All for one

Out of answers, Philadelphians look to each other to stop neighborhood crime

Confronting Crime : The Battle For Baltimore's Future

October 21, 2007|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,Sun reporter

PHILADELPHIA -- A thickset man called "Earthquake" slips yellow cards into the open windows of passing motorists at 60th Street and Woodland Avenue. A tall man with movie-star good looks wedges a poster into the windshield of a city bus stopped at a traffic light. A man with a radio host voice calls for support over a portable microphone.

The three are among a small army of men trying to energize this city's black community to put an end to the violence that is claiming lives in record numbers.

Their goal is to produce 10,000 men at an assembly today, a symbolic show of force that they compare to the 1995 Million Man March in Washington. But organizers also hope to have an impact on crime by persuading those men to patrol the city's most dangerous neighborhoods for 90 days.

Philadelphia, like Baltimore, wakes up every day to yet more bloodshed. Just as in Baltimore, nothing, from policing strategies to bursts of community activism, seems to have worked.

Perhaps 10,000 Men Philly, a street-level mobilization, will.

Organizers, drawn mostly from nonprofit groups, are careful to emphasize that they do not want the volunteers taking up arms and getting aggressive. Instead, the focus is regaining control of neighborhoods through the mere presence of men.

After today's gathering at Temple University, volunteers will undergo training in community outreach - how to direct residents to education and jobs and steer them to services such as drug treatment.

Then they are to be divided into small "platoons," each ideally led by an off-duty officer who has volunteered his or her time, and sent on three-hour patrols in areas where police district captains have directed them to go, organizers say.

"Go tell your children that the men are coming," music mogul and community activist Kenny Gamble thundered at a news conference on Monday.

"We are calling our community to order."

The concept has enjoyed wide support - from the police commissioner, who calls it a "tremendous idea," to a 24-year-old dressed in all red who thinks it will help keep his North Philadelphia neighborhood from being flooded with more police officers.

Others, including Michael Nutter, a City Council member who is expected to be the next mayor, are more measured in their endorsements: "I want to be careful about asking people to go into the streets," he recently told The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Police chiefs across the country have long implored residents to become more involved in their communities - even by simply reporting crime and coming forward when they are witnesses.

Baltimore police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said police must "shame, cajole, plead, whatever it takes" to get residents to care. As he walked Thursday night with "citizens on patrol" in Canton, he said he is eager to hear about the turnout for 10,000 Men Philly - and to hear what happens afterward.

"It can't just be a publicity stunt," he said. "There has to be a real message to the community, and it has to be backed up with action. It can't just be talk."

Last week, Philadelphia event organizers conducted a final blitz of promotion at a series of street rallies. They pushed clipboards at passers-by, urging them to volunteer. About 4,000 had signed up as of Friday, said Norm Bond, a spokesman for 10,000 Men Philly.

On Tuesday, a group that included community activist Paul "Earthquake" Moore, local celebrity Charles "Charlie Mack" Alston and city manager Mannwell Glenn, swarmed 60th and Woodland, stopping traffic as they talked up their cause.

They were in Southwest Philadelphia, the deadliest area of the city.

Trolley lines hang like cobwebs above streets of abandoned rowhouses and shuttered businesses. The night before, a few blocks down 60th, a high school student was shot to death, inspiring a 15-year-old girl who knew him to have "Killadelfia" tattooed across her back.

At the rally, Alston, an entertainment promoter and personal assistant to actor and fellow Philadelphian Will Smith, was the center of attention, posing for photographs with children and swooping down to gather women in hugs.

"It's a new day!" Alston shouted over and over again, as he did at a news conference the day before.

He describes himself as "Robinhood-esque," making money in Hollywood and pumping it back into his hometown, where two of his brothers were shot to death and where much of his own youth was squandered as a drug dealer.

10,000 Men Philly is his idea. He says he was inspired to do something grand after meeting Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali on movie sets in recent years.

"We have to stand united," he says. "This is an epidemic. It's urban genocide that we're dealing with right now. If we don't get this together, we're coming to the end. It's just that simple."

This anticrime effort, he says, is different because it's about various groups coming together with one goal: Stop the killing.

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