On a recent Monday evening, a family of six was gunned down as they returned to their Chicago home, killing a pregnant mother and a grandmother, and wounding two children, including an 11-month-old baby. The last weekend in September was the second in a row during which more than 50 people have been shot on the streets of Chicago.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Democratic leadership in Chicago continues to run around in a daze, denying the obvious, and blaming the problem on gun laws to deflect from the real issues. The crux of the issue is that in Chicago, entire communities have completely disintegrated from within. Effective leadership at the community level is sorely lacking, as are present fathers and strong family structures. The vicious cycle shows no sign of abating, as gangs of fatherless children and young adults raised by the prison system are left to fend for themselves and form their own fractured and violent facsimile of a social structure.
The situation in Chicago is so desperately broken that alternative solutions bear considering.
One of the few sources of strong leadership in many of these communities is the Nation of Islam. The NOI has long endured controversy over accusations of anti-Semitism and black-nationalist extremism. The inflammatory rhetoric of some of its leaders — including current head Louis Farrakhan — lend credence to such claims. Extremist elements of the NOI should be sternly and unequivocally condemned.
On the other hand, more moderate Muslims have made it a point of standing up for their communities. David Muhammad, a retired mechanic who lives in the West Side of Chicago was featured in the CBS “48 Hours” documentary “War In Chicago” for his work in documenting drug dealing in his neighborhood. For over a year, Mr. Muhammad recorded live video of an open air drug market that had set up shop in front of a Baptist church, and posted the videos to YouTube.
The radical strategy garnered Mr. Muhammad scores of death threats from the angry local dealers, but the spotlight proved more than they could endure and they eventually moved on. Some might be perplexed as to why a Muslim would risk his life protecting Christian worshippers, but for Mr. Muhammad the answer was simple — “In Islam we’re taught to protect all institutions of God. So it was like a slap in my face for them to deal drugs right out of the door of the church.”
Security firms affiliated with the NOI began informally patrolling communities beset by violence in the late 1980s and proved quite effective in several cities — including Washington, Baltimore and Chicago. Their presence aimed at establishing respect in the community and teaching young men how to carry themselves with dignity. A largely unarmed force they were able to achieve consistent and dramatic reductions in violent crime in the neighborhoods they patrolled. Security firms affiliated with the NOI entered partnerships with the Department for Housing and Urban Development to guard HUD-operated government housing projects in several cities.
Although few complained about the NOI’s effectiveness in reducing violence and crime, a political firestorm resulted in the revocation or nonrenewal of most of its HUD contracts.
Most notably, in 1995 HUD abruptly canceled an NOI-affiliated firm’s contract to secure Baltimore public housing buildings — citing bidding irregularities and other violations that were widely viewed as a smoke screen for a political battle over the group’s anti-Semitic rhetoric.
Tenants of the city’s seven high-rise public housing projects complained bitterly. Wells Fargo Security, a competing firm which got the security contract, drew the ire of residents who complained that crime, vandalism and violence had skyrocketed a mere two months after the takeover. Within two years Wells Fargo’s contracts were also canceled and the firm chased out of town as life in the city’s housing projects deteriorated.
The fact is the NOI brings to the table things other private security firms and the police don’t — credibility within the community. The NOI is one of the few community-based organizations that actually recruit in prisons and also offer transitional services to ex-offenders.
One problem cited by HUD with its Baltimore contract was that the NOI’s hiring ex-offenders as guards. But this was actually a strength — the NOI had cleaned up ex-offenders, taken them off the streets, got them off drugs and instilled discipline before redeploying them in neighborhoods they were known and now respected.
All the kings’ horses and all the kings’ men have given it their best and yet violence in Chicago remains an ongoing tragedy that has shown no signs of abatement. It is time Chicago take the next practical step in partnering with community-based organizations with proven track records of curbing violence and crime. While we should condemn bigotry and extremism in all forms, this should not deter us from engaging with members of the Muslim community to develop constructive, community-based solutions to the problems tearing the city to shreds in the absence of sane leadership and cooperation.
• Armstrong Williams is sole owner/manager of Howard Stirk Holdings and executive editor of American CurrentSee online magazine.