ST. PAUL NOTES| East Side gangs, pride and politics

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If you live on St. Paul’s East Side you know about the brutal gang attack on Ray Widstrand and at least some of the aftermath in the community (below). If you don’t, you may need a little background to understand what lay beneath the August 15 community meeting attended by hundreds of neighbors (and the brouhaha over a mayoral candidate’s attempt to speak/campaign at that meeting.)

Background: Assault, murder, meeting

On August 4, at about 11:30 p.m. Ray Widstrand went for a walk near his house and encountered “a group of 30 to 40 teens brawling near the intersection of Payne and Minnehaha avenues.” (City Pages) They attacked, beat and kicked Widstrand until he lay bleeding and unconscious in the street. He’s still hospitalized, has had two brain surgeries, and, according to the Pioneer Press, “recently awoke from an induced coma.”

Widstrand’s brutal beating followed by a few weeks the shooting death of Vincent Allison, age 17, in another gang-related street fight on Payne Avenue. Another 17-year-old has been charged in Allison’s murder, and five people, ages 19 and younger, have been charged in the attack on Widstrand.

Gangs, fights, and intimidation of neighborhood residents have plagued the East Side this summer. One East Sider, Ben Greiling, summed up the frustration felt by many in a post on E-Democracy:

“Living on the East side, one seems, or at least I have, accepted a certain level of violence, unfortunately. Mostly because it is usually contained within the disputing people (gangs) and doesn’t directly affect me. This random violence on a guy out for a walk is a different thing. 

“Two big questions came to me about this incident. They may be rhetorical, but I feel they, and Ray, deserve some discussion on here : 

“1: What the hell is going on with the youth on the east side? Seriously, roaming packs of 30-50 youth tormenting people? What if anything is being done about this?

” 2. Where were the police before and during this assault?  This pack of 30-50 youth were literally 300 feet from the St Paul Police’s Eastern district headquarters. THE HEADQUARTERS!!! If this type of thing was occurring 300 ft away from my house I would probably be more aware and break it up before something bad happened. I think the police should be embarrassed that this near-fatal assault basically happened on their doorstep.”

At the August 15 meeting, according to the Pioneer Press, “the police chief outlined the main problem: several instances of flash mobs since June 1, congregating near transit and bus stops, and engaging in violence — sometimes, random violence.” The chief said he has assigned 30 officers to patrol the area and watch for this kind of flash mob scene.

Talking about race

Many people, from E-Democracy to the Star Tribune editorial page have suggested that the beating of Widstrand was racially motivated because he is white and the gang that attacked him is black. The Strib, while acknowledging that there’s no evidence to indicate a hate crime at this point, went on to call for prosecution as a hate  crime if such evidence turns up in the future: “Thugs must be held accountable when their crimes are grounded in hateful bias, whether it’s based on gender, sexual orientation, religion — or being white or black. No exceptions.”

All of the talk about racial motivation ignores the previous month’s gang shooting — in which one black teen is charged with killing another black teen. Writing in an E-Democracy forum, Keith Hardy observed: “Chief Smith said it best during today’s community meeting about the East Side assaults, ‘This isn’t about race. This is about community.'”

At the meeting and in on-line forums, East Siders listed many possible steps to take: more youth programming, stricter curfews and more curfew enforcement, enforce quality of life laws (littering, noise, loitering, trespass), demand more services and activities for kids, enforce laws against nuisance rental properties, etc.

Keith Hardy summed it up:

“The meeting featured calls to action, working together, holding the police accountable yet working with them, helping one another, etc.  There was a call for parents and families to monitor children's use of social media and to watch out for our neighbors.  I commit to sharing more positive news from the East Side and throughout St. Paul in this forum. Students being successful, new businesses being started with new jobs, everyday people doing everyday good, etc.” 

The community, the kids, and the parents

Revital Mitchell posted on E-Democracy about his concern for the kids: 

“I also find it really hard to not feel so deeply sorry for those kids who were given up on so long ago, that they have to find another ‘family’ to care for them. They find it in the form of a gang – because everyone else has given up on them. Where did WE as a society go wrong? I guess this is probably the wrong place to post about this topic.”

His words struck a chord with many, including Derrick Minor, who replied, in part:

“My personal solution to this issue is: we need to build stronger communities that are multicultural, communicative, capable of embracing change, that collectively raises the children of the community, with solid programing and a strong community focused vision that values everyone. Its hard for any gang or individual to destroy his community or hurt those in it, when he knows that the people of that community value him/them and he/she and they are a vital part of that community. Or, when he or she knows that if they are in need or pain there are outlets and resources within the community to assist and see them through.”

As many questioned the role of parents, the Pioneer Press, reporting on the community meeting, quoted the words of two parents:

“The room grew quiet when Teena Potts, who identified herself as the parent of one of the teens charged in Widstrand’s assault, took the microphone.

“‘The parents (are) at work,’ Potts said. ‘That’s where I was.’

“‘We’re all sitting here judging. Some kids do fall victim — there’s a lot of kids that are getting lured by adults (into gangs).’

“Several minutes after Potts sat down to supportive applause, Peter Widstrand — Ray Widstrand’s father — took the microphone to thank everyone present, adding, ‘I think poverty has more to do with this than anything. … It’s difficult to raise a child in this world.'”

The politics

Mayor Chris Coleman, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi and St. Paul Chief of Police Thomas Smith all showed up for the forum and spoke and listened to the community. Mayoral candidate Tim Holden also showed up, but did not get a warm welcome, as the forum moderators perceived him to be making a campaign speech. He denounced the moderators in the E-Democracy forum, writing:

“It was unfortunate that PEOPLE who do not live on the East side were so UNWELCOME!!!!!!!!! 

“The meeting invitation stated EVERYONE was welcome!!!!! 

“I live in the Hamline Midway and have had my own problems with crime, THREE Break-ins within the last year!!!! 

“The district council representative at the microphone did not want to let me speak as she stated I am not a East side resident???? 

“Please HONOR &RESPECT ALL and review YOUR INVITATION!!!! 

“I WILL change this closed minded unwillingness to listen behavior when I become Mayor!!!! 

“This ignorance is what will hold back people ever wanting to engage and affect positive change! 

“Find a leader for the district council that will work and LISTEN to everyone’s input especially when a INVITATION WELCOMES ALL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Responses came quickly from other forum members:

J. Samuel Clark

“You are no one’s mayoral candidate if you choose to take a political platform at a community event like such. If you had introduced yourself as a Tim, concerned St. Paul resident rather than Mayoral Candidate I may have been more apt to listen rather than boo you off the microphone.”

Danette Aldrich:

“Tim Holden, I was one that reacted negatively to your statement last night. Not because you were not from the East Side or because what you were saying wasn’t important.  It was because the first thing out of your mouth was a campaign statement.  That was absolutely NOT the time or the place to be running for office.  Say what you want, attend any meeting you want, but do not announce you are running for an office, then maybe you will be welcome to speak.”

Jim Buscher:

“I recall you heckling and shouting at the Mayor during the groundbreaking ceremony for the Saints Ballpark not too long ago.  I guess when you’re the one shouting at someone trying to speak that’s not disrespecful, but when it’s done to you, it is.”

(For more on the political angle, as well as a good summary of the meeting and some video, see Fred Melo’s article in the Pioneer Press.)