At last Wednesday's citizens-against-crime meeting called by anti-violence nonprofit founder Rodney Williams -- and covered in good depth by both the Herald-Sun and the N&O -- there were a number of regular citizens in attendance, but the room at the north Durham Golden Corral was overwhelmingly filled with Durhamites already fully-engaged in efforts to quell violent crime.
Besides Williams and Kitora Mason of the Walk For Life group, attendees included Pat James, of Durham's Long Ball Program - Durham's Triple Play, a group that uses baseball as a learning and belonging opportunity for at-risk youth; Walter Jackson, of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People; and DeWarren Langley, who's long been involved in anti-crime initiatives and frequently honored for community activism.
There was Diana Powell, a jail instructor-cum-minister and a man who works to help youth become unentangled from gangs; a single City Council candidate (Charlie Reece); Larry Thomas, founder of the Thomas Mentor Leadership Academy, which engages young men to provide a male role model and leadership inspiration. There was former County Commission candidate and bail bondsman Omar Beasley, too.
And from the Durham Police Department, we had Assistant Chief Ed Sarvis and Chief Jose Lopez.
Still, the turnout was relatively small; 30 or 40 in attendance, perhaps, and most already engaged in anti-crime efforts, largely through civic groups that seek to provide alternative paths to at-risk youth -- or to encourage residents, when that fails, to partner with the police to report criminal activities in their neighborhoods.
That the group was so well-connected already to the fight against crime seemed to suggest to Lopez that those who could most benefit from the conversation weren't there.
"Quite frankly, sometimes I think I’m preaching to the choir, and I don’t need a choir," Lopez said after acknowledging that he knew many of those in attendance that night. He wished instead that the room had more parents who were leaving their children unattended and at risk for gang involvement, or those whose children or neighbors were turning to violence.
Lopez did acknowledge his thanks towards those who did show up -- "Lately most of these meetings I’ve been to, it hasn’t been about solutions. It’s been about problems, about accusations," Lopez said, a clear reference to the very public protests and scrutiny on the Durham P.D. thanks to the Carlos Riley and Jesus Huerta cases, among others.
The focus of the crowd last Wednesday was clearly not on those well-publicized cases, but instead on the rash of shootings that have plagued Durham in recent weeks, and which have continued since: gunfire near Trinity Park late last week, and an armed home invasion in eastern Durham over the weekend. And, sadly, yet another homicide between the time I started writing this story and the time I finished it.
Which must lead one to wonder: why do we have more turnout to meetings on downtown preservation, transit, and, God help us all, a freakin' new grocery store, than we do on an issue that continues to plague our city -- and which, by all metrics, has grown worse in the last few years after more than a decade of declines?
And more troubling still, in an election where so many candidates (and, we suspect, endorsing PACs, too) have had a timely but singular focus on addressing D.P.D.'s well-scrutinized faults, why are few if any speaking out on what they see as the challenge of crime?
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First things first. I certainly consider myself a liberal -- as most of my readership is. Not that I've divined that from some great readership poll; simply put, in a community where three-quarters of our voting base pulled the "blue" lever over the "red" one in the last couple of Presidential elections, it's just a fair assumption.
And I find that liberals, including me, seem uncomfortable talking about crime, when it comes to the actual topic of senseless violent acts in the community.
Perhaps it's because the American right wing has co-opted the idea of law and order. Going back to the dark days of Strom Thurmond, George Wallace, and other Southern white segregationists, talking about crime has practically become dog-whistle language -- a way of separating the fas from the nefas, the "good people" from the implied (and, it's insinuated, dark-skinned) menace.
The unseemly side of everything from WRAL and WTVD comment threads ("why won't The Media tell us what the attacker was?"), to the code-words seemingly pervading every Fox News story on sensational crimes, to that arch-conservative relative we have who posts on Facebook -- we see that continuing to this day.
And of course, I tend to find that liberals are more interested in finding policy solutions to issues rather than engaging in the emotion-rich populism that pervades the right's discussion of crime.
When rising crime rates go up, we tend to want to talk about whether we have enough programs and resources to prevent the scourge. And, there's a lot of focus on important policy issues around the disproportionate and unfair systems in place for those caught up in a crime.
White and suburban, caught with a joint? Community service or a diversion program for you. Found with something harder in a different neighborhood, on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks? More likely to face consequences -- and the future stigmatization in jobs, education, even marriage that follows.
And the school-to-prison pipeline, and the high rates of incarceration that mark America's minority communities in particular, are a national shame.
Indeed, we're making some small progress locally on this, such as the announcement last week of expanded diversion programs for young first-time non-violent offenders -- those found to have shoplifted or to possess drugs. Getting these youth help, not a prison sentence, is a great alternative and the right thing to do.
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Yet there is, and must be, discussion not just of the policy actions that can bend the shape and tenor of our future -- that can divert youth from turning to crime -- but also of the need for immediate action to stop the level of violence in too many of Durham's communities.
To the voices in the room last Wednesday, there are real and immediate alternatives and solutions out there, and I fear they don't always get the same attention that the more policy-wonk issues do.
Williams, the event's organizer, has for several years held his Walk For Life events in communities struck by violence -- the next event comes up on September 19 -- told of the warnings he had heard from some that he or his marchers could be targeted by gangs for trying to bring community members out in a take-back-our-streets show of solidarity.
But Williams described as essential the need to encourage residents to speak up to the police when crime is being committed.
“Say you've got a bad problem in this neighborhood but you know its only two people in that neighborhood” who are reporting issues to the police, Williams posited. “You got to organize to get fifteen in the neighborhood” to make an impact and reduce the impact of pressure and fear on those who would call crimes in. “We’re going to have to do something different.”
Yet Williams also described, achingly, the immediate pain that leads so many to choose the wrong path.
He talked about the hot dogs he provides during events in communities, as a way of enticing residents (especially kids) to come up and talk about crime and peace. In one event in Braggtown, a young boy was peeking out from behind the truck; when the boy was comfortable coming up, he wolfed down hot dogs heartbreakingly quickly, having not eaten in three days. According to the boy, his parents were selling their public food benefits to get money for drugs.
"You got to go through the parents to get to the kids," said Williams. "You're not seeing what I'm seeing."
The idea of active citizens stepping in, almost in loco parentis, was a common refrain from members of the group.
Juanita Johnson -- the property manager of a house targeted during an August shooting, who was at the house fixing the pilot light on the stove so that the residents could resume cooking for a birthday party (the event was erroneously reported, it seems, as a cookout) -- noted that the Long Ball baseball program gets 120 kids off the street, but it's impossible to get Durham residents or even the kids' own parents to give the children attention.
"The only time we've got a full house is on opening day" when the mayor and other luminaries are present, she noted, adding that many parents drop their kids off and don't stay to watch them play.
Johnson spoke passionately about her own willingness to step up and help, and encouraged others to do the same.
“If everybody would stop when they see a child on the street late at night,” Johnson said, it would make a difference. “If they're hungry, I'm going to feed them; if they need a ride, I’m going to give them a ride.”
“If I can take the time out and give up my precious time with my precious children, if everybody in Durham would do the same thing, we wouldn't have any problems,” Johnson said.
To DeWarren Langley, the question is not one of there being enough resources, but of community members being aware of the resources -- and, just as importantly, being motivated to make use of them.
"We don’t need to talk about the problem anymore. We hear about children that are in need, parents that are in need. Durham has a wealth of organizations that service these needs," Langley said.
"Too many people are not being connected with the resources they need," he added. "All of us know people in our neighborhood doing things they have no business doing." Langley encouraged those present to work within "our sphere of influence" to connect them to programs, activities and alternatives.
Diana Powell talked of the ache in watching a young man in prison try to go on the straight-and-narrow path, only to be murdered by his own cousin after he dropped his gang "flag."
“Change is a monster, especially when they’ve been out there all there life, age twelve on up, gang banging,” she said. “A man can change if we show them how.”
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It was interesting to hear the range of perspectives offered at the meeting. And candidly, the discussions often talked about subjects that are uncomfortable for liberals -- particularly the absence of parents in the lives of at-risk children, and the need for community to step in and intercede to help these kids, either through introduction to programs that can help or by direct involvement in the children's lives.
To many of my friends who join me on the left, we're in the midst of a several-years' long rise in concern over the role of agency, and self-determination, and respect for the journeys of others, and reminders of our own privilege and the inappropriateness for us to share thoughts on how others should behave.
And the autonomy of parents with their children, in contexts ranging from public behavior to school discipline to home life, is typically sacrosanct.
But is the key to crime, indeed, centered in the concept that there is a community interest in the success of all our youth -- and the need for government, civic groups, and even citizens to step up when youth are at risk?
This is not a comfortable topic to raise, and it's not as familiar and safe as ideas around public policy interventions, solutions, programs and resources.
Yet it is ultimately the human-to-human relationships that will make all the difference.
The Thomas Mentor Leadership Academy holds its events behind my house at a local church. At first, the group's outdoor activities -- quasi-military, drill sergeant-style activities out in the parking lot -- felt alien to me, and even perhaps a bit quaint.
Yet when you sit in your back yard and listen to Thomas work with these young men, it's quickly obvious that the discipline of these activities is mixed with love, and with a challenge for them to behave according to a community standard we've always expected for youth as they become adults.
And when you hear that voice turn to encouragement, and respect, and camaraderie, you quickly realize that Thomas is making a breakthrough with young lives in that parking lot.
But these aren't topics that are in our public discourse.
Indeed, the crime events that have dominated the headlines in recent weeks -- and the kind of community based solutions that Williams and others raised last week -- haven't been very evident in the campaigns of any of our candidates for office.
Charlie Reece has had perhaps the most to say on the issue, relatively speaking; he was present at last week's event, calling it a "powerful experience" and noting that "so often, we don't have a human response" to issues in the community, just a public policy debate.
Reece's Twitter feed also includes a link to a NY Times article on the again-rising rates of gun violence happening in many cities, not just Durham.
The article is an interesting read, and points out that rates of gun violence were rising before Ferguson -- casting some doubt on the warring theories that either less-aggressive policing since those Missouri events or emboldened gangs and criminals more willing to use violence since could be to blame. (And, across the board, repeat offenders seem to be the folks most likely to reach for a gun, and to use guns to settle what seem to be everyday disputes between people who know each other.)
Still, outside these examples, we haven't heard Reece speak out publicly on the recent spate of violence.
Jillian Johnson's Twitter feed reminds us of some of the public policy initiatives that can help -- Ban the Box, addressing disproportionate school suspension rates -- along with progressive topics like contractor pay at the Residence Inn, pay raises for classified DPS staff and the like. But there's not a single mention of the gun violence in recent weeks, or on communities coming together to work with law enforcement.
Philip Azar has a Tweet pointing folks to the N&O's coverage of the meeting and to the misdemeanor diversion program, but there's probably more talk of new restaurants and development than the question of crime -- and no reference, again, to recent weeks' events.
Robert Stephens' Twitter feed reminds us of the cause that energizes his run for office -- concern over police brutality and "systemic oppression from the inside." But, again, no mention of the dozen-plus shot and injured, or the several killed, in recent weeks.
I don't want to pick on just these candidates -- others running in this race don't have nearly the social media or web presence that these four do. But we haven't heard much on this topic from them, either.
It's heartening and important that our leaders, and particularly our many candidates for local elected offices, are talking about much-needed improvements in our police department, and about the necessity of having strong accountability and responsibility for our police.
And clearly, many of our candidates feel most strongly about the need for a more hopeful future for the disconnected youth of today who are at greatest risk to turn to crime tomorrow. Better job prospects for their parents, strong neighborhoods, and effective outlets like parks and rec centers are all part of that solution, as are judicial reforms.
But why is the level of violence, and the need to combat it, getting so little attention from those who would sit on the dais?
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Rodney Wiliams closed last week's meeting by issuing a challenge for the small assembly.
“Don’t leave here and not have had the change in your heart, that you want to do something about it. Think about if it was your child going through this right here,” Williams said.
“These young men nowadays, their minds are being manipulated by some grown folks. Some grown folks making some decisions in their life. It ain’t somebody with some good common sense telling them to go shoot somebody, it’s somebody with no common sense.”
Acknowledging his own past brushes in the law -- and the experiences others shared during the meeting, of the real danger and threat to life itself if a young man tries to leave gang life -- Williams seemed to worry that the risks of a young man becoming enmeshed in crime are so much greater than they were a generation ago.
“What kind of refuge is he going to have? Where is he going to go?” Williams asked. “You’re going to die going out [of the gang]."
Williams' words are powerful, and they carried deep weight with those in the room.
The question is, will they resonate more deeply in our community, or fall on deaf ears -- or ears that, just maybe, don't want to hear this particular tune?
It's possible to be a liberal who wants to see policing and judiciary reforms, and to want to see youth connected with resources and programs that will make a difference -- while at the same time to be a liberal who cares deeply about the impact violent crime has on communities, and the need to maintain effective, ongoing enforcement when the basic premise of public safety is challenged.
I wonder if we will see any of this year's candidates or our incumbent officials take up that question.