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East Side residents aim at action, not venting in St. Paul
Residents of Saint Paul’s East Side sat down in a church basement Thursday night, September 19, to talk about how to respond to a crisis. This was not a meeting to vent or make political statements; that meeting had already been held. The September 19 meeting at Arlington Hills Lutheran Church was all about small group discussion and planning for action after a rash of violent crimes over the past couple months, including the beating of a young man by a gang of youth, the shooting of another man over a traffic dispute, and the fatal shooting of a 17-year-old in July.
These violent incidents sparked a police response Todd Axtell, the Assistant Chief of the Saint Paul Police force, called “Operation Blue Wave” which sought, “high visibility, high presence, high community impact, a lot of arrests, a lot of officer generated activity,” according to Axtell.
Now the police force is cutting back, and has been public about it which concerns many community members including one who questioned Axtell saying “Why don’t you just put a sign up on Payne Avenue: ‘no police presence’?”
Axtell told community members police they would maintain an increased presence, but that the extra resources needed for Operation Blue Wave were needed elsewhere in Saint Paul as well.
Residents were interested in how police, politicians, and other “systems people” were responding to the violence in their community, but ultimately that was not what the meeting was about.
“I just kind of feel like tonight was our meeting,” explained Sarah Geving, an East Side resident. “The last meeting they [politicians] dictated what we were doing and how we were listening and tonight is our meeting so we can dictate what we want to see from them and we’ll go to them.”
About 80, mostly older, East Side residents sat in small groups at round tables and discussed next steps and actions related to interconnected issues including: housing, youth violence, community policing, media representation of the neighborhood, and multicultural neighborhood building.
Residents recognized that while the recent incidents were separate, they were also not an anomaly. Many residents talked about ebbs and flows of violence in their neighborhood that stem from issues much bigger than a traffic dispute or petty theft, such as systemic issues of poverty, racism, and cycles of violence in youth.
Youth, landlords, politicians, police, parents, schools, the media were all talked about as either part of the problem or part of the solution depending on who you talked to. As other residents listed stakeholders who were not at the meeting, but should have been; or those who were there but should not have been, resident Darlene Adams took exception to the lines that were being drawn across the room.
“Everybody has the same basic needs, so whether they are a politician, whether they are a community leader, whether they are a police officer, we are a team and if you are looking ‘them and us’ we are never going to come to a solution because it’s always separated,” Adams said.
Ultimately, small group discussions yielded some concrete steps to take, such as creating more after school programs that appeal to youth, building community through small neighborhood-based block clubs, reaching out to parents in need, and seeking education on housing and police policy.
Finding ways to communicate community priorities with “systems” people like the Saint Paul Police and local politicians remained a question, as well as thinking of creative solutions for the more entrenched issues of poverty and racism in the community.
Ultimately, most of the East Side residents present at this planning meeting were decidedly not giving up. They seemed frustrated and maybe even desperate, but many cited the assets present in their diverse community and expressed a strong desire to make it a better place for their kids or grandkids.
This meeting was the first of five similar planning meetings that Leslie McMurray, the Executive Director of the Payne Phalen District Five Planning Council, hopes will lead to “connect[ing] with the systems people that we need to be in dialogue with and [having] clear agendas and work plans for action… at the block level, the community level, and at the systems level that we need to make.”
The next four meetings will be on October 3 and 17 and November 7 and 21 from 6:30-8 p.m. at the Arlington Hills Lutheran Church. All are welcome.