Under Siege, a St. Paul Neighborhood Needs Answers

Rubén Rosario, Twin Cities, August 15, 2013

The firecracker-like gunshots at night have been more constant since the warm weather arrived in late May.

“You can see the flashes here and there,” said Constance, not her real name because, as her mother put it to me, she “does not want to end up dead or the house burned down” if I identify her by name.

Fearing one day an errant bullet might strike her home, Constance’s kids no longer watch the TV or play video games in the main-level living room. They are upstairs, hopefully away from the line of fire. Roving bands of youths congregate near the home her grandparents have owned for more than 80 years, brazenly blocking traffic or daring motorists to hit them.

Constance, who lives near the site where a 26-year-old man was brutally beaten by a gang of thugs Aug. 4 in St. Paul’s Payne-Phalen neighborhood, feels as if she’s living in Baghdad or Damascus, not in the Saintly City.

She has witnessed neighbors’ doors and windows knocked down or broken by burglars who take off with TVs and other valuables. Other homes have been stripped of copper wiring. A few weeks ago, the single mother’s 9-year-old son, shooting hoops at a nearby park, was roughed up by a group of juveniles for no reason.

The response to her calls to police about the gunfire and break-ins demoralized her to the point she no longer bothers to dial 911.

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Perhaps the response to the beating of Ray Widstrand might change things for the better in a neighborhood that, in the past month, had the most reported crimes per 1,000 residents than any other in the city.

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Widstrand–assaulted after he walked through a group of 40 to 50 juveniles and young adults that spilled out of a house party near Minnehaha and Payne avenues to watch two girls fight–suffered critical blows to the head and may have suffered permanent brain damage. He opened and closed one eye for the first time Wednesday after he came out of an induced coma, according to his Caringbridge.org page.

St. Paul police have arrested four juveniles and a 19-year-old man, reportedly members of the East Side Boys gang, or its affiliate, Ham Crazy, in the vicious assault. {snip}

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Gang violence here may not be on the scale of Chicago or Los Angeles, but, over the years, it has snuffed out lives and left other victims scarred for life.

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All the incidents led to long prison terms for the assailants and prompted calls for stepped-up police action and other efforts at community meetings like the one that will take place Thursday night in the wake of the Widstrand assault.

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“No question these hoodlums have been getting bigger and bolder and out of control in that area for over a year, blocking traffic, harassing people,” said the officer, who asked to remain anonymous because he is not permitted to speak publicly without advance approval from the department.

The cop also added that colleagues working the East Side feel their hands are tied by police leadership they suspect is more concerned about community backlash if they aggressively enforce curfew and other quality-of-life laws.

“Look, recreation centers are fine and they may help, but these (gang members) don’t go to rec centers,” said the officer. “It’s not all law enforcement, but in this case right now, the hammer needs to come down on these people.”

He also noted a lack of outrage, particularly from the African-American community, over the recent beating, but more so the gang-related slaying of a 17-year-old youth by another last month in the same area. Both were black. The suspects in the Widstrand beating also belong to a predominantly black gang.

“I know its not their sole responsibility, but I’m frustrated, for example, when the (African-American) leaders in the community show up to march and protest and wear hoodies because of the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida, but I don’t hear a word when things like this happen in this city,” he said. “This is not normal behavior, whether it’s black, white or Asian kids. But right now, it’s not white, Latino or Asian kids doing this.”

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