Call to arms against violent crime

August 24, 1992

How can communities confront the scourge of violent crime that is eating away the quality of life in urban neighborhoods and condemning a generation of young people in Baltimore to lives of hopelessness and fear?

How can the killing be stopped?

No mere infusion of police, national guardsmen or even regular Army troops will be sufficient to pacify the war zones that some impoverished inner-city neighborhoods have become. When the NAACP held a "crime summit" last month to discuss the problem, some participants seriously entertained the notion of declaring martial law in crime-ravaged areas.

That may be a measure of the level of desperation to which many city residents feel they have been reduced. But it will take more than brute force to repair the broken fabric of community that fuels the incessant violence.

When Mayor Schmoke suggested "the people themselves" must reclaim their streets, many interpreted the remark as a confession of government's inability to fulfil its basic responsibilities. Yet it also reflected the harsh reality that government simply cannot do the job by itself.

Confronting the crisis of violent crime is the responsibility of every citizen -- a responsibility citizens can meet only if they unite to oppose lawlessness with the combined moral and spiritual resources of the entire community.

In recent years, citizens have formed patrols to deter drug sales and help police identify lawbreakers. Besieged public housing residents have invited Nation of Islam volunteers to eject drug dealers. On college campuses, women have organized "take back the night" vigils to protest sexual assaults.

Such "mass actions" have great potential for effecting change when applied on a sustained basis. Consider the success of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In that epochal struggle, nonviolent mass action overturned an oppressive system through moral suasion. Could not a similar approach be employed today in the inner city?

Some may dismiss the idea of mass nonviolent resistance to crime as naive. Yet what is the alternative, short of military occupation?

Significantly, an intriguing scheme to empower elected neighborhood councils, outlined in an article for the National Review by Republican Senate nominee Alan Keyes, is based on a similar premise. Both emphasize the need to re-establish the link between government and the decent values communities seek to encourage.

That is why further discussion of these issues, in forums like the NAACP "crime summit" last month and at a similar gathering planned for September by the Maryland Conference of Social Concern, must rank near the top of this city's agenda.

History shows that violence, having once spiraled out of control, is difficult to end. If the killing in Baltimore doesn't stop, it will grow worse. No one wants that.

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