Minneapolis East African shops boost security after vandalism

Some stores are closing earlier at night. Others have installed new lights and cameras. Owners say these costly steps are needed to restore a sense of safety after a vandal smashed windows on Franklin Avenue and told police he hated Somalis.
Capitol Cafe, which had the most extensive damage, installed seven security cameras and a television screen displaying the surveillance footage. Dymanh Chhoun | Sahan Journal

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MINNEAPOLIS — After a man smashed the windows of several East African businesses on Franklin Avenue in September, allegedly telling police he hated  Somalis, some business owners are taking additional security measures. 

 

Halal markets have installed new lights and cameras. A barbershop and a tobacco shop are closing earlier in the evenings. A pharmacist plans to install a buzzer system so she can lock her doors after dark.

 

“The fact that something like that can happen,” said Bashir Egal, who owns $5 Pizza, means that “it can happen again.”

 

One of Bashir’s pizzeria windows was broken in the Sept. 18 vandalism spree. Shortly afterward, Bashir found insulting graffiti on a cinder block outside the store. Bashir said he plans to install an alarm system, which he estimates will cost about $1,500.

 

The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office charged Harlin St. John, 36, with five counts of property damage and bias crimes. According to charging documents, he told police he broke the windows in retaliation for someone shooting at his family members. 

 

The charging documents state the suspect believed the people who shot at his relatives were Somali “because he couldn’t think of anyone else who would.”

 

St. John, who has been in custody since Sept. 27, appeared in court Tuesday. 

 

Assistant county attorney Chris Freeman said that St. John had used “racially charged” language in his phone calls from jail, which were monitored by Minneapolis police. Judge Marta Chou set St. John’s next hearing date for Nov. 20 in advance of a Dec. 9 trial.

 

Capitol Cafe, which had the most extensive damage, installed seven security cameras and a television screen displaying the surveillance footage “to assure the community we are safe,” said Abdirahman Awad, the cafe manager. He estimated the equipment and installation cost about $2,000. 

 

Abdirahman said he was grateful for the wave of customers who came to show support after the vandalism by spending time in the cafe and buying tea and sambusas. 

 

Overall, though, business has slowed since the windows were broken. The community fears the cafe could be targeted again, he said. With the decrease in customers, he worries about whether the cafe can stay open. 

 

When Franklin Market’s window was broken, the store’s surveillance camera did not capture the act. The store has since installed an additional security camera, said cashier Abdalla Issa.

 

Saha Mohamed, co-manager of Seward Market & Halal Meat, said his market installed more lights outside the shop. The market’s security camera footage helped identify the suspect. The additional lights will “show more clear pictures if anything happens,” he said.

 

Other vandalized shops have changed their hours. 

 

Firehwoit Bezabih has owned Barber & Braiding for 14 years. After the vandalism, she decided to close the barbershop at 6 p.m. instead of 7:30 p.m.

 

Since most of her customers come after they get off work, she said, closing early is difficult. Most clients have been able to reschedule, but she said she has lost some business with the new closing time.

 

Samiya Mohammed, one of the owners of Tobacco Plus, said the store is now closing an hour earlier. Management has also changed work schedules so that no employee is alone in the store at night. 

 

Customers, she said, responded with “so much love” following the vandalism. “We have to be strong. That’s the only way we can move forward.”

 

Lakes Pharmacy owner Saida Mohamed plans to install a buzzer system to let customers in at night. She has also been talking to her neighbors about hiring a security guard for the block. 

 

People have been more on edge since the businesses were vandalized, she said. “If you hear a little bit of a sound, everybody’s like, ‘What was that?’ People never used to have that feeling.”

 

Saida said she expected local elected officials to speak up for the community following the vandalism and, weeks later, President Trump’s attacks against Minnesota’s Somali community during a Minneapolis rally.

 

“Stand up for this community because they need it now more than ever,” Saida said. “Mention us. Say our name. It’s not a bad name. Somalis don’t deserve this.”

 

An ongoing GoFundMe has raised over $6,000 for the vandalized businesses, and the Seward Co-op has collected more than $22,000 through its October roundup program. 

 

The Council on American-Islamic Relations in Minnesota, which is administering both fundraisers, plans to distribute funds “equitably” to the businesses, said Jaylani Hussein, CAIR-MN’s executive director.

 

The full cost of the vandalism is still unknown, Jaylani said, but “the loss is more than just the shattered windows.”

 

At Capitol Cafe, Abdirahman said the support he had received from the community was “beyond expectations” and that business owners are trying to stay positive.

 

“We don’t want this to affect us in a negative way,” Abdirahman said. “We want this to make us strong to move forward as a community.”

 

Sahan Journal is a nonprofit newsroom that covers Minnesota immigrants and refugees. Your donation makes work like this possible. Give today at sahanjournal.com/donate and NewsMatch will match all 12 months of your new monthly donation to Sahan Journal.

Becky Z. Dernbach is a Minneapolis-based freelance journalist. Her work has also appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times and The Guardian.

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