A politician handing out wooden nickels in the midst of a historic economic recession is odd enough, but what state Rep. Jim Abeler suggests the worthless coins be used for — plugging gunshot wounds in one of Minneapolis’ higher crime neighborhoods — is even stranger.
On Feb. 16, residents of Minneapolis’ north side headed to St. Paul to lobby legislators on issues affecting them. The second annual “day on the hill” was spearheaded by the Northside Policy Action Coalition (NPAC), a group of organizations including the PEACE Foundation, Minneapolis Urban League, Northway Community Trust, KMOJ and others, and for many of the 70 mostly African-American youth who participated, it represented their first encounter with legislators.
Part of NPAC’s platform is to look at youth violence — a problem plaguing North Minneapolis — not just through the lens of the criminal justice system, but as a public health problem as well. And in anticipation of a bill now being drafted by Sen. John Marty and Rep. Paul Thissen, both Democrats, the group of some 200 north-side residents came to the state Capitol to share their stories. PEACE Foundation President Sondra Samuels said homicide is the top killer of African-American males between the ages of 15 and 18. At the Capitol last Monday, when youth were asked if they personally knew anyone who’d been the victim of a gun crime, “almost every one of them raise their hands,” Samuels recalled. “One girl said, ‘I’m tired of seeing my friends get shot.’”
But a response by Anoka Republican Abeler struck some as shocking. When youth regrouped with NPAC leaders after talking to legislators, they reported that Abeler passed out wooden nickels, tokens made for his re-election campaign, and said something to the effect of, “If you get shot, use this to plug the bullet hole.”
When confronted about it, Abeler responded that he only said it to the men (although, according to NPAC members, girls were present as well, and one boy ended up with a coin in his pocket). Cheryl Morgan-Spencer, community relations manager for the Minneapolis Urban League, returned one of the tokens to Abeler, with “some words” about the nickel. “Overall, it was very disturbing,” she said.
Abeler has not responded to multiple requests from the Minnesota Independent to clarify his comments, but he did offer an apology in an e-mail to a neighborhood resident. “I am certainly sorry for what I said, thoughtlessly and, sad to say, ignorantly,” he wrote. “I don’t think I could have chosen a poorer analogy even. But I am even sorrier and sadder for what those young people have experienced, and that it took this for me to come to even begin to understand it.” (Read the full letter at the end of this post.)
“People say things about the north side privately — rough and critical things,” said John Hoff, who first wrote about the incident on his blog, Johnny Northside. “And one of those things maybe just came out of his mouth in the presence of the people from the north side.”
Hoff said he’s concerned that Abeler’s behavior perpetuates myths about his neighborhood — which is home to the city’s largest African-American population and has long wrestled with crime and home foreclosures (disclosure: It’s also where this reporter live) — without acknowledging the advances community leaders and activists have made in recent years.
“Some people are under the impression that if they even drive up Lyndale [Avenue] North they’ll be caught up in something,” he said. “They seriously think if they drive by the 4th Street Saloon they’ll be caught up in gunfire. … We have our problems but we don’t have them every five minutes. We deal with them. To me, what he said is the cartoon version of the north side.”
But to north-side resident Jeff Skrenes, “the bigger issue is it furthers a stereotype about the world and the place of young people in it.” For youth who are visiting the Capitol for the first time, novelty coins and jokes can leave quite an impression.
“It devalues civic engagement,” said Skrenes. “Even when you don’t agree, you should at least respect the fact that regular citizens have taken time out of their day to talk about issues important to them.”
Further, he doesn’t buy Abeler’s response: “He said, ‘I only said it for the boys.’ As if somehow, magically, the girls didn’t hear it. Even if that’s true, how does that make that statement OK?”
But Samuels from the PEACE Foundation sees Abeler’s words as a “gift in disguise.”
“It’s unfortunate, don’t get me wrong,” she said. “But there are a number of unfortunate things that in hindsight change the life of an organization.” The experience can help young people understand that “you do have a voice, you can set an agenda” and that they can move from “defending against to standing for.”
There’s another up-side. “We are not naïve enough to think we can get anything passed” — jobs programs for youth, “sensible gun laws,” re-entry training for ex-offenders, to name a few points on NPAC’s platform — “with just our north-side legislators,” Samuels said. “We need to have a coalition.”
And she sees Abeler as a potential partner. “Our mantra is: What’s good for the north side is good for the state,” she said. To that end, NPAC is hoping to enlist advocates from outside the neighborhood — including Abeler — and organizations elsewhere in Minnesota, as they’ve done lobbying day partners such St. Paul’s Citizens for a Safer Minnesota and a Duluth woman who testified last Monday about losing a child to gun violence. She says Abeler has agreed to meet with north Minneapolis residents — this time, on their turf.
“Our whole goal for going to the Capitol was to touch hearts and change minds,” Samuels said. “This was a nasty incident, but I don’t hold the incident against him. I’ve got to believe that a significant portion of our representatives have some Jim Abeler sentiment in them. That they just don’t get it.
“We have to assume that caring, decent people who are making the laws don’t know” first-hand what problems northsiders face, Samuels said. “Just to be fair, if you’re not around it, if it’s not your world, how would you know?”
Abeler’s letter to a north Minneapolis resident:
Thank you for writing.
I have spent the last 36 hours or so getting educated in a few ways I didn’t expect. For starters and maybe most important to you, I am truly sorry for how the very nice visit from the northsiders and npac’ers finished up. Certainly in hindsight, I would do it different. Way different.
If you are interested in the context, the comment arose out of a discussion about how hard it was to bridge the gap on some matters, in this case gun laws. I thought the group should know just how hard of a project that they had tackled. Virtually impossible, I told them. I compared it to the controversies of the abortion debate. There was a man in the group who mentioned how hard it was to be in the middle, and I compared him to a soldier from the Civil War who wore a grey shirt and blue pants, who would have gotten shot by both sides. It may be helpful to you to know that the following comment was directed to that man, not one of the students. As they left, I suggested to him, the man, that the otherwise worthless wooden nickels could be used to patch up the bullet wounds he got in that fight.
I had little idea of what impact it would have had on the students there, and I can imagine how they might have taken it to be about something else. Bad choice of analogy, bad choice of words.
A few minutes later, a woman appeared in my doorway with two men, offering a very critical appraisal of the situation. I was a bit in shock.
The two male students who were there were out in my hallway a little later. I immediately apologized to them, and they went on their way with little comment.
Perhaps the students will be consoled to know that the several conversations I have had since then have made me aware of a whole different world than I am accustomed to, living in the northern suburbs. Guns in my town are used for hunting, are mostly locked in gun lockers, and rarely do we have any kind of trouble around that.
As I spoke with some colleagues and Heather again, they helped improve my understanding of how even the mention of guns or shooting brings on a whole complex of emotions, fear, and pain.
I am certainly sorry for what I said, thoughtlessly and, sad to say, ignorantly. I don’t think I could have chosen a poorer analogy even. But I am even sorrier and sadder for what those young people have experienced, and that it took this for me to come to even begin to understand it.
Perhaps you can convey to these young people that the world is full of people who mean well, but who mess it up through ignorance and lack of understanding. Please remind them that those people, like me, can learn and grow and that it is worth the effort.
Eleven years I have served, and I don’t recall any visits from a northside student group. Maybe it is good, after all, that they made the foray into my world.
I for one, am going to be a better servant of them, as well as my own district, for this experience.
I hope the practice they get in forgiving me will help them in the future as they go about forgiving others.
Rep. Jim Abeler