Philadelphia Makes New Effort to Combat Urban Violence

November 27, 2007 at 6:25 PM EDT
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Rising murder rates in Philadelphia have led community activists to organize efforts to curb the city's crime. Kwame Holman talks to local activists about their fight against violent crime.

JIM LEHRER: Now, a grassroots effort by men to reduce violence against men in a city with one of the highest murder rates in the country. Kwame Holman has our report.

KWAME HOLMAN: They lined up by the thousands on a bright Sunday morning in Philadelphia recently to answer an unusual call: to join a new movement against violence that’s earned their city the nickname Killadelphia. The call was for 10,000 men, and close to that many turned out, more than 100 on motorcycles.

They were young and middle-aged and mostly black, all volunteers to help stem the gun violence that’s claimed more than 350 lives in this city so far this year. Charles Dumas teaches at Temple University where the rally was held.

Why are you and all these men here?

CHARLES DUMAS, Temple University: Because we have an epidemic right now here, an epidemic of violence in our city. And I think it’s up to us to stop it. It’s not up to the politicians; it’s not up to the federal government. It’s up to black men and it is up to us to take our neighborhoods back. And that’s why we’re here. That’s why I’m here.

KWAME HOLMAN: Darren Cathey works as a printer.

DARREN CATHEY, Painter: I’m here because I’m concerned, like a lot of the brothers, about the crime in the city. I want to make a change and make a difference.

KWAME HOLMAN: The vast majority of shooting victims have been African-American in a city that is 44 percent black. And while the retiring police commissioner, Sylvester Johnson, says local media have exaggerated the crime problem this year, he acknowledges the toll it’s taken on hundreds of African-American families.

SYLVESTER JOHNSON, Commissioner, Philadelphia Police Department: Three hundred and nineteen families have been devastated. So I would never sit here and say, “We only have 319.” One is too many. So the fact is that before, and I’m being very realistic, when a black got killed, he was on page nine, and now he’s on page one.

Murders rates rising nation-wide

KWAME HOLMAN: Philadelphia is not alone in facing the problem. Murders in several U.S. cities, which fell during the 1990s, were on the rise this year, including in Baltimore and Oakland, California.

And there's a perception that the killings often occur with little provocation. Newark, New Jersey's, homicide rate jumped 50 percent over the last four years. During the summer, the medium-sized city drew national attention as residents mourned the deaths of three college students who were forced by assailants to line up on an elementary school playground, then shot to death.

In Philadelphia, past appeals to confront gun violence have been championed by city native Bill Cosby, and women often have been in the forefront.

E. STEVEN COLLINS, Radio Host, Co-Organizer, 10,000 Men Campaign: We pray God for your divine guidance.

KWAME HOLMAN: At the 10,000-men rally last month, organizers called on black men to engage in intervening with young people. Local radio host E. Steven Collins.

E. STEVEN COLLINS: We need you. This is our day. This is the day we ask you to come to call to action. No longer will drug dealers, pimps, and hustlers push our sisters, our children, our seniors around. We are here today to take it back.

KWAME HOLMAN: Organizers say, over the long term, bringing violence down in low-income black communities requires better schools, job opportunities, and economic development. More immediately, the city's mayor-elect, Michael Nutter, has a controversial plan for closing some streets in high-crime areas, setting curfews, and allowing police to stop and frisk those suspected of carrying an illegal weapon.

RALLY LEADER: What a great platform of great black leaders.

KWAME HOLMAN: But many of the men at the rally say law enforcement alone isn't enough and their move to step up their presence in neighborhoods has the support of city leaders. Philadelphia's long-time Mayor John Street, whose term ends in January, spoke at the rally.

MAYOR JOHN STREET, Philadelphia: This is the day when we are going to do something different in this city. Every one of us is going to make a personal commitment today that my neighborhood, my block, my recreation center, my community, my son, my daughter, my children are going to be in. I'm going to do the work to make this a better community.

Police killed in the line of duty

KWAME HOLMAN: In the days leading up to this rally, organizers said contingents of the 10,000 men would deploy to the sidewalks in high-crime areas, accompanied by Philadelphia police officers. But concerns such patrols could spark clashes with young people led organizers to emphasize getting the men to bolster the ranks of established community groups.

Police Commissioner Johnson.

SYLVESTER JOHNSON: Get involved in town watch organizations, get involved in Big Brothers, Big Sisters. Get involved in Boy Scouts. Get involved in the local organizations that already exists.

So any time you put another 10,000 or more people on a voluntary basis, it has to make a difference, because you have another 10,000 men on the street. Our children will start seeing African-American men in the community walking the streets, talking to them, getting involved with them.

KWAME HOLMAN: The commissioner notes that this year has been an especially deadly one for his officers, including Chuck Cassidy, a 25-year veteran of the force, who was shot and killed last month. He walked in on an armed robbery that was captured on this surveillance video.

FUNERAL SERVICE SPEAKER: We thank you, Lord, that he was willing to make that ultimate sacrifice.

KWAME HOLMAN: Cassidy was remembered with an interfaith service and was the third Philadelphia officer shot in four days during October and the fifth officer killed in the line of duty this year.

RELATIVE OF LATE PHILADELPHIA OFFICER: My brother-in-law is a police officer. I have friends who are police officers. It's terrible. They don't respect life anymore.

DOROTHY JOHNSON-SPEIGHT, Mothers in Charge: Whether we're affected directly or indirectly, we all hurt as a result of the violence in this city.

Positive role models

KWAME HOLMAN: Philadelphia music mogul Kenny Gamble agrees and has pushed for a stronger community response. A producer of socially conscious mega-hits during the 1980s, he's now one of the creators of the 10,000 Man Movement.

Can you have the kind of impact that is going to prevent a shooting from occurring on a street if you're just involved indoors with community organizations?

KENNY GAMBLE, Co-Organizer, 10,000 Men Campaign: Well, we're not just going to be indoors. We're also going to have men present on the street, but we are not going to have any kind of confrontation. We're not going to stop anyone from shooting. What our purpose is, is to enlighten our community, to raise the consciousness of our community, to come out of this culture of crime.

KWAME HOLMAN: The anti-violence movement in Philadelphia draws strongly on black pride and a belief that black men must reassert a positive and visible role in low-income communities. Omar Simmons and Charles Younger have been trying to do that via a mentoring group for neighborhood young people, some of whom they brought to the rally.

CHARLES YOUNGER, Shared Experiences: These young men have a part to play when they become fathers. OK, right now, they're seeing other men not only in-laws, but other men who do things with them all the time, who are good family men, who love, respect and protect the women who they care for.

KWAME HOLMAN: Twelve-year-old Andrew Williams was among the younger of those who turned out.

ANDREW WILLIAMS, Philadelphia Resident: It's not really necessary for people to be getting shot, because of the fight, the gangs,  we need to stop all that.

KWAME HOLMAN: Volunteers hope to counter a street credo of settling scores through violence. Police Commissioner Johnson recently asked young students what they would do if someone harmed their mothers. The students said they would retaliate in kind.

SYLVESTER JOHNSON: I go to two or three different schools every single week, and we talk about choices. And one bad choice can ruin your life. We let the children know on a continuous basis, one, that guns give you no power, the drugs give you no power, the money gives you no power. The other thing that I use as an example, I came from the streets of north Philadelphia. And if I can come from the streets of north Philadelphia to be police commissioner, so can they.

KWAME HOLMAN: The men who gathered on that Sunday afternoon this fall pledged to deliver such messages to young people across the city, but the work is just getting started.

In follow-up meetings since the rally, about 3,000 men have turned out to volunteer. And several hundred will begin high-visibility walks in south Philadelphia this week to hand out literature and make contact with residents. It's fewer than the 10,000 men, but organizers say it's a good beginning.