The group started on a sober note.
“I’ve buried two of my kids," said Larry McKenzie. "And some of you guys have probably been to a lot more funerals than I have."
McKenzie, a longtime youth athletics coach in north Minneapolis, spoke about the kids he's served over the years as a surrogate father. “I know what it’s like to get that call in the morning to tell you that one of your kids, not one but two of your kids, have been found with a bullet in their head.”
The occasion was an unusual gathering in a church basement Wednesday of nearly 75 neighborhood leaders in north Minneapolis. The meeting's agenda was simply titled "Public Safety," and for two hours the group held a wide-ranging conversation about guns, kids, jobs, education and what can be done to stop the bloodshed.
The group's original agenda was something else, but after a bloody Fourth of July weekend that saw two people shot dead and three others wounded, it was decided that something extraordinary needs to be done. Hours before the group met, three women were ambushed in their backyard in the 3500 block of Fremont Av. N. and shot multiple times. So far, none of them have died, though all have required surgery and remain in the hospital.
The shootings and homicides come amid a rising tide of violent crime in north Minneapolis, which has recorded a four percent rise in violent crime so far this year, and a 13 percent rise in aggravated assaults, the category of crime that includes shootings in which someone is hit by a bullet but not killed.
Organized by the Community Standards Initiative, a group run by Al Flowers, the meeting drew police officers, street activists, teachers, counselors and others.
McKenzie made a plea to the group that the work for solutions. “What can we do to reach these young men, and young women, that are dying on a daily basis?”
“I’d like to thank Coach McKenzie for cutting to the heart of the matter,” said Rick Zimmerman, the head of the Minneapolis Police Department's homicide unit. He reviewed the facts from the two most recent Minneapolis homicides for the group. Arrests have been made in both cases, he said. Zimmerman, who is white, also made an appeal for more black police officers and black Sergeants.
“The thing that I’ve seen is some folks will not talk to me because of my race,” said Zimmerman. “Minneapolis is changing and we [the MPD] need to be more representative of the city.”
Of the homicide unit’s 12 members, two are black, he said.
Minneapolis police Lt. Arthur Knight said he had 23 assault two and assault three cases to investigate when he reported for work Monday morning of this week. He has seven people in his unit, but should have ten, he said. He told the group about cases that haven't made the newspaper, including a case from June 27th in which someone fired 13 rounds into a vehicle that had three kids in the back seats. No one was injured, but easily could have been, he said.
"We need to stop this before it happens," he said, urging more people to talk to the police.
He said kids who are looking for something to do should join the Police Activities League – a free program with meetings most days of the week. (http://www.minneapolispal.org/)
Eric Lukes, a 28-year-veteran of the Minneapolis Police Department, told the group he wants to recruit police officers from the local community. He recently got five young people interested in joining the police department, and they're going through a background check this week.
Lukes said he feels so strongly about recruitment that he was doing it on his own time. “This is my day off,” he said. “I’m doing it because this is something that needs to be done.”
“We have to focus on education,” said Peter Hayden, the founder of Turning Point. “We’ve got young people who aren’t just shooting people, they’re high when they’re shooting people. Where is the treatment program for them?” he asked.
Hayden proposed that the group put together a position paper and submit it to Mayor Hodges.
“There are people in high places who have their own friends that they trust, but they don’t have friends who have their feet on the ground, such as everybody sitting here, the boots on the ground. That’s what it’s about.”
The meeting, held in the basement of New Bethel Baptist Church at 1115 30th Av. N., drew community leaders including Al Flowers of the Community Standards Initiative, State Rep. Raymond Dehn, Minneapolis Federation of Teachers president Lynn Nordgren, Youth worker Ferome Brown, MAD DADS president V. J. Smith, longtime city activist Spike Moss, Centered on Youth president Jerome Copeland, Drops Outs to Drop Ins founder Wesley Smith, longtime high school athletics coach Larry McKenzie, Peter Hayden, the founder of Turning Point and the father of state senator Jeff Hayden, Minneapolis Police Officer Eric Lukes, head of the MPD’s Homicide Unit Rick Zimmerman, head of the MPD’s assault unit Lt. Arthur Knight, and director of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s Teen Teamworks program Marlynn Schleeter, Urban League Academy principal Ron Simmons, columnist and radio host Ron Edwards, Tite and Nite radio program DJ Chris Styles, Abdirizak Bihi of the Twin Cities Somali community and many others.