The call Tuesday night was distressingly familiar for police patrolling St. Paul’s East Side this summer: young gang members clashing, this time near Payne and Jenks Avenues.
Officers sped to the scene, where 10 teens from rival gangs appeared to be arguing. Arrests were made, limiting the flare-up to a verbal fight.
But in recent weeks, similar incidents have tragically escalated — a 17-year-old shot to death in July, a 26-year-old neighbor nearly beaten to death last week.
East Side violence has put residents and city officials on high alert, resulting in a mayoral session earlier this week on how to deal with gang disputes and prompting a community meeting Thursday night at Arlington Hills Lutheran Church, where police and prosecutors will address questions and concerns from residents.
“Several disturbing incidents on the East Side have made it clear that we must continue to push forward to find new ways and new strategies to meet the challenges on the street,” Mayor Chris Coleman said Wednesday in his budget address.
But Pamela Felipe, 62, who has lived in her home at Minnehaha and Payne Avenues for nearly 50 years, doesn’t need authorities to tell her what is happening in her neighborhood. She can see it for herself.
“It’s those punks that want to prove that they are bad,” Felipe said, standing in her doorway Wednesday.
Despite being a stone’s throw from the Eastern District police station, she has watched large groups of roaming youths cause trouble on her block. She’s seen schoolgirls duking it out in the street and boys as young as 7 using an empty lot near her house like it was their personal playground.
“It’s amazing what these kids are doing,” she said, adding that perhaps what they needed was a “good [butt] whooping.”
A wake-up call
Felipe lives not far from where, according to authorities, a large gathering formed Aug. 4 outside a house party where girls were fighting as people looked on.
Raymond Widstrand, 26, who lives in a nearby apartment, was trying to walk through the crowd when he was knocked to the ground and then beaten, authorities say. When police arrived, officers found 40 to 50 juveniles and young adults fleeing the scene and Widstrand on the ground, bleeding from his nose and mouth.
He was taken to Regions Hospital, where he was found to have potentially fatal brain swelling. He’s still in critical condition, according to his CaringBridge site.
Three teenagers, whom prosecutors are trying to certify as adults, and one young adult have been charged in the beating. Authorities believe many of the assailants are members of the East Side Boyz or their affiliates, the Ham (Hoes and Money) Crazy gang.
Some people wonder whether Widstrand, who is white, was attacked because of his race. The Ramsey County attorney’s office said earlier this week that police had yet to show that racial bias was a motivating factor. If that is proven, officials could favor a longer sentence for the suspects.
Several residents said they didn’t think race had anything to do with the beating.
“I think if you are in a gang, you just fight anybody that walks by you. I don’t think they care,” said a 37-year-old woman who works near the site of the beating. The woman, a lifelong East Side resident who is white, didn’t want her name published for safety reasons.
Last month, a 17-year-old pleaded guilty to fatally shooting Vince “Mo” Allison, also 17, after a street fight near Payne and Case Avenues that stemmed from a feud between the Ham Crazy and Gutta Block gangs.
On Tuesday night, the gangs, which police characterize as unevenly organized and formed by younger members, clashed again. A few people were arrested before the dispute turned violent.
Police found the rest of the night fairly uneventful, but that didn’t remove the threat of a quick eruption. Swarms of youths, sometimes ranging in number from 40 to 50, have been known to pop up blocking streets and sometimes fighting among themselves before dispersing as quickly as they had gathered.
Seeking zero tolerance
City Council Member Dan Bostrom, who represents the ward where the incidents took place, said police need to practice a zero-tolerance policy with disruptive youths, and that city and county attorneys need to make sure they are prosecuted. Crime issues can spread from one neighborhood to the next, he said.
“When people know that they aren’t going to get by with the small stuff, they aren’t going to try the big stuff,” Bostrom said.
Leslie McMurray, executive director of the Payne Phalen District Five Planning Council, called the incidents “terrible” and “repugnant” and said there was no simple answer to how to stop the violence.
But she added that there aren’t enough constructive activities targeting older teens in the area, especially the males. About one-third of neighborhood residents are youths, she said.
“It is a wake-up call when something like this happens for us to say, what can we do for young people in this area,” McMurray said.
St. Paul police are pushing for ways to respond to the violence. Extra patrols have been added in the area, and police recently were awarded a grant to buy portable camera technology. Resources also are being reallocated from other districts, said Eastern District Senior Cmdr. Joe Neuberger, who declined to be more specific.
“Now, we’re doing some of the full-court press,” he said.
Staff writer Kevin Duchschere contributed to this report.