Reporter’s notebook: Hypervigilance, slashed tires and helping Jorge out

A man stands next to a truck.
Jorge Aguilar had been planning to work on this truck for a customer of his auto repair shop but found three tires slashed Tuesday morning.
Jon Collins | MPR News

It started out as images spread through neighborhood security groups in the early hours of Tuesday in south Minneapolis. They showed a big white Ford F-350 with no license plates. Neighbors reported on online forums that they had seen four people get out of an SUV and slash three tires. The vandals said they’d found gas cans in the truck bed. Then they drove away.  

Minneapolis residents are on edge following a week that included protests, looting and arson. Although there are still signs all over demanding justice for George Floyd, now there are also signs on utility poles saying everything from “no Nazis” to “locals only.”

Neighbors have grown more suspicious of outsiders, especially white men in pickup trucks, but overzealous residents have sometimes instead caused additional harm to local residents in an area that’s heavily made up of people of color and immigrants. 

When I stopped by to look at the white pickup truck, Jorge Aguilar, who runs an auto repair shop across the street, told me he was working on the truck for a customer. He parked it on the street to make room in his shop while he waited for a part to arrive. 

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Aguilar told me he didn’t know why protesters would target him. I mentioned that there have been other incidents where neighbors, worried about arson or property damage, had driven off drivers they didn’t recognize or damaged vehicles they thought were suspicious.

“We’ve always had a good relationship with the neighborhood,” he told me sadly. He was worried that fixing the tires would cost hundreds and hundreds of dollars. 

Aguilar said the truck’s owner told him that there was a temporary permit for the vehicle in the back window of the cab, but neither Aguilar nor I could see the permit through the dark windows. 

I’m a reporter, but I also have deep roots in south Minneapolis, on both sides of Lake Street. And all the past week’s events have dropped myself and other city residents into closer contact with our neighbors. When I got home, I shared the info I discovered with my neighborhood group, whose members said they’d seen people they didn’t know slash the tires then drive off.

Rebecca Hendlin — who I’ve never met — was one of the first to respond. When she woke up and saw the posts about the truck, she remembers thinking that the evidence of gas canisters, tools and the plate-less truck meant someone had come to damage the neighborhood — looting and arson had been concentrated in the opening days at nearby Lake Street but not really moved as far south as our neighborhood. 

“It was the first time we’d had that experience of, ‘Oh, there’s a truck here, there’s flammable materials, there’s tools,” she said, “maybe this is happening closer to where we are?’”  

But finding out that the truck belonged to a customer of a local businessperson immediately shifted her thinking. She volunteered to organize a donation drive to help Aguilar pay for new tires. In a few hours, the neighborhood group raised $650.

“Tensions are so high right now, and it was so easy to assume that there was going to be a negative outcome from this,” she said. “And I’m also not surprised that immediately after we found out that wasn’t the case, and now we’re in a position where we want to help Jorge out.” 

It’s not the only time a misunderstanding like this has happened. My colleague Elizabeth Shockman reported on an incident in the Lyndale neighborhood on Sunday after a group of neighbors noticed a white van that they didn’t recognize park on their block. 

Concerned about warnings of outsiders attacking the city, they deflated the tires and broke through the window of a parked van sitting on their block. Over the weekend, Gov. Tim Walz said authorities estimated that 80 percent of the people involved in the property destruction and mayhem since Floyd’s killing were from outside Minnesota. But after news reports showed that wasn’t borne by arrest and bookings data, he’s walked back that estimate.

Adam Levine, who was out for a walk just before curfew, saw his neighbors crowded around the vehicle. He noticed a for sale sign on the side of the car, listing a local number. He called and found out that the owner of the van was named Tabarak Farah, and lived just a few blocks away. 

“I mean, I know there are serious threats out there, but at the same time it seems there’s also a little bit of hysteria,” Levine said. 

Farah had parked the car there, hoping it would sell better if it was more visible. He was upset when he found out his vehicle had been vandalized.

“I’m following about the protests and all the stuff that’s going on and the burning and the corruption and the violence,” Farah said. “I excuse them for having suspicions or being afraid of that just being parked there. But I would have rather ... just call the number or text it.”

Farah went to pick up the truck, and Levine helped him refill his tires with air. They also put him in touch with a local mechanic to get the window fixed. Farah said the mechanic insisted on paying for the window himself. The neighbors are also pooling money to pay for the broken glass, refusing to let Farah pay for the damage. 

At first, Farah felt like the broken window meant it wasn’t a good and safe neighborhood. 

“But when they told me they were going to help me...I was very happy,’ Farah said. “Then I felt it was the right neighborhood to be around in.” 

MPR News reporter Elizabeth Shockman contributed to this story.