A life-long Harlemite talked wishfully about the youth programs that she grew up with in the ’80s, while a recent Harlemite wanted to know if the city could implement curfews. A small business owner talked about the youth who were standing by her shop in the morning and late in the evening when she went home, while the director of a youth organization talked about wait lists for his summer program.
It was a small group discussion that the New York Urban League had assembled specifically to talk about the issue of community safety in Harlem. The participants were selected to represent old and new Harlem-business owners, educators and the nonprofit and government sectors. Although the backgrounds of all of our guests were different, they shared two things in common: they were all Black and they all cared deeply about the escalating crime in our communities.
It was fascinating to be a part of this small conversation as a prelude to a larger dialogue on community safety. Like education and employment, the issue of basic safety has been an issue for Black New Yorkers for years. The topic is complex and far-reaching and requires strategies that do not assume there is a “one size fits all” solution.
Clearly there are some concrete steps that need to be taken to stem the tide of community violence. The changes need to be at the federal and city level, community-focused and individual. Our communities have stood up against the “tough on crime” and “debilitating to families” policies and have made positive changes to the Rockefeller Drug Laws, while the battle against the controversial “stop and frisk” policy rages on.
At the federal level, gun laws continue to make guns too easy to obtain. According to U.S. Senate statistics, there are about 60 million handguns in the country and about 2 to 3 million new and used handguns are sold each year. Too often our youth are the victims of crimes committed by individuals possessing these millions of guns. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, from 1980 to 1997 gun killings by young people age 18 to 24 increased from about 5,000 to more than 7,500. The consistent cuts to summer youth employment and contraction of government dollars for teen programs leave too many young people on the streets with literally nothing positive to do.
Yet there are other issues related to violence in the community that do not receive as much attention-the evolving role of individual community members in helping to fight crime. The days of a child being raised by a village are a distant memory in too many neighborhoods. Some residents leave their condominiums or refurbished brownstones and walk by under-resourced schools and children feuding on street corners whose names and families they do not know. This disconnect makes it is easy to call for policies and practices that are tough on crime when there are no ties to the youth affected.
On Aug. 3, the New York Urban League will gather tenants, block associations, school and community leaders and young people to discuss the issue of community safety. Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott, District Attorney Cyrus Vance, NYCHA Chairman John Rhea and New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly have all been invited to join this conversation. I am sure that we will come away from it with ideas and suggestions and I would not be surprised if the day ends with a call to action.
As we work together to find solutions to strengthen our community, there are small actions that we can take toward a safer future. Speak to the young people on your block or in your building. If you can, hire a young person this summer or after school. Walk into the school in your neighborhood and volunteer. If we don’t work to rebuild our community, who will?