Black men turn out in thousands with hope

Philadelphia crime is volunteers' focus

October 22, 2007|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,Sun reporter

PHILADELPHIA -- Raymond McCray showed up, bringing along four teenage relatives and his 5- and 8-year-old sons. The 29-year-old North Philadelphian had told his boys, "Y'all going out with Daddy today, for a good cause."

Torrence Trayham, 25, showed up with 20 members of the youth congregation from Prayer Chapel Church of Christ in Upper Darby, Pa. "We got permission from our pastor to take the day off from church for this," he said.

And 44-year-old Will Col- quitt, who lives in Burlington, N.J., showed up because he has elderly relatives in West Philadelphia. "Just to see the fear they live in," he said.

Families and groups of men from across Philadelphia and beyond showed up - their numbers in the thousands as they filed for more than two hours into an auditorium at Temple University.

They were there for 10,000 Men Philly, a street-level mobilization effort that comes as the City of Brotherly Love is marking its second year of decade-high homicide totals. With more than 400 people killed last year and about 320 so far this year, Philadelphia, like Baltimore, is searching for ways to curb violence.

Yesterday's assembly, promoted by local radio stations and at street rallies last week, was part pep rally and part introduction to a larger plan, organizers said.

The goal is to energize Philadelphia's black men to act. Those who attended yesterday filled out registration cards with activities for which they'd like to volunteer, which included tutoring youths and patrolling the streets alongside police officers.

"They said we wouldn't show up," Bishop Darrell Robinson said to thunderous applause as he kicked off the assembly. "Well, here we are."

A spokesman said the group had exceeded its goal of attracting 10,000 to the event. Another said attendance was closer to 8,500.

Those who came yesterday filled out a yellow evaluation sheet with details about themselves. Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said that such information can help form an invaluable network that police and community activists can tap into for years to come.

Over the course of two hours, a dozen speakers - including Mayor John Street and music mogul Kenny Gamble, both native Philadelphians - shouted "It's a new day!" and implored black men to get involved in their communities.

"All eyes of the whole world are on Philadelphia," Gamble said. "This is the city where America was born."

Charles "Charlie Mack" Alston, a longtime assistant to actor and fellow Philadelphian Will Smith, approached the mayor about a year ago with the idea for 10,000 Men. Street and Police Commissioner Sylvester M. Johnson embraced Alston's plan, which was to energize black men to take back their communities. They contend that the mere presence of men will stem violence.

Yesterday, Alston, wearing a black T-shirt with "Peace" in gold glitter, stood before the men who had answered his "call to action," and told them: "The worst thing we could do is nothing. But if we all do something, we could stop this hemorrhaging."

Two of Alston's brothers were killed by gunfire. He said he felt compelled to use his money and celebrity to stop violence.

Alston and Gamble paid for much of the promotion for 10,000 Men Philly, their publicists said.

Though most of the speakers promised that "this is only the beginning," about half the crowd left before hearing the next step - a series of training sessions this week at area high schools. At the sessions, the men are to learn more about what they can do in their communities.

Organizers announced a shift in their plan at a news conference just before the assembly. As recently as last week, Johnson and others had said the volunteers would be deployed in the city's most dangerous neighborhoods. But some, including the city's likely next mayor, Michael Nutter, said they have reservations about sending civilians into the streets.

Yesterday, organizers said the men would instead be guided into existing city volunteer groups, including Big Brothers and Town Watch, a 2,000-member group of civilians on patrol.

"They thought it would be a better use of force," Johnson said in an interview. "And I think they're right."

Nutter, a City Council member and the Democratic nominee for mayor in an overwhelmingly Democratic city, said Philadelphians also could benefit from some cheerleading. At the assembly, he urged the men to "offer somebody on the streets something other than a sense of hopelessness."

Even though he left a little early, Thomas Walker, 31, of North Philadelphia said yesterday's assembly was "beautiful."

"There's going to be a change, and we're going to be a part of it," he said.

Asked what he planned to do, he replied: "I'm going to start with my own kids [a 6-year-old and a newborn], just spending time with them. And then I'm going to go to street corners and talk to other kids."

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