Between late afternoon and evening, I’m downtown Minneapolis, across the street from Block E, near where the fella from Minnetonka, Alan Reitter, was shot and killed on March 31. Over there are folk hanging out in front of and next to the entrance. A Strib columnist wrote “unruly youth,” which puts it nicely. What comes to my mind is that flick Menace II Society. In the flesh. How’d the off-camera narration go, describing the character O-Dog? America’s nightmare. Young, black and doesn’t give a fuck.
Why are they here? What’re they looking for? Where do they want to be in five years? What are their hopes? After all, nobody starts out at the wide-eyed age of 5 or so and says, “I want to grow up and fulfill white folk’s stereotypes so completely that even my own people are scared to pass me on the sidewalk.” I cross Hennepin Avenue and, long story short, it doesn’t work out. Nobody wants to talk. One of them accuses me of being a chicken hawk and offers to inflict bodily harm. Leaving, I count myself lucky not to have had my ass kicked.
Back home, I think about what should’ve occurred to me in the first place and call my weed connect (the guy who comes over to tend my unwanted shrubbery). I recount the happenings, telling him I need to talk to somebody who’s part of that downtown street action. He advises, “You and me go back. But you gon’ have to put a little some’n in homeboy’s pocket.” Time costs. I understand that. And say so. It’s a go, as he says—“I’ll talk to him. He’ll do it,” and hangs up.
Maybe 20 minutes later, I’m standing in Loring Park (homeboy insists on being away from his stomping grounds), talking to a young man who, cap turned sideways and drawers hanging halfway off his behind, still has something innate going for him. No, not the pistol in his back pocket. A gentle intelligence. God knows what put him in the life, but, within just a few minutes of talking, it’s clear this is someone who was not cut out to lead a dead-end life. Menace II Society to the side. He [we’ll call him Sweet] very much gives a fuck. For openers, he’s a family man with a girlfriend and two kids, holding down a regular job in addition to selling drugs on that stretch between Seventh Street and the light rail train station.
I lead with the information that the article all relates to the Block E shooting and an angry fire lights his eyes. “Shit, if that fool had shot the black man he was aimin’ at, ‘stead of somebody white, wouldn’t nobody be talkin’ bout none of this. It damn sure wouldn’t be in the news. Much stabbin’s and rape as go on down there and they gon’ git upset just now? Man, come on!”
I shift things to him. Turns out that, at 23, transplanted from Chicago, without a college education (he backed out of high school in accord with a social promotion policy), he worked for minimum wage at a print shop, slinging downtown on the side. One guess which pays more and goes further in supporting his “Gwen” and the kids (they’re both his and he’s been with her for five years). I run through my questions. He and she live together. She works part time at a bakery and is on the waiting list for a full shift, soon as one opens up.
Does he use crack? That fire lights again, his eyes squarely settling on mine. “Fuck, no, I don’t smoke that shit.”
I avert my eyes. He adds, “I like to sit home, have me a blunt [fat weed-joint] and some Hennessey. After the kids been put to bed. Smoke ain’t good fo’ they lungs. But, no, man, I don’t fuck widdit. I seen what it does. An’ it ain’t about to do it to me.”
“Why sell it?”
“’Cause there’s people gon’ buy it.”
I press my luck. “People buy cars, too.”
He shoots a boyish grin at his feet, then looks back up. “You got a car sellin’ job in your back pocket I could apply for?”
Then, the grin is gone. Point taken. Has he thought about going to college?
Sweet nods. “Mm-hn. Still thinkin’ ‘bout it. I got enough sense to know Um not gon’ get in the University of Minnesota, but, you know, some kind of technical school. ‘Cept, I got to be slick as them. I know brothas, shit, sistahs, too. Even more. Who went to one a them outfits and got took.”
The industry is rife with bait-and-switch fly-by-nighters who promise state-of-the-art training and ready employment, but have barely viable equipment in such short supply that students share and, at best, a stock list of vague job leads. “So, you know, I ain’t stupid. Better Business thing, that organization, somebody told me they can help let you know who to stay away from. Or I have to go up in there an’ hurt somebody, after I done spent my good money.”
Sweet flatly refuses to go into his family background. As to what his dad and mom do for a living, whether he’s got siblings and what they do, it’s a closed book. He does relent a little, “My brothers, fuck them niggers. My sister, though.” He says her name, shoots me a look and I assure him it will not get in the story. “[She] older. ‘Bout 30. Big-time Christian. Work a day job, receptionis’ at the bank. Night job, part-time, as a janitor. Buss her ass. Won’t sling. Don’t ho. And welfare can kiss her ass. I got to give it up ‘er. She pay her bills and keep a nice house.”
Should crack be legalized? “Why, just so white boys can do it behind a counter? That happen, I guess I’ll sell weed. Til they make that legal, too.”
He could sell crack anywhere. Why downtown? “Thass where the most money and the fastest money is.”
OK, then, why not get a second job? “Shit, I’m lucky to have a job at all. You have to do what you can do. I need things. This is a way to get them. Sure, you run the risk of goin’ to jail, but you try not to think about that.”
The thought, though, is unavoidable. Which is why he has plans, well before the next five years, to be out of the game. To have enough bank to move on. “No doubt. You do what you have to do as long as you have to do it. When you don’t need to do it no more, don’t make sense. Who wanna go to jail if y’ don’t have to? Some of these knuckleheads out here, yeah, but they crazy, anyway. I guess they look at it like when you got nothing to lose, well, shit, you got nothing to lose.”
It is not an exact science—though consequences for mistakes are dependable as a patented formula. Anything that goes wrong at any point in the process, whoever had the drugs last either has money to show for it or can cancel Christmas.
It goes like this: Sweet will spend $600 with his supplier for a half-ounce of coke, take it home and cook it up (boil it in water, then let it cool and crystallize so he can put $20 dollar rocks in plastic wrap—he doesn’t deal dimes, $10 rocks, because they’re not worth the trouble). Then, a little after sundown, when it’s not hard to be inconspicuous or make a quick getaway, he’ll take 40 rocks downtown. He could make more, downsizing bags or upping the baking soda cut (nobody sells pure dope), but that’s not how you get and keep regular customers.
If it’s a good night—no rain, few cops—he offloads his whole inventory well before midnight and goes home with $800 in his wallet. Weeks when he does it literally each day, he can, in theory, clear $1,400. Like I said, it’s not exact. Sometimes regulars are home, trying to get the monkey off their back and their lives together. Sometimes the competition, especially from organized gangs, is too stiff. He guesses that, on average, he pulls down around $500 a week. And that he picks up any slack on the first of the month.
“Man, Mother’s Day [when AFDC payments are issued], I make money like I had a printin’ press. Fast as I re-up [get more from the supplier], thass how much more money I make. Three large [thousand] easy. In a night.” Sizes above $20 rocks—halves ($50), teens ($100) and 8-balls ($150)—as with any product, all move in direct relation to consumer demand.
Sweet’s most dangerous experience came behind a mishap that was understandable, but there’s no room for it in the trade. He once had to toss it when the cops rolled up. By the time he went back for it, someone had beat him there. He went to his supplier, explained, and found himself staring down the business end of a gun. Though he was let off, allowed to work the loss off, he has never gone back to that supplier.
“Thanks for your time.”
“You welcome. Where my cheese at?” I pay him.
Technically, Alan Reiter’s death and the crowd of dangerous kids at Block E have nothing to do with one another. Or, for that matter, with the dreaded specter of gang-banging. Yes, just before the shooting, a melee between gangs broke out at a Crown Theater screening of ATL (no, it’s about gangs, but it stars a bunch of rappers). But, according to murder charges, the 21-year-old shooter, Derick Dasean Holliday, who was at the flick, had got in his own beef with someone and there’s no telling whether he ever hung outside on the sidewalk. The connection is anecdotal (and nonetheless real). No one would be the least bit surprised if it had been one of those knuckleheads, because their very lifestyle incorporates violence—from brawling to knife wielding to gunplay. That’s what life and death on the street is about.
As to whether the killing was as an aberration or an isolated act in an otherwise safe and sound Block E environ, Minneapolis City Councilmember Don Samuels states, “It’s an aberration in the sense that it is a new low. It’s fairly unprecedented. But, it’s not an aberration in terms of the young man who did it. Due to life trajectory and his rite of passage to be anywhere he wants in the city. Unless we address the issues of young men like him, the aberration will only be where he commits his crime, not that he did.”
The $64,000 jackpot question: What’s the solution? “There’s no one solution. There’s no silver bullet. There is, though, in terms of a change in our valuing of life. Not just the life of the victim, the lives of young people who live under very unhealthy conditions in our community.”
Please note that Samuels doesn’t relegate the situation to one segment of the population, but states that everyone in Minneapolis is in this mess together. De facto segregation only works so far. You can save the best in life for the elite if you want to, yet have it come back to bite you with sharp teeth.
Samuels continues: “Some of that is related to what happens at home. But, certainly, it extends into our schools and into how rich or impoverished the environments are [that] people grow up in. These conditions did not begin with the shooting and didn’t begin with this young man. These are conditions the community has accommodated and developed a high tolerance for, these imbalances in the quality of life for young people. When you find the failure rates in schools, the lack of recreational activities, the absence of jobs, the unwillingness to intervene in a proactive way, there seems to be an understanding that America has always had [such] portions of its community.”
Here’s the kicker: America’s image, Samuels attests, is enhanced by selective failure. “If African Americans and Indians fail, it affirms our founding fathers who kept them captive. There is a comfort that is found in the national image, when these things prove that the nation was always right. When these young people do not have adequate resources, it is not seen as something we should fix. It’s seen [from the perspective of] ‘See, this problem cannot be fixed.’ It’s a maintenance thing.” Basically, you stand on someone’s neck and blame them for not getting to their feet.
I spoke with Minneapolis Police Department Lt. Medaria Arradondo, commander of STOP (Strategic Tactical Operations Patrol). As a cop and a black, family man with a wife and teenage youngsters, the Block E environment hits home for Arradondo.
“On a couple of fronts. [Alan Reitter’s murder] was tragic,” he says. “I often look at not only the end result, but what has gotten us to this point. Obviously, condolences go out to [the family of] the victim who was slain. But, we’re not going to resolve things with just the arrest of [Holliday]. With the pattern we’ve seen, that may not be the last incident of that type.”
He cites that in the last couple of months there’s been a spate of senseless homicides in, for instance, North Minneapolis. “There was a week where we had three people under the age of 15 shot. I came out to the scene of a 3-year-old boy who was shot in the head. In broad daylight at Broadway and Lyndale. Certain incidents get a lot of publicity [and] the attention of broader Minneapolis. [But] the violence has not been isolated in this city. We have had violent incidents happening with frequency over a number of years.”
Speaking specifically as a police officer, he underscores that he’s not concerned only with crime victims of color. “We want to keep all of our communities’ members safe. We don’t want anyone in our communities who resorts to violence. When any of our community members are slain, it affects us all.” Arradondo says, “That being said, there have been many factors that a lot of people have been avoiding. Like the elephant in the room. Over the last several decades, police have been conditioned to use the terms crime and violence. We have been told not to [refer to] the term poverty. And its repercussions against our communities. That goes into a political realm that police have been told to stay away from. It seems odd that [cops] can’t discuss those things, [since] we are more apt to see the direct effects of poverty than the politicians who make policy on those issues.”
As we hold our breath, waiting for politicians to have an attack of integrity and common sense, the in-the-meantime method to address Block E is, of course, more cops on hand. Inspector Rob Allen, commanding downtown Minneapolis’ 1st Precinct, spoke to this. “There are two things going on. One is criminal activity, and we’ve done pretty well addressing robberies and aggravated assaults. The second thing is rude behavior and groups of youth intimidating people, minor fights and that kind of behavior.” That they’re not doing so well with. “The challenge is addressing [the minor] crimes. When you’re trying to reduce robbery, you go after narcotics. This isn’t narcotics. This is disorderly conduct.”
Still the question looms. Where is CODEFOR when we need it? Saturating Hennepin Avenue with squad cars and blue uniforms over an extended time can’t help but do what it did for South Minneapolis, where, on Franklin Avenue from 11th to Third Avenue, a once-thriving, open-air crack and prostitution market now is no more. Such an effort, indeed, is about to be put into effect, Allen says. “That technique absolutely will be effective [in downtown].”
On the bright side, there is a place called Alternatives, primarily serving North Minneapolis—no one between 9 and 19 is turned away from the drop-in center. It’s founded and directed by one Winfred Payne who oversees an informal but disciplined program.
Availing themselves of a haven from street life, youngsters have the chance, through the invaluable resource of mentoring, to avoid or abandon negative behavior and get, among other things, technology education and job readiness training. Guys are relieved of pressure to be the baddest nigger they can, and girls get away from being moved on to hang out and ho.
Aeaton, 14, has attended Alternatives going on two years. He got plugged in there because his dad, a friend of Payne’s, realized when a lawless minority plagues the majority, it, indeed, takes a village, and even the most responsible parent can use a helping hand in safely raising a child. Aeaton notes that, in addition to the basic necessity of being out of harm’s way, “I can have fun. And I have access to a computer. Like, if I need to do my homework, I can get resources off of the Internet.”
He’s seen the center benefit the less fortunate, those who didn’t get out of harm’s way in time. “We have a lot of people come in and some of them, they look like they’re in the streets a lot or they’re in gangs or some’n. They came in here and [it helps] ’cause, they get hurt badly being out there.”
Looking toward the future, he says, “I’d like to become a doctor.” Stranger things have been known to happen with nothing more than intervention in young, at-risk lives. As Aeaton notes, “I can trust all the adults here that watch us.”
Don’t confuse this outreach with naïve, social-worker do-gooding. Payne has seen own share of hard knocks and, accordingly, won’t go for any okey-doke. If you’re there to get your life on track, you’re welcome. If you’re not, you’re not. “It’s one of those best- kept secrets. You get some that make a lot of noise out here. We do. As best we can.”
Which means they can use some of that General Mills and other big-time funding. “We’re always begging,” he attests. “Looking for ways to bring something in here.” Importantly, one need not be a saint. If you’ve run afoul of the law and have been through the judicial system, that’s not a problem (in fact, Alternatives works with Hennepin County) and there’s no reason you need to end up on Block E. Without a legitimate purpose, anyway.