May 2, 2014

What a crane will never lift

The painful days of regularly seeing yellow tape and hearing police sirens was, to some degree, becoming a thing of the past in the District. The chief of police was praised universally, and our politicians frequently pointed to the reduction in homicides and other crimes in speeches. The city has been flooded with those new Washingtonians that our leaders sought for so long.

That was yesterday. What about today? I can’t help but worry whether things are moving backward. The murder rate is up 75 percent compared with this time last year. The city has averaged nine murders a month over the past four months. Many of them occurred in broad daylight.

This is especially discouraging for those of us who helped the last administration draft and implement an effective plan called the Focus Improvement Area Initiative. It empowered concerned individuals and organizations to work on behalf of the community to broker truces between rival gangs in areas prone to homicides and violence, such as Anacostia and Columbia Heights. This was a genuine partnership among community leaders, organizations and government agencies that brought about healing for families and empowered people from within those communities to solve their own problems. We knew where the problems were; collectively we attacked them. It was exactly what was needed. The benefits were dramatic.

The root causes of crime are complex, but it is simple enough for those of us who have been in the trenches to make an assessment and come up with accurate and honest conclusions. Five years ago, city leaders understood the concept that “hurt people hurt people” taught to us by icons of the civil rights movement. Once you embrace the wisdom of that saying, you also understand that “healed people heal people.” I know this from personal experience as a young person who hurt my community through crime and then, after being healed, returned to help my community.

Somehow, though, the city has drifted away from solutions that were empowering people to reduce violence and bring healing to our communities. Now, politicians point to the number of cranes over the District as a measure of good government, not to the health and safety of its citizens. Economic development is important, but no number of cranes can make up for the price we pay if we fail to address issues of the heart. That kind of math throws our moral, spiritual and social compasses out of whack. It relegates all our hurt people with damaged hearts to lives of fear and grief rather than empowering them from within to heal themselves and others.

Affordable housing is disappearing. Homelessness has reached crisis levels. Our public schools continue to fail far too many of our children. A rising tide doesn’t lift all boats. It swamps a lot of them.

On Easter Monday, I was worried when I went down to the National Zoo. When the annual event started in the 19th century as an alternative for black families who could not attend the whites-only White House Easter Egg Roll, it was a wonderful family celebration. In those days, African Americans had a proud tradition of intact families. Today, the data are astonishing: Only 9 percent of black 15- to 17-year-olds in the city live in households with a married mother and father.

When I was a teenager, Easter Monday was a family day. Not anymore. The few families I saw this year came early, but that gave way to crews of kids roaming about on their own. Then, despite the countless police and other officials I saw, what I prayed would not happen happened. I heard gunshots at the zoo. Two teenagers were shot.

We need to make our families whole again. We need to address the issues of the heart. Maybe the recent increase in murders is just a blip, but if it’s not, it won’t be a crane that lifts us off this downward path. It will be the arms of the community, one person at a time.

Ron Moten is the author of “Drinking Muddy Water.” He co-founded the D.C. group Peaceoholics in 2004 with Jauhar Abraham.

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