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August 20, 2014, 4:25 pm

Panel seeks to combat roots of violence

Mayor’s commission focuses on education, jobs


It’s impossible to say how many families in the Black community — and that’s just in Philadelphia alone — have been affected by the senseless violence that has a tight grip on African-American young people.

As of Tribune press time, the number of homicides in Philadelphia has climbed to 323, higher than last year’s total of 304 and significantly higher than the 2009 total of 298 when there was a noticeable decline. And the problem of this violence isn’t just endemic in Philadelphia — it is a national problem, with national consequences. The violence and the consequential fallout of incarceration and unemployment have depleted the presence of Black men in the community, said Mayor Michael Nutter at a recent meeting of mayors from across the country.

“This is an epidemic that’s been going on too long,” Nutter said. “And unfortunately, you will find African-American males at the bottom of good categories and at the top of negative categories, all of which contribute to a degradation of the overall quality of life in Black neighborhoods.”

According to figures from reports researched by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, across the nation 85 percent of the Black victims of homicide are male and 51 percent are between the ages of 17 and 19. Across the nation, the major cause of death among the age group 10 to 24 is violence — and that violence is grounded in a sense of hopelessness, desperation and despair. It is also rooted in a potent subculture that glorifies murder and views incarceration as a rite of manhood.

“I’ll give Mayor Nutter credit for taking these issues seriously,” said Bilal Qayyum, executive director of the Father’s Day Rally Committee. “He’s been speaking out publicly, and he’s using his position as vice president of the United States Conference of Mayors to make this a national issue. His administration has engaged in a crime fighting strategy that initially saw a decline in the homicide rate and continuing reductions in other violent crimes. Nutter has also committed the School District to increase the school graduation rate and to double college attendance. So, yes, they’re doing some things right.”

Recently, Nutter re-established the Mayor’s Commission on African-American Males. The group will eventually be composed of about 30 volunteer members tasked with addressing unemployment, incarceration, the lack of education and health issues among Black men.

Qayyum said he sees the major issues that need to be addressed as joblessness, poor education, what he referred to as a de-emphasis on education, increasing poverty and a serious loss of moral and cultural values among many African Americans.

“About 50 percent of the Black males in this city are jobless, and based on the current economic conditions, I don’t see that changing anytime soon,” Qayyum said. “When you’ve got no job and little chance of getting one, you lose hope and act in desperation. As of right now, Philadelphia has become number one in terms of poverty.”

According to a recent report released by the city controller’s office, Philadelphia’s poverty rate of 25 percent outpaces that of the nation’s largest cities. Philadelphia’s poverty rate is higher than those of Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles and New York. Detroit, which is half the size of Philadelphia, is higher, at 36.4 percent.

In terms of crime and violence, a snapshot of data from the Philadelphia police Department illustrates the depth of the problem. For just the first six months — January to June 2011 — young Black males, between the ages of 18 to 25 were at the top of the list of homicide victims and perpetrators. According to those statistics, in 2010, 122 Black males were murdered, as opposed to only 21 white males. In 2011, that number rose to 134, with only one white male added to their numbers. In 2010, 60 Black males between the ages of 18 to 25 were murdered and 61 in 2011.

“I was on-line looking at some reports on violence in our community recently. Now some websites you can’t trust of course, but the reports I was looking at were written in the 1970s and the issues then are still with us today — lack of jobs, poor education and poverty,” Qayyum said. “And there is a prevalent lack of a relationship to our values, our culture. When people understand who they are historically, they have a different perspective. Without that perspective, those values, you see the kinds of behavior we just recently saw with people fighting over pairs of Air Jordans. I think the mayor and the police commissioner are doing the best they can. But they can’t predict where the next crime is going to happen or change the minds of the people involved. Looking ahead to 2012, I would say they need to put more resources where the problems are. After doing their analyses and reports, concentrate their forces in those areas. And figure out how to increase jobs. Traditionally, when the economy is bad, Philadelphia lags behind. That hasn’t really been the case this time, we managed to maintain. But if we’re really going to turn things around we have to increase job creation and encourage people to start their own businesses. We have the reports, we’ve seen the statistics and we know what the problems are. We just have to roll up our sleeves. It’s not rocket science.”

Dorothy Johnson-Speight, founder of Mothers in Charge said much more community involvement is needed, along with more support for the families of murder victims.

“There’s not nearly enough support for these families and the emotional hardships they go through,” she said. “In terms of lowering the number of homicides I think that Commissioner Ramsey is doing the best that he can, but I would like to see the department engage the community more. I mean, the numbers of shootings are rising and so are the number of homicides — these crimes aren’t down. People are still reluctant to talk to the police, and if they really want to get in front of this issue they need the community. People need to know they’re going to get the full support of law enforcement.”