By David A. Love
Published by The Black Commentator
October 25, 2007
On Sunday, October 21, 2007, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson and local community groups teamed up to stem the tide of gun violence and the city’s ballooning murder rate, and to take control of the streets.
Thousands of men gathered at Temple University’s Liacouras Center in an effort called “A Call to Action: 10,000 Men — It’s a New Day.” Volunteers are being asked to patrol the streets for 90 days in some of the city’s most violent neighborhoods. They will receive training in community outreach, including directing residents to educational, job, and drug treatment services. And they will be divided into small platoons headed by an off-duty volunteer officer, and directed by a district captain to patrol an area for three-hour shifts.
As a Philadelphia resident and prisoners’ rights advocate who sees the daily manifestations of a broken city, I hope that those bearing good intentions will succeed in making the city whole. Black men are killing each other and filling up the prisons, and something must be done — yesterday.
I believe, at the outset, the 10,000 men movement has good intentions, but I have some misgivings. My first concern is that the police department, in virtually deputizing a multitude of people, is creating and controlling a volunteer force with the potential to engage in acts of vigilantism, a recipe for disaster. My second and more important concern is that such a call to action gives the impression that with catchy slogans, symbolism and a magic wand — in the absence of a larger justice movement that seeks to replace a host of policies that are crippling us — society can ignore our systemic problems and still make everything better, now that thousands of men are marching through the streets.
And the systemic problems are numerous, chronic and interrelated. Philadelphia is but a microcosm of America, and the dire straits in which we find ourselves are being played out in urban centers throughout the nation.
The 10,000 men are not the first attempt at community control in this country. Following the urban rebellions of the 1960s, the government embraced and funded some community empowerment initiatives, then pulled the plug and vilified their efforts. In other cases, the government actively destroyed community empowerment movements it could not control. We must remember the attempts by the first 10,000 Black men and women — the Black Panthers — to empower the people through their ten-point plan. With their free clinics and breakfast programs for children, the Panthers in Philadelphia and other cities were branded as a dangerous terrorist organization by the federal government and local police. Their offices were raided, their leaders imprisoned, assassinated or otherwise neutralized. Had the Black Panthers succeeded, or more specifically, had they been allowed to succeed, one can only imagine what the Black community would have looked like today.
And in Philadelphia, with its especially troubling history of police-community relations, there have been years of conditioning in which police view communities of color as a criminal element, and these communities rightly perceive the police as an occupying force. There is the memory of police commissioner-turned mayor Frank Rizzo’s reign of terror against African Americans in the 1960s and 1970s. There is the memory of the 1985 bombing of the radical Black collective MOVE, in which the police, under Philadelphia’s first Black mayor, Wilson Goode, firebombed a block of Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia. Five children and six adults died, and 61 homes were destroyed. Given such events, it is no wonder that many refuse to cooperate with the police, opting for a “no snitching” policy.
Bad public policy, with even worse intentions, has played an insidious role in poor communities and communities of color that even an army of thousands of volunteers cannot eradicate. “Tough on crime” and the “war on drugs” are code names for the criminalization of Black men. The school-to-prison pipeline does its job well, as some of the more under-performing schools in Philadelphia program children for failure, and prepare them for a life of few opportunities outside of Pennsylvania’s state correctional system. Prisons scattered throughout the Commonwealth are warehoused with Black men from Philadelphia, providing increased revenue and higher census figures for rural White areas. Meanwhile, the inner city is depleted of resources, economic activity and hope, and emptied of thousands of Black men who have been murdered or shipped off to prison camps and gulags across the state, no longer available to build their communities and support their families. Perhaps it is not surprising that Philadelphia is a city that is 25 percent in poverty, the highest of the major U.S. metropolitan areas.
10,000 men in the streets cannot begin to undo the harm caused by years of regressive conservative economic policies, initiated by Reagan’s trickle-down on America, and perfected by Bush Jr.’s war-profiteering kleptocracy. As the wealthy received tax breaks, corporate subsidies and other rewards, the poor and working poor witnessed the erosion of the social safety net, and critical social welfare programs. After all, the reverse-Robin Hood crowd viewed poverty as a moral deficiency, and the poor had to learn to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and stop depending on the government.
Moreover, wealth inequality, exacerbated by depopulation and the erosion of the city’s economic base, has crippled Philadelphia and other places. Suburbanites, who left the city for a better life, see their future as separate and distinct from the fate of the neighborhoods they left behind. Philly’s population has decreased substantially over the years as a result of White flight, a ten percent loss between 1980 and 2000. However, the trend has reversed and the city is now repopulating. For example, many New Yorkers, priced out and crowded out, are flocking to the easier life, the new frontier 90 miles to the South. Gentrification is transforming neglected urban blight into chic, trendy neighborhoods for young hipsters and affluent professionals. But what will become of the poor residents who remain, yet will be crowded out of the communities they can no longer afford?
And without jobs, a living wage and life choices, those in poverty will remain frustrated and desperate. Oddly, though, although Philly’s neglected neighborhoods are deprived of many things, the last thing they need — guns — never are in short supply. Philadelphia is held hostage by the NRA, and while the 10,000 men hopefully will help stop the violence, they have no control over the grip that the gun lobby has on Harrisburg. Unable to enact its own gun control ordinances, unlike New York City, Philadelphia is subject to the interests of suburban and rural lawmakers who are rewarded handsomely by the arms manufacturers. John C. Sigler, the president of the NRA, recently told an audience at Widener University Law School in Wilmington, Delaware that Philadelphia does not need new antigun laws, and that gun control only serves to hamstring law-abiding citizens. Sigler’s statement came a day after a march led by wheelchair-bound gunshot victims in Philadelphia, those who obviously are not a part of Sigler’s constituency.
So, given the historical and political context in which we find ourselves, any attempt to solve Philadelphia’s crime problem must include a greater call for social, economic and racial justice, the eradication of redlining and predatory lending in communities of color, a living wage and viable schools, universal healthcare and childcare, affordable housing, the decriminalization of drugs, an end to the incarceration boom, and the reunification of families separated by prison bars. Anything less is more of the same old story.
Copyright © 2007 by David A. Love