The Bridge Editor’s note: This is the first of two articles investigating the tragic death of Abdullahi Abdi and the larger issues surrounding it. In June, The Bridge will take a closer look at the lives and culture of young people in the neighborhood — by talking to the youths themselves.
Somali elders, youth and other members of the Cedar-Riverside community braved the unseasonable weather and snow on Saturday, April 26, to gather beneath the towers of Riverside Plaza, half a block from the scene of the April 11 killing of Abdullahi Ayil Abdi.
Youth from the neighborhood held signs with pleas for a safer neighborhood — “Books, not guns;” “Peace, not shattered lives” — while elders and youth leaders called, through a loudspeaker, for a unified community response to the tragic death.
For another view, see Somali teen’s murder unearths generational conflict in community by Edwin Okong’o, Mshale
In the midst of the mid-afternoon rally, the mother of the victim collapsed with grief and was finally helped away by family members. Soon after, the rally became a procession, as the assembled marched through the neighborhood en route to the Brian Coyle Center, where the rally continued.
“We share this community,” Abdullahi Farah, youth coordinator at Abubakar Sadiq Mosque in Cedar-Riverside, told the crowd. “What affects our children affects us.”
It was one of at least three rallies on that day alone, as the Cedar-Riverside and greater Somali communities mourned Abdi’s death.
The 18-year-old was shot while sitting in a car in the alley behind Freewheel Bike, near the intersection of Cedar Avenue and Sixth Street South. It was 9:15 p.m. on a Friday night in the busy heart of Cedar-Riverside. Despite rumors that some in the community — especially youth — know who killed Abdi, no one had been charged with the crime as this paper went to press — more than two weeks after his murder. (A 23-year-old Minneapolis man was arrested and questioned on April 24, but he was not charged, said Lt. Amelia Huffman, head of the MPD’s Homicide unit.)
The tragic incident has galvanized the Somali and Cedar-Riverside communities around the problem of gangs, crime and youth violence that the slain Abdi reportedly was not a part of but fell prey to. It’s an issue that the community, police and city have been addressing in recent years in a number of ways, but that some say needs more work and action.
‘A good boy’
By all accounts, Abdullahi Abdi was a good kid. Abdi — who many knew as “Shorty” according to some who were close to him — was a high school senior who attended Volunteers of America High School at 924 19th Ave. S., just across I-94 from scene of his murder. The youngest of 14 children, he had moved to Fridley from Cedar-Riverside, where family members had run West Bank Grocery after arriving from Somalia in 1997. His sisters still live in Riverside Plaza.
Abdi kept Minneapolis ties, as well. His brother, Mohamed Hirsi, said he had transferred to Volunteers of America just this year in order to earn credits in time to graduate high school this spring as an 18-year-old. In addition to school, Abdi worked at a Burger King in Fridley. Following his school transfer, his older brothers had offered him another part-time job at the market they run on Bloomington Avenue and 26th Street. Abdi accepted and soon excelled, said Hirsi. “He was excellent, good, smart,” he said of his younger brother. “He got everything. Everybody told me, ‘This young boy is sweet and smart.’”
Abdi was well-known at the Brian Coyle Center. Former Coyle Center Director Rhonda Eastlund called him “one of her favorite kids,” and Youth Coordinator Abdirahman Mukhtar agreed. “He was a great kid, he didn’t like violence at all,” said Mukhtar. Abdi took part in the center’s teen program, playing sports in the gymnasium. “He was here every day,” Mukhtar said.
Indeed, Abdi had been at Coyle Center just before he was killed. Teens had relinquished the gym around 8:30 for a meeting. Abdi planned to attend a party later — a “family party” for his sister’s birthday, said Mukhtar, adding: ‘Unfortunately, he didn’t make it.”
According to media reports, a friend stopped to pick Abdi up in a car in the alley near Sixth and Cedar, where Abdi was shot and killed, just blocks from Coyle Center. Though the killing has the mark of a gang hit, those who knew Abdi insist he was not part of a gang. Rumors and second-hand guesses at a motive include mistaken identity, that the incident stems from a confrontation in the preceding weeks, or that he was “paying for someone else’s crime.” At this point, it’s unclear why a “good boy” was murdered.
“‘Why?’ is the question all my family is asking,” said Hirsi, standing behind the counter of his South Minneapolis store. “We know he wasn’t a member of a gang, a bad boy. We know his days are ended; we ask ourselves, why? Why did somebody do this? What did he do to them? Every minute, I’m asking myself, ‘What’s going on?’”
‘Only our community can inform’
On the Wednesday after Abdi’s murder, Hirsi and his family asked these questions of the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) at an evening meeting at Augsburg College. Intend as a briefing between the family, police and representatives from Coyle and the Somali community, the meeting drew an impromptu crowd of at least 50 Somalis, young and old, who asked the same questions and demanded action from the police and city.
“The community wants to talk about the death of this young man, and what is going on with the gangs in Cedar-Riverside,” said Omar Jamal, executive director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center, who helped organize the meeting. Jamal acknowledged that larger issues rose out of Abdi’s murder. “They don’t want to go again to the cemetery and bury another young man,” he said as the meeting thinned out.
The relationship between police and the Somali community was a large topic of conversation, Jamal said. “[It] has been called into question,” he said, asking rhetorically if the police “were part of the solution, or part of the problem?”
“Obviously there are some upset and nervous folks here,” said First Precinct Commander Janee Harteau after the meeting. Then, and later in a phone interview, she stressed the importance of the MPD talking with Somalis. “We need the Somali community to tell us the best way to communicate with them,” she said.
Harteau said that police “continue to change our methodologies based on what we hear from the Somali community.” The answer she gets most often, at monthly meetings with elders, is that word of mouth works best. “I don’t see that working until an event occurs,” she said, “so I’m trying to be proactive in getting people to the table before a tragedy occurs.”
Hirsi also stressed the importance of community involvement in catching his brother’s killer. “Only our community can inform,” he said. “They can tell us if they see [the killers]. If they have family, they know who they are. The good thing, to catch the killers, is to work together.”
It is especially important to bridge the gap between the police and Somali youth, said Mukhtar, not only in terms of the Abdi investigation, but in the larger picture. He said that youth at the Augsburg meeting had questions for the police but were largely eclipsed by elders. Mukhtar said said the Coyle Center Youth Council, which he oversees, plans to meet with police in May.
The need, he said, is “to talk about issues and how they can communicate. What are the misconceptions and stereotypes? Youth have misconceptions about police and will say, ‘I don’t want to talk to them.’ Even if they have an important piece of evidence, they don’t want to come forward, because they don’t believe the police are with them, or they don’t trust them,” Mukhtar said. “That’s what we need to bridge.”
Need into action
Some effort has been made to bridge the gap. Mukhtar noted that Lt. Kathy Wade, the First Precinct sector lieutenant for the Cedar Riverside area, contacted him a few months ago — before the killing — about a meeting with area youth for that reason.
Steps have been taken by the police, the city and the local community to address the larger issues of public safety and gangs, crime and violence within the Somali community, among both youth and adults.
Last year, the city published a Somali Youth Report that investigated and outlined youth behaviors, and recommended strategies to prevent negative activity, including gang activity. The report focused on sociological and psychological factors in the lives of immigrants and new Americans and recommended addressing root causes rather than symptoms. The report included one key aspect: conversations with kids themselves about what was going on in their lives and community.
Recommendations included long-term strategies like involvement and communication between youth and their parents, teachers, elders and other community members. More immediate recommendations included the need for organized activities for youth and a drop-in center to provide services. The city has recently released a larger youth violence report with similar recommendations, Mukhtar noted.
“The report was one step, a beginning,” said Mukhtar, but he said he hasn’t really seen any action from it. “I don’t like [the city] writing that report and doing nothing. What we need is some particular action,” he said, citing the need for a structured teen program, a place to hold it and people to staff it.
Ward Two Council Member Cam Gordon seconded the need for more resources and activities for kids. “We also need more police,” he said.
An increase in gang activity
More recently, the MPD’s Intelligence Sharing and Analysis Center presented some alarming statistics that show a dramatic increase citywide in gang activity and crimes committed by Somalis — not specifically youth, it should be noted. It stated a clear purpose: to bring together city leaders, police and the community to find solutions to the increase in gang activity.
The report showed “crimes perpetrated by Somali suspects” rising in categories of assaults, felony assaults, robberies and threats from 2006 to 2007 — particularly in the most numerous offenses, robbery and assaults. Both numbered under 20 in 2006, but assaults jumped to nearly 80 in 2007, according to an MPD graph, and assaults skyrocketed to around 170.
The report also named four major known Somali gangs — and more than a dozen “undocumented” gangs and included a map showing where crimes were committed from February 2007–February 2008, with which gang the perpetrator was affiliated, and the perpetrator’s home address. The map shows a concentration of incidents in South Minneapolis, including Cedar-Riverside, and overlapping home addresses. It would appear to dispute, at least in small part, claims that crimes and gang activity in Cedar-Riverside are perpetrated by outsiders. (For the sake of perspective, the Somali Youth Report, from 2006–2007, stated that there were 52 known Somali gang members in Minneapolis — accounting for just 1 percent of the total number in Minneapolis.)
While youth may dress like and even aspire to be “gangsters,” most of the actual gang members are older — 20–25 years of age — and many come from outside the neighborhood to target Somali businesses and break into cars, said Mukthar.
Outside observers — and the media, he said — “don’t see what’s going on in real life. They just assume, when they see a group of ten kids hanging around, that they’re a gang, that they’re bad.”
Perceptions and stereotypes aside, some in the community, especially business owners, have complained of very real crime that the Friday-night execution-style killing violently underscores. Business owners in the immediate area of the killing planned to meet with police to address the safety of their corner of Cedar and 6th Street on May 1. Whether prophetic or ironic, the West Bank Community Coalition (WBCC) Safety Committee had identified the area as one that needed additional lighting and more police patrols. The WBCC reinforced the need at their April meeting, urging the city to provide those resources.
In terms of more police, at least, the city may have already done that. Harteau said her First Precinct will get 12 new officers from the recent class of 32 new cops — the second increase in a year. The first round, last year, included Mohamed Abdullahi, a Somali officer who patrols the First Precinct. In addition to regular 24-hour patrols, four beat cops patrol the area.
In truth, the Cedar-Riverside community and the police come together often, meeting at regular monthly WBCC safety meetings and quarterly meetings a fact that Mukhtar appreciated, especially in terms of reaching kids.
“It’s a matter of how you communicate,” he said. “It’s different than when you talk to adults.”
Two weeks after the murder of his brother, Hirsi said he, too, has faith in the police, even though the killers had not been found. “Up until now, I haven’t seen a problem with the cops,” he said. He acknowledged that his family would have liked more answers to their questions. “They didn’t give us what we want, but I understand that,” he said. “They say they’re going after [the killers] and will bring [them] to justice. It might take time, but they will be arrested.”
The Quarterly West Bank Safety Meeting will take place Wednesday, May 14, 7 p.m., in the Minneapolis Room of the Christensen Center at Augsburg College.