High Point meeting: ‘Tensions’ acknowledged, ‘healing’ sought

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

What to do to calm High Point concerns amid what even its Seattle Housing Authority manager acknowledged last night are “tensions between groups amongst our young people”?

There was no consensus among those who spoke emotionally and powerfully at last night’s community meeting, sponsored by the High Point Neighborhood Association, originally meant to address questions and concerns about the stabbing of a 40-year-old woman along a local street last Friday.

But there was one clear message taken from the standing-room-only, even sitting-on-the-floor meeting: Hundreds of High Point neighbors wanted to talk about it – and about the circumstances surrounding the incident that brought police and fire to the neighborhood two hours before the meeting, when a 16-year-old boy, identified during the meeting as Somali, was beaten in a fight near HP Neighborhood Center, site of the meeting.

At the front of the room were HPNA leaders, Southwest Precinct police leaders, and SHA managers. The rest of the room was filled to overflowing with residents and community advocates – at right, that’s the end of the line waiting to get in, before the meeting.

“I know we come here tonight with many emotions,” began HPNA president Jennifer Cobb. Indeed, those emotions permeated the 2-plus hours that followed – the meeting might have run longer, but it was pointed out that some of those in attendance had to get to 8:30 pm prayers.

“We have an opportunity for these emotions to move us into involvement, to the High Point we envision this to be – or we can let this incident divide us.” (Cobb is in the photo at right with SHA’s Willard Brown.)

Hints of division flashed as the evening went on, though never to full-fury open hostility. There were gestures of conciliation, as one woman said, “This is my 4th year in High Point and I wouldn’t live anywhere else – whether a Muslim community, black community, white community, Somali community, we have the same vision.”

The same vision, but what about the same path to that vision? One energetic speaker in the meeting’s final half-hour, identifying herself as a single parent, said there are too many unsupervised children: “It begins in the home … There was an event with my kids, 7 and 13 years old, who said young Somali boys pulled a gun on them … I as a parent did my job, I went and talked to the boys … they didn’t even know (why they did it). We can’t keep pointing fingers at each other, can’t keep blaming each other … When (boys) are 12, they do what they want to do, and half of us are single mothers with boys. If we don’t put our foot down, they are going to run right over us.” She said that some other boys come over to her house to visit, “they come sit on my porch and I play basketball with them … I’m not in such good health, but I am going to do what I need to do as a parent.”

The call for parental responsibility was echoed by a woman speaking through a translator (most who spoke at the meeting spoke in English, while translation was provided by several people around the room). She said that when police are called to deal with potentially gathering trouble, “the kids … move around, the police enter from one side, the kids move to the other side. Don’t blame the police only; we, the parents should be taking care of the kids.”

And from SHA’s Willard Brown: “Talk with your children. Have serious conversations with your children about how to behave and how to keep themselves safe, and have them tell you about what’s happening in school. There’s a lot of carryover from school in our communities.”

That still might not keep trouble from happening in a big way where none had been hinted before. Updating the crowd on Friday’s stabbing, Brown noted that while the family of 22-year-old suspect Marcus Combs was being evicted because of what happened, they had never been a source of trouble before. “We have moved to protect the residents here, and moved to protect the community, met with the family to inform them of our obligations to have them leave … it was an absolute shock to the members of the family and they are in grieving.”

Brown added, “We have visited with the victim and had conversations with (her) family … That situation is even more heartbreaking, moving from a situation where you are content, feel fairly safe and enjoy your neighborhood, to being suddenly very fearful and afraid to leave your home, and wondering if your children are safe … That is not something that is easily overcome.”

Neither he nor police could specify a potential motive for the attack last Friday, but Asha Mohamed, describing herself as an advocate for the Somali community, demanded of Capt. Joe Kessler, “Are you going to treat this as a hate crime – if not, why not?”

The captain noted that while it is the job of the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office to file charges – as they have done in this case, 1st degree assault – “there is not an indication that I am aware of that (investigators) have found any indication this was a hate crime.”

Mohamed did not accept that. “We feel under siege … we want our community of High Point to stand with us to say no to hate, to say no to violence. We are telling us, do not silence us, this is a hate crime.”

The next speaker reiterated that Somalis feel targeted – “are you aware there were two beatings today of Somali schoolkids?” he asked Capt. Kessler, indicating that his references included the High Point teenager. The captain said that investigation too was continuing, and “I can assure you the Seattle Police Department takes hate crimes at the highest level. … At this point, the investigation is ongoing, don’t know where it’s going to end eventually.”

Later, an man identifying himself as from a Muslim-advocacy group said he had received “many messages” voicing concern about issues raised by the stabbing, including the contention that eyewitnesses heard stabbing suspect Combs make remarks such as “I’m here to kill you” and “I was doing my job.” Capt. Kessler again repeated that bias crimes are a high priority for police and prosecutors, if evidence indicates that’s what happened. The advocate went on to say, “This incident has created some tensions, as did the one today – how do we make this a more wholesome and harmonious neighborhood?”

He was asked next by a man identifying himself as a High Point homeowner, “What can WE do to stop this – we see a lot of drug trafficking, beatings, activities that are not conducive to this community, what do WE need to do?”

Capt. Kessler: “This forum is the best start. But if you see something problematic, you need to call 911.” At another point in the meeting, he described it as “about the community coming together to work on the healing process.”

He was challenged by another questioner regarding the exhortation to call 911. “We call 911 and we wait an hour. There are not enough …” His words were drowned out by applause, even a woman in the front row shouting enthusiastically, “YES!”

The captain explained the path a call takes through 911, and said “You must be very clear about what’s going on. Our response times are as good as anywhere in the country. Be sure to tell them it’s a crime in progress.”

Others had words of praise for the police, such as a woman saying she lives in nearby Providence Elizabeth House. “We’re all very concerned for the victim and her daughter, and we’re proud of the rapid response the other day.”

Several members of the community voiced criticism of what they called the “new management” of High Point, though they did not offer specifics, aside from one who claimed that office staff tends to greet with “what do you want?” rather than “how can I help you?”

SHA’s Brown defended his team. “I am part of the ‘new management’ and I want to make it very clear, there is no hesitancy or any impasse or desire not to be as responsive as possible to what comes to us in the office or in the community. That being said, I would hope tonight we would focus on the issues we are here to talk about. And if people would like to see more detail on how management is responding to this incident, that is appropriate to discuss.” He mentioned several times during the meeting that SHA is “working hard to bring programs and services of interest to the Somali community to this building” (Neighborhood Center).

Beyond SHA and SPD, another speaker suggested one more agency should be involved: “We still need more cooperation with Seattle (Public) Schools. When something like this happens, we come together, we talk, we leave. We need a plan.” He pointed out that there not only are many Somali immigrants in High Point now, there are many on the waiting list. And the speaker that followed him picked right up with, “If Somalis are not feeling safe in this community, nobody’s going to feel safe in this community.” He contended that SHA’s on-site security does not respond well to incidents.

“I do believe High Point is a safe community,” countered SPD’s Capt. Kessler, going on to explain the Community Police Team officer, Kevin McDaniel (present at the meeting and wildly applauded on introduction, but he did not speak), who is assigned to the area “though that is not a budgeted position.”

The next woman had positive words about High Point security but wanted to know about background checks – do they include checking with the countries that immigrant residents left? – Brown answered: “There is one standard to move into High Point, and that is pretty clear. It matters not where you came from, but how you conducted yourself.
… It is property management’s responsibility to screen for criminal activity, good landlord references, andmake decision on the information received from public records or other landlords. That’s how people are screened. We hire a private screening company, and they are very, very thorough.” Asked if they screen everyone every year? “No, no landlord does.”

This is where he discussed the “tensions between groups,” adding, “We are startled by it, and we are working to alleviate and remedy the problem.” Brown again voiced hope that future programs in the Neighborhood Center would give youth “skills to work out their differences in ways other than hitting one another. We want to challenge our young people to start a dialogue with each other.” He also committed to keeping private security in High Point.

Shortly afterward, he had to defend his team again, after another speaker suggested “management” was part of the problem. Brown: “We have a community problem. We have to come out of this meeting with a community solution. I’m willing to work as hard as I need to, with service providers, SPD, our youth to make this the best possible place in Seattle to live. That’s my commitment. I hope each and every one of you are committed to the cause. … When we start to have a dialogue in the community about how we want to treat each other, I want everyone to come out and participate.”

The next speaker thanked Brown, and gestured around the room: “If we look around, some have headscarves, some are open – we respect our religions, and it is better to respect each other, and our dignity, instead of hurting each other, (like) in a gang … This is a free zone. We have to make our community … instead of hitting each other.” He compared the currently tense situation to a highway that needs a speed bump to slow things down. “Our community, we love, it is a nice place to live .. we are multicolored people living here, no matter where we come from. It’s America, you have a right to live.”

Brown promised to “refocus on safety in High Point” after also hearing specific suggestions, such as burned-out streetlights and potential law-enforcement presence at Neighborhood Center. To the last point, Capt. Kessler was asked how police and Somali youth could connect; he mentioned that SPD has a liaison for the East African community.

Of course, programs and liaisons are no use if they are not used, one woman pointed out. “All these people I see here, I have never seen them at a Family Game Night … are you going to show up the next time, when there are solutions, or are you just going to show up and vent your opinion?” Shortly afterward, a woman accused the Somali community of being too insular: “You guys stick to yourself and don’t share anything .. I don’t have any of my people here. I’m half-Ethiopian. I need to know my culture; I’m lost … but that’s over. We need to be involved instead of blaming everybody else.”

So – “What can we do?” the question echoed again. HP Neighborhood Association leaders closed the meeting with a few suggestions – all along the lines of “get involved.” The next High Point Neighborhood Night is June 4th – with square dancing promised. The next election for HPNA trustees is in July. “What is it you’re passionate about?” asked HPNA’s Andrew Mead. “We’re trying to have a soccer program out here this summer.”

What he had said just before that, might have been most valuable of all: “Take a deep breath.” (With the emotion and tension that had filled the preceding two-plus hours, that seemed particularly welcome to many.) “You are just as safe in our neighborhood as you were a month ago.”

HPNA plans a followup meeting in June; as noted in our first report last night, they also are collecting donations to help the stabbing victim.

15 Replies to "High Point meeting: 'Tensions' acknowledged, 'healing' sought"

  • marco April 30, 2010 (2:40 pm)

    Thank you for the full report! The atmosphere was tense, but probably still better than at the West Seattle Elementary meeting in the same room a few months ago.

  • Carolyn April 30, 2010 (3:38 pm)

    Thank you for this report WSB. I tried to get into the meeting last night, but it was too full. That is good news! Sad that it takes a few bad incidents to get people rallied, though.

    I would also like to commend Jennifer Cobb. In her position heading the Neighborhood Association, she has truly become involved in everything here and works many, many hours (after her workday) trying to get others involved.

    And Willard, you are awesome. SHA is very lucky to have you on staff!

  • Zoe April 30, 2010 (4:10 pm)

    This sort of crime can and does happen everywhere, including in my neighborhood closer to Alki. Unlike at High Point, in my neighborhood it is accepted as “random.” I’ve been through High Point and it looks beautiful, and now I see that it has an unusual level of civic involvement as well. I’m somewhat jealous of the police and security presence there, too. Looks to me like an already active and attractive community is about to show the rest of us the way…

  • Jsv April 30, 2010 (4:23 pm)

    Thanks for the full transcript Tracy! I had to leave the meeting early and was eager to get the full story. I know this must have taken you a long time! Your effort is much appreciated.

  • Kayzel April 30, 2010 (7:28 pm)

    Another excellent piece of reporting, thank you. I was glad to see a healthy mix of people at the meeting, but sad to see how cultural divides continue to make us suspicious and fearful of one another. I was impressed with SHA’s Willard Brown. He was both eloquent and firm, yet heartfelt.

  • Stewie April 30, 2010 (7:39 pm)

    “The next High Point Neighborhood Night is June 4th – with square dancing promised.” Because the East African population in High Point love a good ol’ hoedown. Wow – there’s no disconnect there.

  • Jen April 30, 2010 (10:39 pm)

    SHA needs to stop playing games, and improve its services to the immigrant community. Many people were angry not because of the safety part but how they were treated by the SHA management when they step into the SHA office. Willard talks nice but he is mean dude. His action and his words are two different.

  • Mohamed April 30, 2010 (10:46 pm)

    There are unimaginable anger eminating from the East African population at high point. The SHA management treats us like a second class citizens. They harras us so that we will leave the neighborhood. What have we done to deserve this?

  • Jim May 1, 2010 (3:30 pm)

    Can you be specific as to what the SHA is doing to the East African population? I live there and would like to know what problems you are facing?


  • old timer May 1, 2010 (4:09 pm)

    Anger is a manifestation of fear.
    The tough part is to find what’s making people afraid.
    Maybe a work-sharing opportunity – making a community garden – would help people come together with a common purpose.
    Maybe cross-cultural tutoring and homework help for the children would help expose everyone’s humanity to each other.
    All religions teach the sanctity of life.
    The world is getting too complicated and demanding to have so many distracted by such deep divisions, especially when these divisions are, in the end, artificial.

  • Concerned May 1, 2010 (6:43 pm)

    lets look at all sides … different cultures are always fearful or warry of other cultures .. most don’t realizes they step on other cultures “toes”
    they don’t understand each others religion, clothing, food, relationships,mannerisms … feelings are hurt easily … we all need to work together to be able to live together in a society.

  • Cynthia Clouser May 2, 2010 (2:06 pm)

    I attended the meeting and it brought tears to my
    eyes.I am proud to live in this Diverse community.
    My children are also.I am sad that we even have to have these type of meetings(although I am glad we did)it should be unnecessary as we should all be united as Humans and only have to solve simple problems, such as littering, etc. Let’s all work on it for Real!

  • lcdarling May 3, 2010 (12:40 pm)

    I live in this community and the incidents of late break my heart…..my child and I are at the park a few times a week and I must say I am saddened by the lack of parental/adult presence. When we are there there are countless kids who just want someone to pay attention to them, talk to them, play. We are talking SMALL kids, yesterday it was a couple of sisters under 7 there……alone. I notice that kids are much better behaved when there is an adult standing by. Just an observation. How can we improve?

  • Wendy Hughes-Jelen May 3, 2010 (3:50 pm)

    old timer – we have three community gardens here, several playgrounds, pocket parks on almost every block along with large parks scattered about. CCS also has a tutoring center for after school help and also a summer reading program to help these kids whose families do not speak English at home try to catch up with their grade level. I tutored for a year to learn how to talk to the kids around here since they are bored out of their minds and have nothing structured to do and just yelling “Stop that!” from a balcony wasn’t effective.

    You can provide all the opportunity you want, but many just don’t participate, I still haven’t figured out why more people don’t utilize all that we have here in High Point. I think apathy is a problem. And I think a lot of parents are just too overwhelmed by the responsibility of keeping track of all those kids.

    I also believe this incident was completely random, not a targeted hate crime. It could have happened anywhere. I’ve walked my dog three times a day for almost three years here. After the first year my husband started accompanying me late at night because I was hassled by some teens and I am not one to back down very easily. If I had a bigger dog I wouldn’t need my husband along. A big stick looks like I am asking for trouble.

  • Nancy F. May 4, 2010 (11:07 am)

    Thanks, WSB, for the full report. As usual, your coverage is excellent.

    To Wendy, I’d like to comment on your opinion that apathy is the problem. I disagree. It might seem like the info is out there about things like game night, but the message is not really getting out.

    Even when it is, the people I know, have no idea what one even means by “game night” and whether they’re welcome.

    Additionally, moms are usually home with younger children and dads are working two or three jobs.

    The immigrant families are just normal people. Really. Trying to provide for their families and becoming acclimated to a culture very different from their own.

    Getting to know neighbors…still the best way to break thru these troubles.

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