Khaliq looks back on a lifetime of struggle and change

News Analysis
By Doug Grow

Contributing Writer

Nathaniel Khaliq has seen both progress and setbacks in his beloved Selby-Dale neighborhood. Photo: MinnPost photo by Doug Grow
So many battles won, so many lost, and so many — well, sometimes battles don’t end the way they begin.

Nathaniel A. Khaliq, still known by most of his friends in St. Paul’s neighborhoods as Nick Davis, laughed about one of those battles that he and his dear friend and fellow civil rights warrior, the late Katie McWatt, fought a few years back. The Mississippi Market Food Co-op wanted to move its store into the Selby-Dale area of the city, and Khaliq and McWatt were up in arms.

“We were saying, ‘We don’t want any more of these yuppie things in the neighborhood,’” Khaliq recalled. “No way that store. Hell, no.”

They fought the good fight — and they lost. The store opened about 15 months ago. Weeks passed. Khaliq honored his vow not to set foot in the store. He presumed McWatt, too, was staying out.

“One day I was walking past the store,” Khaliq recalled. He looked around and didn’t see anybody he knew.

“I thought, ‘I’ll just sneak in for a second and see what they got.’” He slipped into the store. “I looked around a little,” Khaliq said. “I was thinking, ‘Ooh, this looks pretty good.’”

He looked around a little more — and ran into McWatt. “What are you doing here?’’ he asked McWatt.

“What are you doing here?’’ McWatt asked Khaliq.
Both started laughing.

McWatt, who died in April, became a regular at the store. Khaliq, who became a regular, is now a member of the store’s board of directors. “They’ve hired more people of color than anyone on Selby or Grand,” he said. “They actually back up their talk.”

So much has changed in the neighborhood where Khaliq was born 67 years ago and has fought so hard to save from punks, rogue cops, “red-liners” and developers who would have gentrified the entire community. Another of those changes is coming in November, when Khaliq will step down as president of the St. Paul chapter of the NAACP.

Low-key success stories
Unlike the Minneapolis chapter, which for years has been embroiled in vicious internal struggles, the Khaliq-led St. Paul chapter has quietly gone about its business. Its most recent battles have surrounded the gang lists, one kept by the state’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and the far-larger one maintained by the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office.

The existence of those lists came out as part of the unraveling of the corrupt Metro Gang Strike Force. Investigations showed that there were high levels of inaccuracies on the lists. Additionally, criteria for being placed on the list were highly subjective.

The NAACP went to work. There were meetings with Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher, who finally agreed to remove some of the names from his list. “How can you put a 14-year-old on the list without notifying his parents?” Khaliq asked Fletcher. “At the same time, you want to hold the parents accountable.”

There were meetings with the state legislature, which led to headaches and finally a study group. The state legislature long has baffled Khaliq. Often dominated by DFLers, Khaliq said the body seems to seldom represent DFL principles, especially as those principles might make life better for people of color in the inner cities.

“At the legislature you have so many of those people who see everything black and white,” Khaliq said. “It’s either ‘you’re for us or against us. You’re either for cracking down on crime or you’re against it.’”

The issue of gangs and crime is far more nuanced in the inner city than that. No one has worked harder on cracking down on crime in his neighborhood. No one has worked harder to try to create fairness in the justice system, which often seems so loaded against people of color. That problem remains unresolved, though Khaliq gives high marks to St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and former City Attorney John Choi for both understanding the two-edged problem and trying to resolve it.

Next week: Khaliq on local politics, organized labor, the upcoming elections and more. Thanks to Doug Grow and MinnPost for permission to reprint this story.