 2012)

21st Century Jim Crow in the North Star City – A Series

Minneapolis as a Model 

As covered in Part 2, one of the most oppressive surveillance states on the planet, China, unveiled their own “Safe Cities” program which was strikingly similar to the template created by Target Corp. and Minneapolis taxpayers. The Minneapolis SafeZone led to a number of programs that created a sophisticated system of racial discrimination against Black youth and adults experiencing homelessness. 

“…SafeZone already has 30 surveillance cameras in place, a radio link network operating between police and security guards, joint beats with the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office and Metro Transit police and a nuisance crime prosecution program.”

David Chanen, Reporter (Star Tribune, 2008)
Image by Marjaan Sirdar

According to then-city attorney Susan Segal — who was one of the architects of the DT100, and then-assistant city attorney Lois Conroy — who was the lead prosecutor for the program, the DT100 was launched in 2010 with stated goals to reduce “livability crimes, petty theft, trespassing, indecent conduct — on the streets of downtown Minneapolis.” In partnership with community based organizations (CBOs), they would achieve this “with a more holistic approach, not just running them through the system,” but connecting offenders to services that will help reduce recidivism.

The Downtown 100 Initiative originated from the 2005 “Downtown 33” study of “33 chronic offenders that were found to have cost government agencies nearly $4 million over the course of 20 years,” according to Downtown Journal

Authorities said in defense of the DT100, one year after it was created: “The list is determined by statistical data — those persons who have committed numerous offenses — not demographic data. Consequently, there is no breakdown by race or ethnicity,” reported MinnPost.

As discussed in Pt.1, Anne Kent and Mickella Rolfes, former DT100 case managers with YouthLink, a nonprofit that provides services to youth experiencing homelessness, say the program is really based on police contacts rather than arrests and citations. In other words, the DT100 list is generated based on who downtown police target and harass, according to former staff who worked with the initiative.

Former YouthLink supervisor Lisa Borneman used the DT100 as the basis for her doctoral research published in 2018. Borneman concluded that the list of top “offenders” was essentially a criminal registry. Borneman found that the program was racially biased, creating additional barriers to securing stable housing and employment (the very things it claimed to address) for its nearly all-Black list of targets.  

Black communities and location of all low-level arrests – Data visualization maps published by ACLU, 2014.

How Did We Get Here?
The SafeZone’s Genesis

This corporate and enforcement partnership took shape when Target opened two state-of-the-art video forensics labs in 2003. At the end of that year, Sgt. Paul Valentine, from the English town of Northampton that pioneered closed circuit television (CCTV) public surveillance systems, flew to Minneapolis to consult on the SafeZone launch.

Valentine told the Downtown Journal: “What we didn’t want to do is get a highly trained police officer who’s probably paid a bit more than security, trained in all sorts of tactical communications, monitoring a camera.” So Minneapolis outsourced this task to lower-paid private sector civilians, further blurring the boundaries between public-private responsibilities. 

In 2004, Target and the city of Minneapolis unveiled the new SafeZone surveillance camera system. As explained in Part 2, Target’s technology exceeds that of most police agencies; Target began training law enforcement around the world in video forensics and surveillance. 

Mic Crenshaw / Youtube.com

Downtown was essentially declared off-limits to “undesirable” street populations by Target Corp. The new surveillance system was Target’s down payment to ensure that the city lived up to its end of the new public-private deal: aggressive policing and prosecution to boost downtown’s “desirability”.

“Community members held opposing views regarding police action toward individuals suspected of committing [low-level] offenses… Some took the position that police action was a form of harassment, or simply a fishing expedition, which might lead to charges for more serious crimes.”

Council on Crime and Justice (Downtown Journal, 2006) 

In 2006, the SafeZone program became its own nonprofit entity, led by former Target executive Shane Zahn. This was also when Target’s name began to disappear from the program. 

“Brad Brekke of Target was the early champion of SafeZone and the person who made this happen. But he told me early on that the degree to which he would consider SafeZone successful is the degree to which Target’s name is not associated with it.”

Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) 2010 report created in partnership with Target [Click here to read the full report.]*

That same year, then-St. Paul police chief John Harrington (now Minnesota’s Commissioner of Public Safety) pushed to replicate the SafeZone initiative in his city. In 2007, the St. Paul City Council approved the installation of 25 cameras in the central corridor. Surveillance cameras tripled leading up to the 2008 Republican National Convention and related protests in St. Paul, according to a 2010 PERF report which was co-authored with and funded by Target Corp.

The parameters of the Minneapolis SafeZone surveillance and enforcement created Jim Crow-like segregation for Black youth who were typically trespassed from many downtown businesses. One former YouthLink client who was frequently targeted by downtown police told Unicorn Riot: “After walking around all day because we were homeless, we couldn’t even sit down on a bench to rest our feet without the cops harassing us.”

The city ratcheted things up when it unveiled the Safe City initiative in 2006, which focused on increased police street presence in “high-crime areas” as well as cracking down on juvenile and repeat offenders. The Downtown Journal did not mention Target Corp. involvement in their May 15, 2006 coverage of the Safe City program launch. 

Months after former Mayor R.T. Rybak unveiled the Safe City initiative, criminalizing Black people was hotly debated in the community. According to the Downtown Journal

“A council study determined that more than 70 percent of people arrested for misdemeanor crimes had no prior felony conviction… but did have misdemeanor convictions. Low-level offenses in the study include driving after license revocation or cancellation, no valid drivers license, disorderly conduct, loitering with intent to commit prostitution, loitering with intent to sell narcotics, and lurking with intent to commit a crime.

The Council on Crime and Justice has concluded that police should be judicious about making arrests for low-level offenses.”

Michelle Bruch, Reporter (Downtown Journal

This time in the July article on racial disparities in policing by the Downtown Journal there was no mention of Target Corp., the SafeZone or the Safe City program recently launched by Rybak.

Pie charts of Minneapolis Low-level Arrests, by the ACLU, 2014

“Target Town” and Rise of the Downtown Improvement District

Target has acquired an unprecedented amount of power in Minneapolis.

“Target’s priority is creating a safe and secure environment—for our guests, our team members, and the communities where we do business. When it comes to protecting our physical stores, digital data, and surrounding neighborhoods, we know that one of the best investments we can make is partnering with law enforcement and public-safety agencies.”

Police Executive Research Forum / PERF (Read the full report from 2014 here)*

In 2006, then-Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar told the Washington Post that Target Corp. had paid for at least one attorney and a paralegal in her office. 

“There were huge strings attached when we received the funding for our new staff, and we were expected to routinely communicate how the money was used and what kind of results we’d gained,” according to Klubachar. The prosecutor went from three repeat criminal convictions a year to more than 90 convictions a year after Target stepped and demanded results, the Post reported.*

Also in 2006, rumors spread that Target was considering moving its headquarters from downtown Minneapolis to the suburbs. For two decades, Target Corp. has been the biggest employer in downtown Minneapolis, which hosts both its flagship retail location and its headquarters. If Target were to move out, as they always threaten to do, it would be a major failure for any mayor, costing Minneapolis nearly 10,000 jobs. 

That same year Target hosted a downtown “safety summit” with city, county, local law enforcement and downtown business stakeholders. The Downtown Journal described it as a day “to discuss livability crimes, which include drug dealing, aggressive panhandling and loitering.” The summit was held ahead of the city council’s Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee vote on strengthening an anti-panhandling ordinance. This came after an 2004 attempt to criminalize panhandling, which briefly became law, only to be ruled unconstitutional by a district judge. 

Target’s influence in training police to aggressively target homeless populations was clear at their public safety summit:

“The last improvement measure, to train law enforcement members to engage people on the street early, was planned by the MPD to go into effect in 2008 but is now being moved to an earlier timeline.” 

Chros McDougall (Downtown Journal, 2007)
Photo / Graphics by Marjaan Sirdar

Over the years, calls from the Downtown Council grew for a “special district” to focus on the ‘beautification’ of shopping areas. They collaborated with the Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association (DMNA) who conducted a downtown survey as the pretext for achieving their goal. This “special district” would later become the Downtown Improvement District (DID). Target Corp.’s involvement was not mentioned in the Downtown Journal’s reporting.

In December 2008, Target sponsored the annual Holidazzle Parade, further cementing its influence in Minneapolis.

In 2009, the Downtown Improvement District (DID) was formed, relieving Target from primary SafeZone stakeholder status.

“[Hennepin County Attorney] Freeman asked for Downtown 100 funding from Target Corp. and the Downtown Council, which is the Central Business District’s advocacy group. Citizens for a Loring Park Community (CLPC) has already pledged $5,000 for the initiative.” 

Michelle Bruch, Reporter (Downtown Journal, 2008)

In 2010, the DID funded the launch of the DT100 program, which was initially “aimed at targeting 100 offenders — thus the name — but funding restraints limited the program to 50 people at a time, with some ‘graduating’ out,” according to MinnPost

In 2012 Lois Conroy, assistant city attorney and lead prosecutor for the DT100, successfully ran to become Hennepin County district judge.

That same year, Target Corp. was caught in a national scandal. Management systematically discriminated against Black job applicants due to “criminal backgrounds”. Local organizations worked on this for years and eventually a ‘Ban the Box’ campaign (led most visibly by TakeActionMN) forced Target to change its hiring practices. By then, Target was entrenched with law enforcement nationwide, collaborating on Safe City programs in over 20 cities, according to a 2014 PERF report

If there was a public-private partnership people could get behind, it would be a jobs program for communities of color, with Target being the largest employer in downtown Minneapolis and the fifth largest statewide, activists proclaimed.* 

Years later, Target Corp. settled for $3.7 million in a class-action lawsuit for racial discrimination in hiring. Former program manager with Take Action, Justin Terrell, told Unicorn Riot that the national leadership of the NAACP was to blame for not pressing for a substantially larger settlement. 

Questioning “Community Reform”

As explained in Part 1, Policing and Punishment in Minneapolis’ ‘SafeZone’, YouthLink became an official partner with police, the DID, the city and county with the DT100 program in 2013. 

As recently as 2019, the DT100 was pitched in Seattle by Hennepin County and Minneapolis city staff as a nationally recognized criminal justice program leading to a 75% crime reduction. 

Based on local media reports, reduction in “crime” seems to be the only success of the program. A 2015 Star Tribune column stated: “Crime dropped by 80 percent among the Downtown 100 offenders…the fifth straight year of double-digit reductions.”

That’s because nearly all of the participants of the program were in jail, according to former YouthLink staffer Mickella Rolfes. In the documentary film about the DT100: Targeted: Young Black and Harassed in Downtown Minneapolis, Kent and Rolfes said “the emphasis was always on getting the youth out of downtown or trying to lock them up.”

In 2014, the ACLU published a scathing report documenting systematic racism in policing in Minneapolis. “The racial disparities documented in this analysis are staggering and demonstrate that “we need to do something radically different…” The report concluded with a list of recommendations including: “Keeping data, and making it publicly available on a regular basis, in a format that makes it more accessible and includes information from all interactions with the police including ones that do not result in an arrest, but were merely suspicious person stops, frisks, or searches…” There was not one mention of the Downtown 100 program, the SafeZone or Safe City programs, or the Target Corporation in the ACLU report, Picking Up the Pieces: Policing in America, A Minneapolis Case Study.

Graph of Homeless Arrests in Minneapolis, by the ACLU, 2014

In 2015, Kulture Klub Collaborative created an art project and video detailing harassment at the hands of police. It was the first public record of youth put on the DT100 list speaking out about their experiences. YouthLink did not want their name on the project because it was critical of the program and of the police, according to Rolfes.

The following year, Kulture Klub Collaborative created a tour of the Downtown 100, further documenting experiences of homeless youth being threatened and harassed by police. 

“For years, the young people served at YouthLink had been targeted, harassed, and arrested by the MPD for as little as standing in the 1st Precinct vicinity.” 

Anonymous former YouthLink supervisor

The murder of George Floyd was the final straw for one former YouthLink administrator who decided to become a whistleblower after years of working in what they described a “toxic” environment. They blamed the board of directors and the executive director who was “more concerned about her legacy and status than she is about serving young people experiencing homelessness.” In an email Unicorn Riot obtained via Anne Kent, they accused YouthLink of being in bed with the Downtown Council and the police.  (They submitted this statement anonymously).

Say Their Names Cemetery / Photo by Marjaan Sirdar

“When the executive director of YouthLink created a policy that there was no sleeping in the drop-in,  that was the beginning of the end. That decision cemented what most staff already suspected – the executive director didn’t care about the young people who needed services…

When YouthLink started to work with [Project for Pride in Living] on the planning for Downtown View, …the Board of Directors shifted, and new members came on board, hand-picked (as most boards are) by Dr. Heather. A significant percentage of the board …applauded Youthlink’s relationship with Minneapolis Police Department (DT100, Chief on the board etc..). …

In 2017, Voices for Racial Justice came out with a questionnaire for Minneapolis candidates running for office. One of the questions was “Do you believe that we could ever have a city without police?” Many of the candidates running for office replied “yes”. … Steve Cramer, YouthLink Board member and President of the Downtown Council, asked Dr. Huesby and the outreach team to stand [with] him [and MPD] in a press conference. … Admin staff pleaded for her to reconsider and were told that we needed to respect her decision. It was final.

That decision and action by Dr. Heather upended the staff morale at YouthLink and they understandably and respectfully requested answers.

Anonymous, former YouthLink supervisor (2020)

“Community” Accomplices

CBOs often serve as liaisons between corporations and the government, providing legitimacy for their harmful policies and practices, while shielding their patrons from criticism, according to McQuarrie.* Target, which is listed as a $75,000 annual “Life Changer” donor on YouthLink’s website, would not see such success without the nonprofits it is close to. 

“The city’s CBOs are legitimate in the eyes of funders and community development professionals even though they are not programmatically effective.” 

Michael McQuarrie, Sociologist

McQuarrie exposed the real purpose of these organizations. Social services such as YouthLink and neighborhood organizations like the DMNA and CLPC fail at achieving their program goals because the true service they provide is more nefarious than admitted:

The contrast with the 1970s, when many CBOs were illegitimate to funders even though they were effective, is notable. This shift poses a natural question: what is the legitimacy of CBOs based on if not programmatic effectiveness? The answer, in brief, is that they underpin the authority of urban elites when promises of growth [and equity] are understood to be empty. In this context, CBOs facilitate elite authority, based not on their programmatic effectiveness but on their claim to effectively represent the [community].

Michael McQuarrie, No Contest: Participatory Technologies and the Transformation of Urban Authority
Graph of low-level arrests in Minneapolis, by the ACLU, 2014

A separate but similar public-private partnership between youth-serving orgs and law enforcement in Minneapolis is the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program. CVE targets young Black Muslims. See Unicorn Riot’s past reporting on how youth, similar to the Kulture Klub, have educated the community on the negative effects of the program.

Dark Matters

Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law, authors of the 2020 critically acclaimed Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms warn readers of using technology to advance safety and security, while the same actors disguise old ideas as cutting edge reform efforts:   

“Innovation in itself is no guarantee of progress. In so many cases, reform is not the building of something new, it is the reforming of the system in its own image using the same raw materials: white supremacy, a history of oppression, and a toolkit whose main contents are confinement, isolation, surveillance, and punishment.” 

Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law, Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms

At the end of 2020, a new practice at YouthLink began mandating youth to check their temperature through facial recognition technology (FRT) upon entering the building to receive services, according to an employee. Activists and experts have called for transparency around biometric data being collected by public and private entities. YouthLink Human Resources Consultant Lisa Tozer said the program does not use facial recognition. However, an anonymous source who works for the nonprofit said that in addition to youth having to use it upon entering, YouthLink staff were all required to log their faces into the system.

Up until 2021,* YouthLink lists the MPD and the Hennepin County Sheriff as partners on their website. If YouthLink really is using FRT, imagine the ramifications for their clients if they shared client biometric data with the authorities. Target has gotten away with committing grave injustices against Black people in Minneapolis, virtually unscathed, including systematic racial discrimination in hiring, activists have decried.* If corporations like Target obtain FRT data from social service organizations who serve homeless populations, will they use it to settle scores? 

Following the murder of George Floyd and the uprisings in 2020, Mayor Frey appointed Target executive Jim Rowader to city attorney. The previous city attorney and architect of the DT100, Susan Segal, is now the chief justice of the Minnesota Court of Appeals appointed by Gov. Tim Walz in 2019. In addition to having former DT100 prosecutor Lois Conroy as Hennepin District Judge, Target Corp. is well positioned to prosecute people who looted last year in downtown and on Lake Street — where their store was ransacked by demonstrators after the assault at the 3rd Precinct by MPD.

Along with blurring the lines between government and corporate responsibility, this private-public alliance serves to blur the truth. Narratives about crime and repeat offenders are intended to misrepresent vulnerable populations who are in need of resources and services and may resort to crimes of survival when help is not readily available. 

The genesis of the program was a widespread feeling some years ago in the city of Minneapolis that the downtown business district was not a pleasant place to work or visit. Panhandlers, people drinking alcohol on the street, and other “lifestyle offenders” roamed the streets. Even though there was relatively little violent crime in the downtown area, people tended not to feel safe or comfortable there.

PERF (2010) 

Reports of violent crime have been intentionally conflated with public nuisances that do not cross the threshold into criminal activity. These narratives are deployed at the disposal of corporations who forever seek to increase policing in downtown, when in fact by all accounts downtown is consistently trailing most of the city in violent crime and crime overall. 

We don’t have a lot of murders downtown. We had occasional robberies, some aggravated assaults at night, but essentially it hasn’t been a terribly unsafe area. But what people told us was that they didn’t feel safe downtown.

PERF (2010) 

Excluding ‘Black code’ laws (such as curfew, loitering, lurking, spitting, etc., which were historically designed to re-enslave Black people after emancipation), we see no evidence that a small city like Minneapolis even has 100 chronic criminals in its downtown. In 2010, resources for the DT100 were only enough to fund the DT50, according to MinnPost, although the original ‘100’ name remained as that was their ultimate goal.*

Graph representing low-level arrests of homeless populations in Minneapolis, by the ACLU, 2014

The Big Payback

“We ask for nothing in return. There’s no quid pro quo…We just offer it up as a commitment to them and the community.” 

Brad Brekke, Target Corporation

Today, Super Targets exist in downtowns across the U.S. Since the launch of the SafeZone in 2004, Target has expanded their international presence in global markets and expanded their relationships with law enforcement agencies around the world. Although Target claims their public-private partnership was born from American patriotism, the retail giant has profited significantly since the SafeZone began, and is now the second discount retailer in sales nationwide, trailing only Walmart. 

However, Target Corp. is not alone in profiteering from massive surveillance programs and FRT. City and county governments profit from partnerships with Target by accepting* corporate gifts; and through ticketing and fining low-level offenders who are caught thanks to sophisticated surveillance tech and one-sided law enforcement. Police agencies profit from corporate foundations’ cash-giving programs, as well as donations of weapons and hi-tech equipment. China’s Safe Cities are paying huge dividends expanding rapidly around the world.

Often missing from the story is systematic discrimination in employment, housing and overall opportunities by corporations like Target, which create conditions of poverty and homelessness in the first place. Technological fixes to “public safety” are really just new ways for corporations to profit from public contracts for issues caused by racialized poverty that were never seriously addressed by the government from the start.

George Floyd Square Barricade / Photo by Marjaan Sirdar

Hi-tech Jim Crow 

With greater advancements in security and surveillance technology, one would think Americans today feel safer than past generations. However, this is not the case. What is important to note is that new surveillance technology, although has not improved safety for your average person or the vulnerable, is highly profitable.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness author, Michelle Alexander wrote the foreword to Prison by Any Other Name in which she expressed her concerns for the conflicts that arise when using “technological advancements” in efforts to bring about social change:

“In our zeal to make some progress in the fight against mass incarceration, many well intentioned reformers are wittingly or unwittingly converting homes, neighborhoods and entire communities into high tech digital prisons. Humanity has reached a stage in its development where our technological capacity has greatly outpaced our moral striving. This seems especially true in wealthy, grossly unequal capitalist societies like ours. Places where the conditions for wealth accumulation and technological progress have been and continue to be inextricably linked to slavery, genocide, and the exploitation of people and resources around the world. …[W]e must be careful not to embrace every policy as a progressive reform since they often contain hidden dangers.”

Michelle Alexander, Foreword, Prison by Any Other Name (2020)

Whether in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, or Kashgar, wherever there are “Safe Cities” public-private alliances around the world, there are also claims of human rights violations. 

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face-forever.”

George Orwell, 1984

About the author: Marjaan Sirdar is a freelance writer in South Minneapolis’ Bryant neighborhood, where George Floyd was killed by the MPD. He is the host of the People Power Podcast. Disclaimer: Sirdar is also a former YouthLink employee.

Cover composite: Photo by Tony Webster (Creative Commons); Concept by Marjaan Sirdar; Composition by Dan Feidt; Money Heads by Thomas Nast.

*Updated 4/16/2023 and 4/29/2023

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