A spate of violence plagues young black men in Norristown

Posted: January 27, 2013

Paul Brown spent part of Christmas dying.

Shortly after 4:40 p.m. that day, Norristown police found Brown in the driver's seat of a 1997 Buick sedan. The 24-year-old had been shot multiple times.

The killing was part of an uptick in violence in Norristown beginning around October, according to local and state statistics.

It's not outsiders, Norristown and county officials say, or Norristown's Mexican gangs causing these troubles in the Montgomery County seat. Rather, those in a subculture of African American men in their 20s are shooting one another in a demonstration of bravado. Sometimes it is in pursuit of money, sometimes not.

Either way, Brown's brother Byron, 26, no angel himself, claims to be fed up.

"I know a lot of people in Norristown will read this and know I have gotten in trouble for a long time, been in the streets for a long time," Brown says as he takes a break from a job he just got doing work around a church. "But I'm finished, I'm truly finished."

The only thing - and it's a very big thing - that could lure him back to "the negative life," he says, "is if I knew who killed my brother and I killed that person."

Which, he says, he would do.

"At the end of the day, that was my brother. I wouldn't even feel bad about sitting in jail.

"And that's why the cycle continues."

The recent shootings began Oct. 20, when someone fatally shot Ryan Ladson-Singleton, 21, in the head and torso. Two nonfatal shootings took place in November and one on Dec. 21. Then came Paul Brown's killing.

Brown's and Ladson-Singleton's deaths are two of the four homicides last year in Norristown. There were four killings in 2011, six in 2010, and 10 in 2009, according to the Pennsylvania Uniform Crime Reporting System.

"It seems like they're happening more frequently, but our crime rate has constantly been coming down for the last five years," says Police Chief Russell J. Bono.

Still, Singleton's death seems pivotal, Bono says, with that shooting and the ones that followed involving men who "all seem to know one another."

Byron L. Craig, pastor of Macedonia Baptist Church, says intense socio-economic pressures - the majority of subsidized housing in Montgomery County is in Norristown - was one factor.

"When you begin to put people into a close proximity, and when you talk about poverty, when you talk about lack of education," he says, "that becomes the powder keg for an explosion."

Craig, Bono, and others also fear a cultural norm has taken root among some of Norristown's young black men - instant dispute resolution by pulling a trigger.

"Even in the mainstream of the African American culture, we're baffled by it," Craig says.

Bono calls these men "a lost generation. . . . We're trying to get into the schools and begin to talk to them in elementary school."

Byron Brown comes up with much the same analysis as the clergy, police, and elected officials. He just describes it from a firsthand perspective tinged with a coarse pragmatism. First comes a description of daily life as he experienced it:

"Imagine a bunch of poor people who will do anything - who will steal, will kill, will sell their bodies, will sell drugs - to change their situation. But the sad thing about it is, you go through every day, every week, every month, doing the same exact thing, and you really ain't changing your situation."

In his 20s, he talks about what the streets were like when he was 13 and got caught selling marijuana. He has been incarcerated at the Graterford and Frackville Prisons for crimes including armed robbery.

"When you're in the streets," he says, "if you're going to risk your freedom, it better be about capital."

Or family.

But even those "rules" are gone now, and guns are fired over nonsense to show you are more "gangsta" than others. What's really gangsta, he says, "is a single mom who raises two hardheaded boys. That's a gangsta, you know?" Like his mother, Armenthia: "She raised me and my brother, put food on the table and clothes on our backs."

In a world of illegal activity, there used to be some buffers, he says.

"I had dudes in my life that would sell me drugs, but then say, 'Young bull, go to school.' These dudes got guys who will give them a package [drugs] and then give them a gun and tell them, 'You don't need school.' "

Paul Brown left behind a daughter, 3. Byron Brown has two children, 9 and 3.

Byron Brown doesn't know exactly what can be done to make life better for them, though he says responsibility rests foremost in Norristown.

"When you have to stand up and it comes to be a man, as a drug dealer, what can you teach your son? How to cut coke? How to bag weed?"

Craig, who leads support groups with young African American men, and Darchelle Pierce say more black men need to step up as mentors. Adults need to be proactive in guiding their children, Pierce says.

Pierce, casework coordinator at Bethlehem, Pa.-based ChildFirst Services, is the mother of Brandon Pierce, 21, convicted in November of first-degree murder in the death of Dominique Devlin, his 16-year-old girlfriend. Brandon Pierce was close friends with Ladson-Singleton and Paul Brown.

"If you don't get the kids on the forefront, and the only people willing to talk to the kids are the people on the streets, then what do you expect the outcome is going to be," Darchelle Pierce says.

Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman and Bono, who plans to retire next month, say the Norristown council needed to give the Police Department more resources, including replacing five officers who have left and restoring the Bee Sting Unit - officers who cracked down on quality-of-life crimes, such as loitering, which often lead to more serious offenses.

The department has a force of 66 now. When Bono joined the department 42 years ago, there were 75 officers.

Municipal Council President Gary H. Simpson says the police department already gets more money than any other Norristown department in the $25 million budget. The municipality is talking with U.S. Sen. Bob Casey's office to see if it can get grant money for more officers.

Byron Brown wants the solution to come from the community in Norristown. It has to, he says.

If these young men keep shooting each other, "there's only two ways it's going to end. You're either going to be where my brother is or you're going to be where me and my brother was."

Contact Carolyn Davis at 610-313-8109, cdavis@phillynews.com, or @carolyntweets on Twitter.

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