As a Muslim male of Somali descent living in post-September 11 United States, Mustafa Jumale knew that he risked harassment from law enforcement officers and racism from some Americans. Although he had never experienced it himself, harassment by police was a common complaint among his peers. But Jumale thought that if he did everything right – completed high school and went to college – people would treat him differently.
After three years at the University of Minnesota, where he studies Sociology of Law, Criminology and Deviance, Jumale learned that the university is far from the save haven he was looking for.
“‘Minnesota nice’ at this university is covert racism,” Jumale said, as he sipped a cup of coffee at as shop just outside the university’s West Bank campus.
Jumale’s sentiments stem from observation and interview he conducted of least a dozen students for a research paper he wrote about the experiences of “Somali College Students at a Predominantly White Institution.” In his research, Jumale heard from a Somali honor student who majored in English Literature but was told by a professor on the first day of class that the course was “too advanced.” Then there was another student who told him he received a D in a term paper because, according to the professor, “the words in your essay are not words you would be able to understand.” But no grievance was more common than alleged harassment by the university’s police.
Jumale heard complaints about police officers randomly searching Somali students’ supposedly looking for stolen property. Others complained about being asked to provide IDs while white students walked by uninterrupted.
Despite the pain these incidents caused, Somali students treated them like nuisances and went about their studies. It wasn’t until last October, when a police officer detained three Somali students for robbery, that Jumale and his fellow students realized that these were no trivial issues.
The sandwich robbers
At around 10 p.m on Oct. 19, 2007, Shafii Osman, a 19-year-old sophomore majoring in Biology, said he and two of his friends were walking from the university gym to a nearby MacDonald when an undercover police officer stopped them and asked for their IDs. Osman began to protest when the officer refused to tell them why he wanted their IDs, but one of the friends, who had gone through a similar incident, asked him to comply, lest he get arrested. After looking at their IDs and searching their pockets, the officer allegedly said they “fit the description” of “East African males” who had just robbed Subway, the sandwich shop. Osman said the officer ordered them into the car and took them to Subway.
“That was when we learned what the robbery was,” Osman says. “A group of guys had taken off with sandwiches without paying.”
Despite the Subway employees’ failure to identify the men who had committed the crime a few minutes earlier, the officer allegedly asked Osman and his friends to pay for the sandwiches or risk criminal charges. They chose the latter. The police officer booked them and let them go. With the help of an attorney, the three students were able to get their cases dismissed.
But for one of Osman’s co-defendants, who did not want to be identified, the whole ordeal was so damaging that said he is still struggling to understand it.
“It caused me a so much stress,” the friend said. “I was approaching exams with the possibility of being sent to jail.”
The student also reported that because he had to go to court four times, he dropped out of an internship.
Jumale and other students say incidents like Osman’s are a result of a University Police Department that stereotypes Somali students. He cites three “public safety alerts” sent by e-mail to the entire university by Chief Greg Hestness. In the e-mails sent between Oct. 10, 2007 and March 10, 2008, Hestness describes each of the suspects as either “East African or Somali,” or just “Somali.”
“When we applied for admission to this university, we were not required to check a ‘Somali’ box,” said Fathi Gelle, who was recently elected president of the Somali Students Association at the university. “How do you know who is Somali? I can bring you a three different people from Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia and you won’t be able to tell the difference.”
Hestness, the police chief, said he had not sent any additional e-mails. But he also defended his use of “East African” and “Somali.”
“For identification purposes, if a person is of African descent and speaks with a foreign accent we have to share that information,” Hestness says.
But in one of the e-mails, Hestness listed the three suspects as “Somali” even though he had written that it was “not believed to be a random attack” because the victim “invited three acquaintances into his room.” He explained that the victim did not know their names but had invited them to the dorms to sell drugs.
On other allegations of profiling, Hestness said that despite numerous appeals to Somali students, no complaints had been filed against any of his officers.
“I don’t know how many ways to ask them to come to us,” Hestness said.
But there was one time in early May when Somali students went to Hestness’s office to complain against a police officer who allegedly assaulted a young Somali woman.
“We have always thought that women were immune to police harassment but this attack proved us wrong,” Jumale says. “The same Somali students we had been trying in vain to organize against ethnic profiling turned up to protest.”
The young woman is Nadar Ali, a 23-year-old who recently graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry. Ali said that on the evening of May 7 she was scheduled to meet with friends at the library. When she couldn’t find them, she went into the lobby to make a phone call. A security guard went to her and ordered her to “hang up the phone or leave the building.” Ali said she told the guard that there was no rule that said she couldn’t use the phone in the lobby. The security guard called police.
“I expected the officer to get both sides of the story and resolve the conflict,” Ali said. “But the officer grabbed me by the shoulder and asked me to leave the library.”
Ali said when she told the officer that it was against her religion for him to touch her, he replied, “I don’t care about your religion.”
John Dewey, who is listed as one of six witnesses in a complaint Ali filed later with the police, said that although he did not witness the initial confrontation, he saw the officer pull Ali by the hand as he escorted her down the stairs and out the door.
“She kept on saying repeatedly, ‘Don’t use force on me,’” Dewey said.
A group of about 40 students, most of them Somali marched to the police department that evening and demanded to see the chief.
“An officer told us that it was after five (o’clock) and ‘the chief has a life,’” Ali said.
Graduation barbeque disbanded
Hestness could not comment on the case because Ali’s complaint was still under investigation. He said that he would make a determination after listening to witnesses and examining video footage from the library.
Ali, who wears a hijab, said that she and other young people get harassed because they are Muslim. What concerns Somali young people and the entire Somali community is that if you have a name like “Ali,” or “Mohamed,” you are more likely than any other African to go to jail. A look at the Hennepin County Jail roster during one week in June showed at least 70 names that many said were most likely Somali. The people on the list, most of them born in the 1980s, were charged with offenses ranging from misdemeanors like trespassing and loitering “with intent to buy,” to felonies like robbery and murder.
“There is a pattern here,” said a man we’ll call Mohamed because revealing his identity could cost him his job. “Of all the people from Africa – Kenyans, Ethiopians, Liberians – why are Somalis the only ones being thrown in jail?”
Mohamed said events like the May 1 missile attack that killed Aden Hashi Ayro, an alleged al Qaeda leader in Somalia, increase the police’s profiling of Somalis. He cited a case where students from the University of Minnesota complained to him about Minneapolis police officers forcing them to vacate Minnehaha Park, where they had gathered for a graduation barbeque.
Coincidentally, Jumale, Ali, Gelle and Osman were all at the barbeque. According to their separate accounts, a group of Somali teenage girls got into a fight with white teenage girls away from the exact site of the barbeque. While breaking the fight, a white man supposedly slapped a Somali girl. The girls reported the incident to Somali men, who retaliated by beating the white man. The white man called 911 and when officers arrived, they ordered all Somalis, nearly 100 of them, to leave the park. Jumale said that the white people were not asked to leave.
Ali, who only a few weeks earlier had had a bad experience with the policeman at the university, said she was so angry that she left immediately to avoid losing her temper and getting arrested. When Jumale and others said when they asked whether it was possible that all the Somalis committed the crime, one officer told them, “You all look the same. We can’t tell who did it so you have to leave.”
Like Hestness the university police chief, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said there were no complaints from Somali youth about police harassment.
“We can’t solve a problem unless it is reported to us,” Rybak said.
Rybak said he was aware of the challenges facing the Somalis and was working with their leaders to find solutions.
“Public safety is an issue we keep an eye on because there are so many Somalis who are victims of crime and too many Somalis who are also involved in crime,” he said. “It is also important to recognize that we’ve had youth violence issues with all parts of our community.”
Rybak said one of the areas he was focused on was trying to have more Somali police officers in the police force.
“We hired our first couple now and we want more Somalis to apply,” Rybak said. “As you described that [Minnehaha Park] incident – I don’t know what the facts are – but I do know that it’s much more helpful to have either a Somali officer on site.”