Powderhorn Park area residents have urged a peaceful, constructive response to recent violent attacks.
In a lot of neighborhoods, news that a woman had been sexually assaulted in a nearby park would bring swift calls for the harshest punishment possible for the alleged perpetrators.
But Powderhorn Park is not a typical neighborhood.
So when a woman who identified herself as "the 'Mother' in the News" posted an online call Sunday for compassion toward the four teenage boys accused of assaulting her in front of her children as they cross-country skied last Wednesday evening in Powderhorn Park, it resonated with the neighborhood.
From an online forum to the May Day Cafe, which sits just a stone's throw from the park that gives the neighborhood its name, people spoke Monday of the woman's courage and of the rightness of her conviction that the young suspects, who are also accused of sexually assaulting two teenage girls after the attack on the woman, need help to "reconnect to their essential goodness."
"So many people here have a heightened sense of social justice," said Carol Nordstrom, who lives and works near Powderhorn.
It's the kind of neighborhood where, until recently, the neighborhood association had funds for a "restorative justice" program that asked suspects to meet face-to-face with their victims, admit responsibility for what they had done and then listen to how their actions hurt the community. Funding for that program ran out. The program was used primarily to address crimes that affected the livability of the area, such as street prostitution, said Kari Neathery, head of the Powderhorn Park Neighborhood Association.
"The community kind of sets the punishment, so to speak, so [suspects] are diverted out of the system," she said. She's now planning a 6:30 p.m. Thursday brainstorming session with neighbors at her office for ways to keep Powderhorn Park safe.
What actually happens to the four suspects, ages 14, 14, 15 and 16, may become clearer Tuesday morning, when Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman's office is expected to file charges against the 16-year-old. That teenager would then make his first court appearance at 1:30 p.m. It is unclear if or when the other suspects will be charged. Because they are younger, they would have to be certified as adults before their identities became public.
The boys are being held on suspicion of sexual assault, aggravated robbery and false imprisonment for crimes police called "horrific and brazen." They allegedly sexually assaulted the 45-year-old mother at gunpoint Wednesday evening as she skied with her 10-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter. The boys then ran off. Police followed their tracks in the snow and interrupted a second attack in a garage in the 3200 block of Bloomington Avenue S., where two girls, ages 16 and 18, were being sexually assaulted.
On Sunday, the mother posted an anonymous letter to her neighborhood on the "online town hall" website e-democracy.org. She thanked police and her neighbors for their support and urged neighborhood residents to celebrate the park's existence. Her e-mail "just went viral," said Sara Bergen, who manages the section of e-democracy.org dedicated to Powderhorn Park.
By Monday, handbills appeared around the neighborhood advertising a candlelight vigil at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday near the northeast corner of the park at 32nd Street and 14th Avenue S.
"Violence doesn't need to provoke a violent response from the community," said Soren Sorensen, a resident who said he plans to be at the vigil. Taking a break while at the South City Cafe on Chicago Avenue S., he said the attack and the recent drive-by shooting of 12-year-old Guadalupe Galeno-Hernandez have brought renewed focus to fighting neighborhood crime. On his wish list would be more funding for restorative justice programs of the sort provided by the Youth PROMISE Act, a piece of legislation pending before Congress that has as a co-sponsor Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., whose district includes Powderhorn Park.
Some of the other ideas posted online on Sunday and Monday were less appealing to him, said Sorensen, including a suggestion that volunteer foot patrols frequent the park. "If we're not careful with that, all we're going to do is form a street gang of white progressives," he said.