Gangs of St. Paul

In the capital city, a generation of younger, harder, more randomly violent gangsters wage war on themselves

While the dispute between the two young men is ostensibly over a handgun, St. Paul gang investigator Daniel Zebro says it's also about drug turf. "The downtown area is huge for these guys," he says. "They were all vying for that downtown area because there's girls hanging out and they think there's drugs to be sold."

The highlight (of sorts) of the video comes when a member of the 5th and Minnesota Boys, displaying his contempt for a rival gang, drops his pants and defecates on the sidewalk of an East Side street in broad daylight. "Damn daddy, what the fuck is you doing, G?" someone says off camera as the young man deposits his load on enemy territory. "Damn, gonna wipe your ass, G?"w

THE REV. DARRYL SPENCE OPENED THE Hut in an empty storefront on Rice Street at the end of November. The humble space—a former flower shop that was once the scene of a double homicide—is a drop-in center for local kids. Spence is the founder of the God Squad, a group of African American St. Paul religious leaders who have been working for years to combat crime in the city. His normal turf is the Selby-Dale neighborhood, but Spence set up shop on the North End at the behest of the District Six Planning Council. In recent months the neighborhood group has become increasingly concerned about crime.

Michael Dvorak

"Being the God Squad coordinator, my phone rings all hours of the night," Spence says on a recent weekday afternoon while seated at a table in The Hut. "If it's not the police telling me somebody's dead, it's probably a gang-banger telling me he's about to kill somebody. I get both calls. There comes a time when what we have to do as far as gangs is recognize and realize that it's real. So often you hear we don't have a gang problem. We've got a gang problem."

Spence says that just the previous afternoon, a 13-year-old boy stopped by the center to report that he'd recently been "beat out of a gang." "He wants to change his lifestyle," Spence says, "because he realizes this is getting deadly."

Spence has drafted Johnny Howard, a veteran organizer from the Frogtown neighborhood, to help with the effort on the North End. Howard says that they have to find a way to contend with the lure of being in a gang and with the economic incentives for dealing drugs. "We compete with that," he notes. "We're going to have to figure out how. I think just talking about peace is one of the ways we can compete with that. If you can't walk down or ride down the street and feel like you're going to be all right, there's something wrong."

While The Hut's efforts are proactive, St. Paul authorities are also using punitive measures to deal with gang members who repeatedly run afoul of the law. Ramsey County probation officer Joseph Arvidson works exclusively with adults who have been convicted of gang-related crimes. Under the terms of their probation, these offenders are prohibited from associating with known gang members. "That's sort of our secret weapon that we use," says Arvidson. "Because by the time they get to me they're well known to law enforcement. They're known to the gang unit. They're known to the gang strike force."

Over the past decade, according to Arvidson, 67 offenders have had their parole revoked for socializing with known gang members. Combined, they've received 946 months of jail or prison time, an average sentence of more than 14 months. He says that the tool has been particularly effective in defusing the Lowertown Gangsters. "We were able to disassemble that hierarchy just by utilizing this probation tool," he says. "It's the same thing we're doing now with the Selby Siders."

Gang investigators also believe that search warrants executed in recent months—26 in October alone—have helped stanch gang activities lately. "Even if you don't recover something on a search warrant and you can't take someone to jail, it has an impact," says Zebro. "With a lot of these guys, it just takes a little bit of the police getting on their back. There's obviously the hardcore gangsters who are going to keep doing what they're doing. But a lot of these guys, you kind of put the scare into them and they're gone. Quite a few of these guys that were causing problems, we haven't seen them in a while."

Zebro and others realize, however, that the winter months may simply be a temporary lull in the problems. Darryl Spence says that he and others in the God Squad are already gearing up for the warm weather. "Between now and the summer, we need to build relationships, let people know who we are, why we are, what we are," he says. "Because come summer we have work to do."

The cops are blanketing the East Side of St. Paul tonight. The previous morning a 13-year-old girl was dragged into an alley along Payne Avenue and raped on her way to school. It was the second such attack in the area this month, and police fear that a serial rapist might be on the prowl. Roughly a dozen investigators from the Metro Gang Strike Force are helping with the neighborhood saturation effort.

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