- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 5, 2006

A rash of street violence is consuming this city as increasingly younger criminals are almost seizing control of the night. No longer motivated by money, they deliberately commit violence against their victims. Tourism is affected as people are assaulted on the Mall and in upscale neighborhoods such as Georgetown and Adams Morgan. The city’s response is the same as in the past — a demand for more police presence. But police action alone has not been effective in the short term, nor has it provided any long-term security to desperate citizens.

In 1983, my hometown of Philadelphia was plagued with a similar rash of attacks on citizens by youths the media labeled “wolf packs.” Small groups of up to five young black males would attack shoppers, moviegoers and picnickers, knock them to the ground and snatch purses and jewelry. The attacks soon spread to the city subway and buses. The problem grew so severe the Civic Center, major movie theaters and shopping centers canceled performances or closed early. The city was held prisoner to these predatory bands of marauders.

Sister Falaka Fattah, founder of the neighborhood-based House of Umoja, had the idea of consulting with some of the older former gang leaders — the Original Gangsters or O.G.s — that she had motivated to leave gang violence. She asked them what they thought could be done to stop the attacks.

One, whose street name was “Fat Rob,” suggested we approach prison inmates to seek their support in stopping the violence. We set up a meeting with the prison leadership, and 135 inmates signed up and agreed to be part of a crime prevention task force. They assembled the names of approximately 150-200 young men from their old neighborhoods who they believed were committing or could influence those who were committing these crimes.

After providing the names to the Umoja leadership, they further recommended that we assemble these young men from throughout the city and bring them to the prison so the older inmates could counsel them about their behavior. Entertainment mogul Kenny Gamble provided the money for Umoja to transport the young people from their respective neighborhoods to the prison. And on a Saturday afternoon that summer, the inmate leadership came into the large gymnasium through one door and the young people through another.

After a lunch and introductory speeches, the young people had some small group breakout sessions with the inmates that lasted for two or three hours in which the inmate task force actually advised the young people against this predatory behavior. After this meeting, the Wolf Pack attacks stopped immediately.

City officials were relieved and most laudatory of Umoja’s actions. They were very generous to Umoja with their awards plaques and other public recognition. But once peace was restored, when Umoja requested money to institutionalize some preventive programs designed by the O.G.s and Umoja, the city and traditional social service agencies turned their backs. And Umoja never received any funding to carry out their preventive strategies.

The moral to this story is that answers exist, but they mostly will not be found through traditional social service outreach or by increasing police patrols and locking people up. Umoja has demonstrated there can be an internal strategy that reaches into these neighborhoods and identifies leaders within the indigenous communities that are respected enough to exercise influence over the young. They are the community’s antibodies and collectively can act as an immune system that begins to cure the body — the community — of its violent tendencies.

Washington, D.C., has an abundance of these neighborhood leaders. Some are ex-offenders, others are and have been available to the kids and diligently serve this population. The city could assemble a cadre of these leaders to do exactly what Umoja did — try to develop a similar strategy to address the present crisis.

Those centers of influence exist in these high-crime communities. The indigenous leaders are prepared to step up. Lacking are the resources and the recognition they have the influence and can address this violence in ways no one else can.

We all have all heard the old saw that doing the same thing and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. Why can’t we turn away from our own insanity? What can be lost by at least attempting what Philadelphia did? What is the downside?


Founder and president, Center for Neighborhood Enterprise.

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