A tale of two cities

Editorial Notebook

November 03, 2007|By Makeda S. Crane

On Oct. 16, 1995, just a little over 12 years ago, approximately one million black men converged on the front lawn of our nation's capital to unify, atone and take responsibility for the state of the African-American community. Watching this gathering on television was breathtaking, as the men represented a vast array of economic and social backgrounds: stockbrokers, ex-offenders, husbands, fathers, journalists, ministers and imams, all connected by a common purpose.

Was it merely an anomaly of epic proportions? Most important, what was missing that prevented those million men from converting the palpable inspiration of that day into a firm resolve to transform their communities?

Today, less than an hour from the nation's capital, Baltimore faces the imminent possibility of reaching 300 murders by year's end, and nearby Philadelphia has already surpassed that number. These cities with more than 5,000 murders between them since that Million Man March reflect the work left undone.

Both cities are densely populated with African-Americans, and are confronting the questions: How do we save the next generation of young black men? How do we save ourselves?

In Philadelphia, a grass-roots initiative called 10,000 Men Philly has launched a 90-day campaign to engage volunteers in responding to that city's murder toll, whose victims are disproportionately African-American men. As "community peacekeepers," the volunteers - mostly black men - will help resolve conflicts, patrol dangerous neighborhoods and connect residents to community services.

This initiative seems to reflect a refreshing turn from simply "rallying around" a specific tragedy to offering a multipronged approach for addressing the roots of "corner violence" - self-hatred, hopelessness, generational poverty and powerlessness.

Philadelphia, known for its volatile history of police brutality, has recognized with 10,000 Men that draconian policing camouflaged as a "law and order" strategy is inherently flawed. Why? Because it is arrogant and exclusionary and creates dissonance and distrust among the very communities it has pledged to serve. Inflating the police presence without community engagement neglects the "familial muscle" of mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles who could contribute greatly to their communities.

Even concerned neighbors who are unrelated to young people in need of direction can provide meaningful and profound role models that can last a lifetime.

In Baltimore, the public response to its murder epidemic has been barely a rumble. Citizens on patrol groups have been formed to take on the deadliest blocks in East Baltimore. But they consist primarily of residents who live outside of the city's dangerous neighborhoods, where many residents fear becoming a target of the very violence that they hope to end. Although these efforts are positive, how much more powerful would it be if the fathers, mothers and grandparents in these neighborhoods moved collectively to uplift and revive their communities?

Aunts and uncles should courageously walk up to the corner where their drug-dealing 16-year-old nephew makes his "dinner" money, grab hold of his hand and stand for him to be an asset rather than a liability to his neighborhood. If enough of them chose to take on one nephew or one younger cousin who sees the corner as his only option, it would show that, yes, they - and we - really do care whether they live or die and, more important, that they are worth saving.

By the end of last month, close to 12,000 men in Philadelphia committed to taking back their streets. These men are on a mission to redirect and literally save the lives of thousands of young men who see "street life" as integral to their survival in the world.

Imagine if 10,000 men in Baltimore joined 10,000 women for the same purpose, to transform the streets of this city. Imagine this work being supported and duplicated in every major U.S. city. It could bring whole neighborhoods back to life, transform families, salvage communities and ultimately save a generation.

Now, wouldn't that be a seed well sown?

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