Crime comeback proves his point

July 18, 2006|By CLARENCE PAGE | CLARENCE PAGE,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- The last time I saw Chris Crowder, he was giving Bill Cosby a hard time for allegedly being too tough on poor black folks.

Now Mr. Crowder, 44, is dead, and I am thinking that Mr. Cosby was not hard enough.

Police found Mr. Crowder on the morning of July 8, shot multiple times next to the wheelchair he has used since he was shot in the same Washington neighborhood back in 1990, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.

Back then, the District of Columbia was the nation's "murder capital" during that era's national crack epidemic. Now Mr. Crowder has been killed during a murder epidemic. Police had no immediate motive or suspects in his death, but he was one of 14 homicides in Washington in the first two weeks of July. Last month, the FBI reported that the nation's murder rate rose in 2005 for the first time in five years.

Is crime making a comeback? In some cities it is. Like Washington, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Boston report an upsurge in murder, particularly among juveniles who are not content to merely rob or steal without adding violence.

And adding alarm to newscasters' voices is the way this crime wave in the district, unlike earlier ones, is hitting tourist areas and the neighborhoods of rich people.

Yes, the containment and abandonment of crime problems in poor neighborhoods has long been a dirty little secret of urban life. But when it spills over into other neighborhoods, major media and powerful politicians no longer can ignore the problem.

In D.C., it took the life of a British man in the upscale Georgetown area last week. Four suspects, including a 15-year-old, have been arrested in that slaying. Two days later, Washington Police Chief Charles Ramsey declared a "crime emergency" that allowed him to put more police in troubled areas. Hours later, two groups of tourists were robbed at gunpoint near the Washington Monument on the National Mall, which is patrolled by the U.S. Park Police.

Nevertheless, abandonment by the rich and powerful does not leave less-fortunate residents helpless or hopeless. Churches, block clubs, community organizations and other local residents can step up and give guidance.

That was the message Mr. Cosby was preaching back in May as he was taking questions at the University of the District of Columbia during one of the "call-outs" he has hosted around the country for the past two years.

Mr. Cosby ruffled a few feathers with his use of blunt, sarcastic humor to criticize parents who shun personal responsibility, blame police for incarcerations and let their children speak improper English. He said what I hear many African-Americans express in our private discussions, if not with the same language.

Nevertheless, Mr. Crowder, sitting in his wheelchair near a microphone, yelled to Mr. Cosby that he was hosting a "watered-down dialogue," although from my vantage point, Mr. Cosby seemed to be doing just fine with the rest of the mostly black audience.

The outburst infuriated Mr. Cosby, who jumped down from the stage to confront Mr. Crowder. "You don't deserve an audience with me," said the star of stage, screen and Jell-O commercials. Fortunately, only words, not fists, were thrown. We can all get along.

Outspoken, I have since learned, is the kind of guy Mr. Crowder was. A Howard University graduate, he was working his way through law school in 1990 when he was shot in a case of mistaken identity, according to news accounts.

He became a regular at community meetings, speaking out for affordable houses and programs for young people. Recently, he was running for mayor of Washington. Sadly, he now is silenced.

We Americans talk a lot about removing the root causes of terrorism abroad. Mr. Crowder's death reminds us of the terrorism too many of us still face on the streets back home, too often at the hands of juveniles. Too many parents have dropped the ball. They are either unwilling or unable to prevent their kids from falling off the social cliff. And too many parents still are children themselves. They have left it up to others to do the child-rearing they should be doing themselves.

Some may quarrel with Mr. Cosby's language, but they can't fault him for speaking the truth.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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