MINNEAPOLIS – Just as Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu was getting closer to completing his first speech of a Twin Cities tour to promote peace, 18-year-old Abdullahi Awil Abdi was getting closer to the violent end of his life.
Earlier in the night of April 11, Abdi had been at the Brian Coyle Community Center near the high-rise apartments in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood where he regularly hang out with friends. Instead of the sports that Abdi and his friends usually went to the gym for, there was a Somali community meeting where safety was one of the issues discussed.
At around 9:15 p.m – barely an hour after Abdi bade his friends farewell – someone shot and killed him in his friend’s car near Cedar Avenue S. and 6th Street.
There have been some speculations in the Somali community that the killing was gang related. But one thing that is indisputable is that Abdi was a good child. He worked two jobs, went to school and was due to graduate this year and go to college. He was not in any way involved in any gang or criminal activities.
“He is the only kid I didn’t have a problem with,” said Abdirahman Mukhtar, the youth coordinator at the Brian Coyle Community Center. “When other kids argued about simple things, Abdullahi used to mediate and stop them. He was a great kid to be honest.”
On April 24, Minneapolis police arrested a 23-year-old man, who Sgt. William Palmer, the police spokesman, described as “a person of interest.” Palmer said the man has not been charged with Abdi’s murder but was being held for questioning.
There is widespread belief that the shooter was a Somali man who was a troubled teenager. That has rekindled a conflict between an older generation that is more grounded to Somali cultural values and Abdi’s age mates, whose adaptation of hip-hop culture many Somalis associate with gangs.
A week from the day Abdi died, Mohamed Abdikadir, 25, stood outside a grocery store smoking a cigarette not far from the alley where the youngster was gunned down. Although like many he said Abdi was never in a gang, Abdikadir blamed the shooting on gangs made of Somalis young people who imitate what they see on television.
“Some of these kids think they are Americans,” Abdikadir said. “That is why they all own guns.”
Another man, who wanted to remain anonymous because his job nearby forbade him to talk to the press, said he was certain that Abdi’s friends were going to avenge his death.
“Abdi was a nice kid, but all his friends have guns,” the man said.
‘We retaliate by talking to you’
Several older people interviewed also tended to repeat that they believed Abdi’s friends were going to retaliate. But when Mshale reached Abdi’s closest friends they denied that they were seeking revenge.
“We retaliate by talking to you,” said 19-year-old Ali Mohamed. “We have no guns. We know that Abdullahi was at the wrong place at the wrong time. We are not looking for his killer. That is the job of the police.”
At round 4 p.m on a Thursday, Mohamed was standing outside the community center with six teenage friends, all leaning against the wall. Even though it was a warm day, Mohamed and his friends were dressed in heavy jackets, sweatshirts and baggy jeans. Mohamed had on a black baseball cap with the San Francisco Giants logo on it, while some of his friends had the hoods of their sweatshirts on. They all had hands their in pockets. Those looks are the source of the suspicion that they are in gangs.
“It is a lie. They are making up stories. There are no gangbangers here,” said 16-year-old Abdul Mohan.
The teenagers said they were disappointed that instead of finding Abdi’s killer, police officers had been harassing them.
“They tell us, ‘Go back to Somalia.’ They think that just because we are Muslims and African we are ignorant,” Mohamed said, fighting back tears.
Mohamed, the oldest in the group, added that he is a student at Normandale Community College and that all his friends go to high school.
“Come here in the middle of the day and you won’t find any of us standing around,” Mohamed said. “We go school, do our homework, and then come here to play. You should talk to our youth coordinator.”
The youth need space
Mukhtar, the youth coordinator, operates from a tiny, windowless office in the community center. It is close to 2 p.m and children are beginning to arrive at the gym. As he settles in his chair, children interrupt him to ask for basketballs. He pulls balls from a space under a desk.
“There is no space,” Mukhtar said as he attempts to pump air into one of the balls.
The lack of space is not limited to Mukhtar’s office. The program gives priority to children 18 and under, but those who have outgrown it have nowhere to go when the gym is full.
“From 3 p.m when schools get out to 8 p.m, they tend to hang around outside because there is no way we can accommodate them,” Mukhtar said. “So when people see 10 or 15 kids wearing do-rags and baggy clothes standing around, they stigmatize them as being in gangs.”
Mukhtar said that although there are some kids involved in “risky behaviors,” most of the kids he deals with are good.
“I work with these kids every day and they are the sweetest, nicest guys you could ever meet,” Mukhtar said. “What is going on in this neighborhood and other African communities is that you have the parents who have different values, different cultures and different expectations for their kids. At the same time you have kids who are confused because they have identity crises because everything they know is the American way.”
Mukhtar said that because the neighborhood is made up of high-rises and the majority of residents are immigrants, they tend to be stereotyped. Mukhtar confirmed that he had heard teenagers complain about police harassment when walking in groups at night.
“The police’s number one goal is to have safety in the neighborhood, so they may sometimes do things,” Mukhtar said. “But the kids tell me they don’t appreciate the way police treat them.”
And the man who wanted to remain anonymous because of his job said that during his work shift, he had seen police harass teenagers.
“On the night Abdullahi was shot, I heard a cop say that it was good that one of these kids got shot so others could learn,” the man said.
But Sgt. Palmer, the police spokesman, said the department had complaints of police harassment and misconduct from the area.
“If any officer said that, it would be unprofessional and the officer will be dealt with appropriately,” Sgt. Palmer said. “We want a good relationship with the community and don’t want people to be afraid of us.”
Sgt. Palmer said the police department had a Somali liaison officer, Ahmed Hassan, who he encouraged people to direct their issues to.
When reached by phone Hassan also said he had not heard of any complaints against police. But like Mukhtar he said the lack of recreational activities for youth was a common concern.
“Young people want more opportunities but there are not enough resources to accommodate them,” Hassan said. “That is something the city is responsible for.”
Councilman Cam Gordon, who represents the Cedar-Riverside area, said that the city government was aware of the problems and was trying to solve them.
“The people at City Hall understand and we are trying to get more resources for the Brian Coyle Center,” Gordon said.
Mukhtar, the youth coordinator at the center, said that in addition to recreational space, African parents needed to refrain from blaming their children and instead get involved in their daily activities.
“Ask any parent, ‘Why are you in America?’ and they will say, ‘I’m here to give my kids an opportunity for a better education and life,” Mukhtar said. “But they don’t evaluate themselves and ask, ‘I’m I really doing that?’”
Read poem in Abdullahi Awil Abdi tribute here.