Gently into the Reach of the Night: Local Somali community struggles with violence
BY JON COLLINS AND KARLEE WEINMANN
Source: Minnesota Daily
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a three-part series examining violence in the Somali community — the cause, the effect and the response.
Less than a half-mile from the University’s West Bank campus last Monday, Ahmednur Ali, an Augsburg College student and tutor at the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood’s Brian Coyle Center, was shot to death.
For about two hours, police left his body uncovered on the street as a crowd gathered in the largely East African neighborhood. Elders in the Somali community asked that his face be covered in accordance with their religious practices, while police insisted that any cover could destroy possible forensic evidence.
In a forum held that Thursday, law enforcement officials urged witnesses in the death to come forward, while Somali youth, including University students, voiced outrage about yet another Somali man’s murder in the Twin Cities, one of six since December. The five murders in Minneapolis represent about 14 percent of the city’s murders since December.
On Monday, the same day another Somali man was killed in South Minneapolis, police arrested a 16-year-old boy in connection with Ali’s death. The other five murders remain unsolved.
Omar Jamal, director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center, which provides legal assistance to the community and deals with law enforcement, said surrounding communities should care.
“If the students at the West Bank of the U of M act as if this is business as usual, then they’re not paying enough attention,” Jamal said. “These people are going through hell.”
Effects on the Community
The violence has left members of the Somali community, which numbers around 50,000 in Minnesota, panicked and frustrated, Shukri Adan, the author of a 2007 report on Somali youth issues for the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights, said.
Minneapolis’ Somali population is densely concentrated in and around the 1,300 units of Riverside Plaza, which sits across from the Brian Coyle Community Center.
Much of the violence stems from gangs of Somali youth centered in Cedar-Riverside that have only recently started targeting people of Somali descent who aren’t involved in gangs; like Ali and youth mentor Mohamed Muse Jama, 31, who was killed in June in Brooklyn Center.
“Now they’re killing the good kids,” she said. “It’s getting to the point where ‘it might be my kid next.’ There’s panic.”
Meant to provide services to nearby residents, the Brian Coyle Center itself has become a hotbed of gang activity, Jamal said. It serves as a place for them to organize crimes, talk and recruit, he said. “The community would be much better if Brian Coyle Center would not be there,” he said. “It’s nothing more than trouble.”
With a skeptical eye on the center, some parents are keeping their kids away for fear of criminal activities nearby.
Sitting at a Columbia Heights hookah bar with friends including the brother of victim Ahmednur Ali, Yusuf Ali, who is not related to the victim, expressed discontent with the center. “Improving a life is nothing if you cannot save one,” he said.
But center director Jennifer Blevins said the issues are more complex. “As everyone in the community is trying to define what the problem is, we’ve heard the whole circle of blame,” she said.
Still, last week’s murder hastened and bolstered the center’s plans to install surveillance cameras and station security officers there.
And inside the center these days, “really good kids” express fear.
“They’re worried about, with the growing violence, about who it might be next,” Blevins said. “There’s a high level of stress among the youth.”
Blevins attributed much of the violent crime to wayward young people, but said she doesn’t see many of them around the center. “The sad thing about the situation is that it doesn’t take very many kids to be running around with guns to make really bad decisions and change people’s lives forever, including their own,” she said.
The Community’s Reputation
University psychology sophomore and Somali Student Association member Salma Hussein, who has tutored students at the Brian Coyle Center since 2003, said the media contributes to the violence problem by only covering the Somali community when something bad happens. “A lot of Minneapolis has this impression that Somalis are just violent people,” Hussein said. “Cedar-Riverside is filled with families trying to raise their kids.”
Hussein said tutors from the University received an e-mail warning them about violence in the neighborhood, allowing them to opt out, which would’ve removed an important educational resource from the community’s youth.
The gangs use violence to deliver the message that they control the neighborhoods, report author Adan said, and there have been rumors in the community that they’ve started shaking down Somali businesses. “It’s tense, it’s terrible, they’re holding the community hostage,” Adan said. “There’s an economic downturn issue even, from this gang activity.”
The Somali community is angry and frustrated at recent violence, Adan said, reminiscent of the violence they fled from in Somalia. “Every immigrant group goes through growing pains,” she said. “But we didn’t have this situation when we landed, so I know something went horribly wrong.”
Community members will merely continue to live through the problems, Jamal said, though many will slowly disappear back to Somalia or simply away from Cedar-Riverside.
Wherever they go, he said, they’ll take their pain with them.
“There’s nothing much the community can do,” Jamal said. “They can just go gently into the reach of the night.”