Des. 3, 2004: Getting in the dealers' way

  • Article by: TERRY COLLINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 6, 2013 - 1:58 PM

City Council Member Don Samuels spent a day working at a north Minneapolis convenience store plagued by drug traffic. His presence distressed the dealers, but didn't stop the dealing.

He was barely out of his car before the swarm of young men in baggy pants started uttering "green" and "weed" to him.

Once inside the north Minneapolis convenience store, he began sweeping, dusting and stocking canned goods - as well as watching.

Within an hour, drug dealers lurking outside discovered that the unshaven man wearing a pulled-low khaki cap stitched with the word "Kinship" wasn't a customer.

They asked repeatedly, "What's he doing?" "Who is he?"

He was Don Samuels, Minneapolis City Council member, and on Monday he was an employee at Wafana's Food Mart, a troubled corner store known as a haven for drug dealing near 24th and Lyndale Avs. N.

Samuels said he planned to share his observations with fellow council members, the police and community groups.

"He was bold. He stepped out there," said Sherman Patterson, a board member of the McKinley Neighborhood Association, the group that brought its concerns about drug trafficking and safety to
Samuels. "Yes, it's a risk, but if he was scared beforehand, I didn't see it."

In contrast to his well-publicized vigils and daylong fasts after homicides in his Third Ward, Samuels went incognito - and without police protection - to witness first-hand what McKinley residents had told him.

Minneapolis police records show they were called to the store more than 500 times from January through Monday, a 44 percent increase from the same period a year ago. While the increase in
calls might have resulted from citizen vigilance and proactive policing, a significant number are for "narcotic activity," police say.

That was enough for Samuels to ask Wafana's store manager two weeks ago if he could work in the store for a day.

Samuels is the father of two young girls and had to promise his wife that he'd avoid major confrontations with the drug dealers.

"Instead of talking about it, he's taking action," said Patterson, who said he's had discussions with Police Chief Bill McManus about similar plans.

Upsetting the dealers

Samuels' presence at the store Monday made a difference. The drug dealers, black males ranging in age from mid-teens to early 20s, appeared uncomfortable. Frustration and anger set in because
Samuels, who's also black, was an unfamiliar face.

They concluded that he was "Five-0," slang for an undercover cop. He disrupted their flow and slowed their transactions. Instead of occupying the store's L-shaped parking lot, which has a "drive-thru" feel to it - enter one way and exit another with your order of drugs-to-go - the dealers went to adjacent blocks to sell their marijuana.

Separating the pack will make the dealers more visible to police on patrol, Samuels reasoned, while acknowledging that his one day in the store won't lead to permanent change.

"If solutions for this were easy, they would have been solved by now," he said, looking to see how many security cameras were on the property. "We have to destroy the barriers they've put up outside
the store."

The dealers stayed away, apparently fearful that squad cars patrolling along Lyndale Avenue N. would swoop in and arrest them for trespassing.

Eventually, they bowed to the autumn chill and sought refuge inside the store. They piled the counter with snack cakes, potato chips and small juices that cost a quarter as an excuse to check Samuels out.

One dealer, apparently intimidated by Samuels' presence, confronted store employee Abdullah Nebil.

"You call the police on me and there's going to be a problem," he warned Nebil as Samuels stood nearby. "Don't get tough because he's here. I'll still beat yo ass!"

Many of the exiting "customers" glared at Samuels. The council member, who has encountered his share of staredowns and threats during his nearly two years in office, didn't flinch.

Samuels asked store manager Billy Obeid if his workers feel safe.

"I know some of them by name because they come in so many times during the day," Obeid said of the drug dealers. "But I know they can lose it at any time, too."

Later, Nebil pulled out a stack of police-provided photos of people cited for trespassing at the store, an effort he thinks has done little to slow the marijuana sales. The pile included mug shots of several dealers who entered the store at least a dozen times during Samuels' 1:30 to 9:30 p.m. work shift Monday.

"About 90 percent of them live around here," Obeid said. "After we call the police, they stay away for a while and then come back. We can't turn them all away."

The dealers contribute to the store's business, buying candy bars and Italian Beef sandwiches smothered with nacho cheese and hot peppers.

"When I first started coming here, about four to five [dealers] would ask, do I want some weed," said Dawn Shaw, 21, who lives two blocks away. "Now it's down to one every trip."

Despite the nuisance, she prefers the closeness of the store for getting small items such as toilet paper, instead of walking south to the new supermarket on W. Broadway.

Samuels said businesses such as Wafana's are needed in neighborhoods where some residents have no means of transportation. Before leaving Monday evening, Samuels thanked employees and said he would return - unannounced.

He'll recommend to store managers that more lighting and cameras be added to the parking lot and east side, and ask the city about two broken streetlights. He also will suggest a single entry for vehicles.

And he wants store workers to call the police more frequently. He said that's what he advises other property owners in his ward struggling with criminal activity.

"Either you are not being tough enough, too nice or don't care," Samuels said. "You must be more vigilant in regards to your property.

"You have to invest or divest."

Terry Collins is at tcollins@startribune.com.

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