For teens in north Minneapolis, safety is an everyday concern

North Minneapolis police
Minneapolis police investigate a group of men on Plymouth Avenue North on September 20, 2010. They book three adult males for trespassing. One is a confirmed gang member.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

A vigil was held Thursday night in Minneapolis to remember the city's 34th homicide victim.

Although the killing pushes the number of homicides well past last year's total, violent crime in the city is actually down over the last few years.

But that doesn't mean everyone in the city feels safer -- especially young African Americans growing up in harm's way.

Just about anyone in law enforcement will say that you're a lot more likely to become a victim of violent crime if you engage in certain risky behaviors -- such as being involved in criminal activity.

But for many young African Americans in Minneapolis, their only risky behavior is going to school, riding the city bus or going to a party.

Sonja Flemons and Elaine Smith
Sonja Flemons and Elaine Smith are part of a group called Community Power Against Violence.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

"I haven't been to one party over north where the party has ended because it was time to go. The party always ended because there was a fight, there was shooting," said Elaine Smith.

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Smith is part of a group called Community Power Against Violence. Smith and about two dozen other black teenagers gathered recently in the parking lot of the YMCA in north Minneapolis. They've come to hold an outdoor dance party to promote a media campaign called Peace 24/7.

Smith and her friend Sonja Flemons say the most common form of violence they see are fights at school. Flemons doesn't seem afraid of the fights and shootings -- she seems annoyed.

"It's just like, can't nobody ever just get along and just be friends," she said. "It's always just gotta be somebody to just mess something up."

Traffic stop
During a traffic stop on James Avenue North, Minneapolis police find an unregistered handgun.
MPR Photo / Nikki Tundel

Smith and Flemons live in north Minneapolis, which contains some of the city's most violent neighborhoods. Well over half of this year's homicides have occurred here. And so far this year, the north side leads the rest of the city in the number of total violent crimes.

The young people involved in this peace movement are trying to be positive role models to their peers who get in trouble. After all, they run the risk of being injured by one of these violent peers.

Lafayette Whimper, 22, lives in an area of the north side where gang activity and shootings are common. He says he doesn't fear for his safety, but he is worried about his 17-year-old brother.

"It's not safe for him," Whimper said. "He is the age of these young dudes and they might mistake him for so-and-so or whatever and I don't want anything like that to happen."

An after-school rush of young African American bus riders spill off the No. 5 bus and into the Brooklyn Center Transit Center. Today they're accompanied by four members of the anti-violence group MAD DADS. Earlier this year, two teenage boys were wounded by gunfire while riding the bus. The MAD DADS ride the buses to try to prevent more violent incidents.

Inside the station, a couple young men are shooting dice, until the MAD DADS shoo them away. Most of the young people at the station soon scatter off to catch connecting buses. But a few guys are just hanging out, like Raphael Miles -- who admits he runs with kind of a rough crowd.

Police investigation
Minneapolis police officers investigate a "suspicious group" on the evening of September 20, 2010.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

"Like everybody I -- who I be around is influenced on drugs, drug dealing, rap music and just not caring about the law," Miles said.

This is the type of risky behavior that police officers say can lead someone to become another homicide or assault statistic, but that doesn't scare Miles.

"I feel like I'm safe a lot. Because -- I did a lot of stuff, did a lot of bad stuff -- and at the same time I learned from it," he said. "And I'm only 17. And I think i'm going to be safe. I'm going to be cool."

Back on the bus, Mario Perry is riding the No. 17 bus from Brooklyn Center to a night class in north Minneapolis where he's working on getting his GED. Perry is 23. He said he avoids situations and people who attract trouble.

"You just got to set yourself around the right crowd. If you was around the right crowd you wouldn't have that many problems," he said.

Perry says he's had to end some friendships with people because they threatened to upset his career plans. Perry wants to become a police detective someday and has to have a clean record. Except for one minor misdemeanor, he said, his record is clear.

There are dozens of government-based and private anti-violence initiatives focused on helping inner-city youth, and it appears that all these efforts are having some success.

Data from the city's health department show that in 2006 there were more than 400 gun incidents involving juveniles -- meaning that either the suspected shooter or the victim was under 18. That number was nearly cut in half by 2009, and this year is on pace to drop by 50 percent again.