Dangerous month for young black men in Minneapolisby Brandt Williams, Minnesota Public Radio
MINNEAPOLIS — August is the deadliest month in Minneapolis for homicides.
An MPR News analysis of the last ten years of data from the Minneapolis Police Department found 57 people have been killed in August over the last decade - more than in any other month of the year.
So far this August, there have been five homicides in Minneapolis. All five victims were African American men between the ages of 21 and 30, and each man had a criminal record. No suspects have been arrested, and Minneapolis police declined to comment for this story on why August tends to be so violent.
One of the young black men in that risk category is Tyron Jenkins. But he's alive — and lucky. The 21-year-old's skin is etched with markings that illustrate key moments in his life: scars from bullet wounds that didn't kill him.
"I got hit in my lower back. The bullet was lodged in my chest. It just stuck in my chest. And I got shot in my arm right here," he said on a recent sunny afternoon at Farview Park, talking about how he and a friend were shot while sitting in a car not far from his home in north Minneapolis. As he sat there bleeding, Jenkins said, he knew he was going to die. Doctors treating him thought the same thing.
"They said I died," he recalled. "But I'm here."
Wearing a Chicago Bears baseball cap on top of braided hair that lies in neat rows flat against his scalp, the gregarious and easy-going man chats with other anti-violence activists he's meeting at the park.
NORTH 4 RECRUITS
For every casualty of street violence, there are many more young black men trying to beat the odds by leaving the path that often leads to early death or prison. One way out is through an organization called North 4, a program that intervenes in the lives of at-risk youths and recruits them to spread its message to their friends and colleagues. Jenkins is one of them, but his path to this opportunity wasn't easy.
Jenkins said he started a life of petty crime when he was 8 years old and took a bullet in the leg a year later, a shot that left a scar the size of Nerf football. He lost so much blood in the shooting that doctors considered amputating his leg. Then they told him he'd have problems walking normally for the rest of his life. Instead, Jenkins walked into a world of drug dealing and gang life.
But two years ago, looking for a fresh start, Jenkins joined North 4. But he says the shooting earlier this year made him take an even harder look at his life.
"At one point in time I was like, 'Why me?' You know? 'Why me?'" he said. "All the change I'm trying to bring. All the positive change I'm trying to bring to different situations. Why me? But at the same time I see it as a positive, because it was definitely an eye-opener for me."
Like other young men in the new program, Jenkins was recruited because he lived in one of four troubled neighborhoods in north Minneapolis. Over the course of 15 weeks, participants get personal coaching, and help finding jobs and furthering their education.
Positive reinforcement is key to the program's success said Will Wallace, who works for Emerge, the non-profit group that sponsors North 4. Besides recruiting the young men, he's an on-call mentor and father figure.
"24-7, my phone is on," Wallace said. "It's got to be drilled in them all the time. "It's got to."
Many of the young men in the program never had a positive male role model in their lives and instead got support and adulation from fellow gang members for their bad behavior, Wallace said. By his account, in the two years since the program started, it has helped 31 young men improve their lives. And it recently won funding to double the number of its recruits.
Devonta Williams sat quietly nearby as Wallace told his story, nodding his head in agreement. Williams has already completed the program, but has applied for another term. The father of two children is 20 years old, with a chiseled jaw and a movie-star smile when he chooses to show it.
Now, as he described his entry into gang life, is not one of those times.
"I've been through a lot in my life," he said. "I lost my brother at the age of 12. He was my oldest brother, so I loved him — lost him at the age of 12. After that happened, I just kind of went down."
Without a father around, or his oldest brother to talk to, Williams says he "just gave up on life. I felt like, 'If my brother's not here, why should I be here? Why should I be on this Earth?' They took my brother, now I want to go take somebody. You feel me? I want them to feel the same pain I feel."
In his gang, he became known as an enforcer, willing to fight anytime for fellow gang members, and by his own account was headed for an early death or a lengthy prison sentence. Williams wound up in a juvenile detention center, which gave him a chance to think about what he was doing with his life. Then one of his brothers introduced him to Will Wallace and North 4.
"Ever since this program, I have gotten back in school," he said. "I'm currently looking for jobs right now. But I'm really on my school stuff, because I want to be a doctor when I get older."
Finding employment in the anemic job market is tough enough without a criminal record. But North 4 participants get a leg-up in the form of a five-week, paid internship. For 19-year-old Demarlo West, that means a part-time job at El-Amin's Fish House on West Broadway Avenue — an important enough opportunity that West arrived for his first day at the restaurant about 30 minutes early.
"I worked at McDonald's, Wendy's and in the kitchen with my grandma. Things like that. So I know about the quality and what I can do," he said. "I just got to show them."
West was raised by his grandmother. He even has her name, "Mary West," tattooed in script lettering on the backs of his hands. He wants to be a chef and restaurant owner someday. But right now he wants to provide a stable environment for his son and daughter. West is homeless and sometimes sleeps in his Lincoln Town Car.
"I want my son to do what I never did, have what I never had," he said, describing a childhood in which his own father was in and out of prison and his mother was addicted to drugs. One of his brothers died of a cocaine overdose and the rest of his siblings were sent to live in foster homes. "I'm going to do whatever I've got to do. If I've got to jump over a building for my son, I'm going to do that."
When he was 12, West said he and some friends started up a gang called the Taliban, literally dodging bullets, and spending four months in the Hennepin County Home School for stealing a car.
In the movies, guys like Demarlo West, Devonta Williams and Tyron Jenkins achieve their goals against all odds. But in the real world, their lives are unfinished scripts filled with unexpected twists and turns. Even after his eye-opening, near-death experience earlier this year, Jenkins got arrested and pleaded guilty to giving a false name to a police officer. And Jenkins' school and career plans suffered a setback when he was placed on academic probation earlier this year.
But none of that has deterred Jenkins' efforts to stop the violence among his peers. He doesn't know who shot him back in March, but when some of his friends told him they wanted to find the shooter and administer some street justice, Jenkins told them, "No." He believes his life was spared so he can tell other young people what he's learned about life. He also knows he may have to move out of his north side neighborhood in order to protect himself.
"Watch who surround yourself with. And take care of your life," he said. "If you appreciate your life, take care of your life."
- All Things Considered, 08/31/2012, 5:50 p.m.