Superman isn’t coming: Grassroots efforts to end urban violence

The unrest started last Saturday soon after 16-year-old Kimani Gray was shot down in Brooklyn by plainclothes NYPD officers. Outraged over his death, local residents took to the streets in East Flatbush for several nights of protest, resulting in over 40 arrests, looting and scuffles with the police.

Then, on Monday, 13 were injured in a drive-by shooting in DC and
WASHINGTON, DC – MARCH 11: DC Metro Police Officers investigate the scene of a drive-by shooting that took place in front of the Tyler House apartment complex in the 1200 block of North Capitol Street NW, Washington, DC on March 11, 2013. (Photo by Matt Zapotosky/The Washington Post) (Matt Zapotosky) on Tuesday, 6-month old Jonylah Watkins was fatally shot 5 times in Chicago as her father (the target of the crime) changed her diaper. The stories read like scenes out of “New Jack City,” the 1991 film that depicted the rise and fall of urban drug lords during the crack epidemic.

Tragically, this is the reality of working class African Americans living in inner-city neighborhoods plagued by high unemployment, flourishing drug economies and failing school systems. Rather than waiting for sweeping public policy reform or the arrival of national guard troops (as some have suggested in the case of Chicago), these communities have the most to gain by focusing on grassroots, local mobilization efforts to curtail the violence.

But the national outcry has been uneven. In Gray’s case, attention has been given to his killing because it’s a continuation of police brutality accusations against the NYPD. While the Chicago murder has garnered some national attention, that’s likely because of the age of the victim. In Washington, there was scant media coverage.

The general apathy got me thinking that we need a different model when addressing this violence. Instead of “waiting for Superman,” we need community-based solutions to these social problems. With that in mind, I interviewed three individuals from the black Church, the Nation of Islam and hip-hop communities. While the power of these institutions in shaping black political consciousness may not be as strong as in decades past, they remain three of the most influential forces shaping black values and actions.

When asked about strategies historically used by the NOI that have proven successful, Capt. Dennis Muhammad emphasized the need to “meet the people where they are, which may mean meeting them in the streets, projects, corners and going door to door.” After having been trained by the Nation of Islam for over 30 years, he founded the Peacekeepers Global Initiative, which is described as a community action plan to promote peace, love and unity in communities plagued by crime and gun violence. His organization sends 50-100 men out to patrol neighborhood streets for “One Hour of Power.”

Muhammad’s belief that it is more important to go where one is needed versus only trying to bring young people into the fold of positive programming is also an argument for intergenerational dialogue. He encourages youth advocates “to work hard to bridge that gap between yesterday’s leaders and heroes who are out of step with this new generation of youth who have very little knowledge of their sacrifice or struggle.”

The Nation of Islam has been successful in ways that other leadership groups have not in bridging the generational divide between the Civil Rights, Black Power and Hip-Hop generations. It has long been praised for its capacity to empower young people to think critically about hip-hop and to challenge rappers in the area of social responsibility. How can more of us do the same through our various spheres of influence?

Conrad Tillard, who once served as the NOI’s national youth minister and was known as “The Hip-Hop Minister,” thinks that young people are hungering for models of leadership beyond the ones found in the streets. As a pastor and City Council candidate in District 36 (Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights) of New York City, he seeks to offer them that.

“We need more seriousness of purpose, less entertainment, more austerity and less scandal in order to apply the level of moral force that must be brought to bear order to stop the killings! Our community needs a dramatic “moratorium on mess,” Tillard says.

Jessica “FM Supreme” Disu, a Chicago-based international performing hip-hop artist, argues that community leaders must push for media reform of television, radio stations and daily news because “the United States is over-saturated with messages of violence, fear and death, which is causing our young people to become numb to it.”

Disu co-founded a new initiative called The Chicago Asia Youth Peace Exchange to help expand the understanding that Chicago youth have of global matters. Through the program, six to eight youth leaders will be trained as peace activists and then travel from Chicago to Thailand and Burma for 2.5 weeks to study nonviolence, conflict resolution and inter-ethnic conflicts.

Similar grassroots efforts addressing education, workforce development, family cohesion and health disparities can be found throughout the country. In addition to nonprofit agencies that meet ongoing community needs, residents are also creating online petitions, holding candlelight vigils, cycling and using other mediums to bring national media attention to gun violence.

Sadly, it seems that these efforts rarely garner the same attention that charismatic, national leadership does, which is why so many believed that it was critical for President Obama to speak out about the murder rates in his hometown. It’s as if tragedies in black communities don’t matter to the mainstream press unless politicians or Rev. Al Sharpton, Rev. Jesse Jackson and Ben Jealous make a statement about it.

Perhaps the media will always be “waiting for Superman” to arrive on the scene, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of us have to do the same.