March in St. Paul came in like a violent lion, with dozens of young people throughout the city committing assaults with guns and knives. In response, community, faith and law enforcement leaders gathered at the Hallie Q. Brown Center Wednesday to offer help to those who have felt the pull of gang and street violence. They also urged parents and young people to enjoy a safe and law-abiding summer.
For those who want out of that life of violence, the gathered leaders promised help with finding a job. For those who don't — they offered no nonsense.
"There are some folks who need to go to jail," said Dianne Binns, a vice president with the St. Paul NAACP.
Said Gilbert de La O, a West Side community leader bracing for the upcoming Cinco de Mayo celebration: "Our welcome mat does not extend to the thugs and the gang bangers."
Leaders have been talking for months about ways to head off the violence that can come with summer, when teens and young adults tend to gather outside in groups.
A month of March that saw aggravated assaults with guns rise from 13 last year to 22 this year, combined with a doubling of reports of shots fired — to 94 this year — prodded a forceful show of unity, said Tyrone Terrill, president of the African-American Leadership Council in St. Paul.
As St. Paul officials seek a court ban on gang activity in the days preceding Cinco de Mayo — and as flames and violence plague the city of Baltimore — Terrill said it's time to send a message.
"We want all of our young people to enjoy the spring, enjoy the summer, with a special emphasis on being safe," he said. "In terms of your behavior, your conduct — what you are putting on social media and what you are saying to your friends — avoid issues with law enforcement."
St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith and Metro Transit Police Chief John Harrington said officers in their departments are ready to do their jobs respectfully — but also with resolve to keep the city's streets, buses and light rail trains safe and welcoming.
A new citywide effort in concert with the YWCA, called the Saint Paul Youth Intervention Initiative, calls for 30 community ambassadors to reach out to young people and connect them to positive activities and work, he said.
The program, funded with $800,000 raised mostly through private donations, seeks to boost youth services through individualized plans, expand hours at local recreation centers and provide jobs and job-readiness skills.
Other programs sponsored by the city, faith community and community organizations all seek to provide options to violence and crime, Smith said.
"We have systems in place to help them," he said. "That's why we're all standing here together."
Said Terrill, who is also the YWCA's director of Employment & Economic Development: "We are not Baltimore. We have done work over 15-20 years to not be Baltimore … The more preventive stuff you do, the better."
A series of community meetings will be held for families who want help steering their children away from gangs and violence: On May 11 at New Hope Baptist, on May 14 at Hallie Q. Brown and on May 21 at Minnehaha Recreation Center.
The Rev. Runney Patterson, pastor of New Hope Baptist Church, called on parents to take advantage of those meetings and work to ensure their children make the right choices this summer.
"If you do the right thing, more than anything, the right thing is going to follow you," he said.