Annette John-Hall: Black-on-black crime a crisis that needs a solution

A makeshift memorial for Trayvon Martin is displayed Thursday, April 12, 2012, on the sidewalk outside the complex where Martin was shot dead by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman has been charged with second-degree murder in the shooting death of the 17-year-old. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
A makeshift memorial for Trayvon Martin is displayed Thursday, April 12, 2012, on the sidewalk outside the complex where Martin was shot dead by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman has been charged with second-degree murder in the shooting death of the 17-year-old. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara) (Chris O'Meara)
Posted: April 17, 2012

After 44 agonizing days, Florida special prosecutor Angela Corey finally charged town watch volunteer George Zimmerman with second-degree murder in the death of unarmed teen Trayvon Martin.

You could almost hear the collective sigh of relief, not just from Martin's anguished parents, but from all of us who believe justice doesn't mean reducing a young man's life to nothing more than roadkill.

The Martin case has also opened the door for us to have an honest conversation about the domestic terrorism that stalks us nationally and in our own backyard.

I'm talking about the epidemic of young black males dying in cities all over the country by gun violence.

What are we going to do about it?

Ignoring the epidemic

If the Ku Klux Klan - you know, those other guys in hoodies, the ones who really are sinister - killed 230 black men (the number slain in Philadelphia last year), the city would be on lockdown. If 230 Americans got sick from eating tainted spinach, the USDA would conduct a national recall.

But 230 African American men killed in one city? Not one word. No hearings, no investigations. Nothing but silence.

That's not me talking. I took those words almost verbatim from a speech Mayor Nutter delivered at the ninth annual Mayors' Summit on Race, Culture and Human Relations in Tallahassee last week.

Nutter passionately addressed the plight of black males and made a convincing case that the future of our cities, indeed our nation, depends on our getting a grip on this problem.

It was a powerful speech. I only wish he had made it here.

Because I don't think folks realize that through his establishing the Mayor's Commission on African American Males two years ago, Nutter has taken the lead among big-city mayors in doing the hard work required to stem the flow of blood in our streets.

"As mayor of the largest American city with an African American mayor, I feel an obligation to speak out," Nutter told summit participants.

Hard conversation

Granted, talking about black-on-black crime is a hard conversation for everyone.

Whites like to ignore it by saying criminals killing each other have nothing to do with them.

Blacks hope that if they ignore it, maybe they won't become victims themselves - even when it happens in their own neighborhoods.

And nobody - white or black - cares enough to sign petitions, rally, or march to start a national outcry.

All we get here are candles and teddy bears - and a community full of grief.

But Nutter isn't sitting silent. He and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu started Cities United last year, which is working with communities, nonprofits, and federal agencies to come up with a violence-reduction strategy.

One of the groups that met with the mayors in Washington in March at the Cities United Youth Summit was Philadelphia CeaseFire, a community program that enlists ex-offenders to reach out to youth.

As program director, Marla Davis Bellamy canvasses neighborhoods and talks to troubled young people in an attempt to unlayer the reasons their dreams died.

Though the Police Department treats the epidemic as a crime issue, Philadelphia CeaseFire treats it as one of public health.

"This is all learned behavior with these kids," Bellamy says. "And it starts when they're very, very young."

"When you hear their stories, you say it's no wonder why they're doing what they're doing," she says.

Still, Davis says, she was surprised when she started really listening to these young men by how much most of them yearn for a better life.

They just don't know how to attain it.

Like Bellamy, I believe there are plenty of people who care but who feel helpless to do anything.

Which is where the mayor and those working in the trenches can guide us.

Overcoming violence means better housing, job training, better education, parental, police, and community involvement, and getting illegal guns off the street, he says.

"I refuse to look away," Nutter said in his speech. "I won't be quiet. Americans tackle problems. We fix things; we make life better."


Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986, Ajohnhall@phillynews.com, or follow @Annettejh on Twitter.

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