Ganging Up for Good

By Robert L. Woodson Sr.
Sunday, August 21, 2005

The recent stabbings of six teenagers at Springbrook High School and a Wheaton shopping plaza in Montgomery County, the murder two years ago of pregnant 17-year-old Brenda Paz by members of the MS-13 gang in Northern Virginia and the increase in violent activity by Latino and Asian gangs throughout the greater metropolitan area: All have been met with the same predictable response from public officials -- a response that has a history of complete failure.

Establish yet anothertask force, they say. Police, members of the judiciary, probation and a bevy of social service agencies will come together to learn from these "experts" on how to read graffiti and other telltale signs of gang activity. The social service organizations will see their budgets grow, and police will increase their numbers around schools and malls. And when another young person is -- inevitably -- killed, an army of grief counselors will pour into the schools, just as they did in March after the killings on an Indian reservation in Minnesota.

There are effective solutions, but they will only be found if those making decisions are willing to look for answers in -- and invest in -- some new and seemingly unlikely places. I've seen it happen in my home town of Philadelphia.

In the late '60s and early '70s, Philadelphia was known as the "youth gang capital of America." Each day the local newspapers would publish the gang deaths alongside the death toll in Vietnam.

Then, a community activist named Falaka Fattah and her husband, David, discovered that the oldest of their six boys had become an active gang member. Fattah responded by inviting 13 of her son's friends and fellow gang members to come and live in their small row house, replacing the family furniture with mattresses on the floors. They established rules together that governed conduct, such as requiring that everyone go to school or to work during the day, and that everyone practice good hygiene. Because fighting threatened the whole family, they agreed to bring all disputes to an "Adella" -- a peace session where all the members would participate in finding a resolution and meting out punishment if necessary.

When word circulated that there was a sanctuary from the street, more and more young people sought refuge at the Fattahs'. The family purchased the house opposite and then another one next door with the wages the young men earned doing odd jobs, washing cars and making deliveries. They named their community the House of Umoja, which means "unity" in Swahili. The number of houses grew to five, then seven.

In order for the now ex-gang members to come and go in peace, permission had to be obtained from the Moon gang leadership that controlled the area. This became the first gang truce, as the Moon members agreed to give those living in the House of Umoja safe passage.

After three years, the Fattahs decided to extend the new peace and began planning a citywide gang summit. Fearing an outbreak of violence, none of the city's black churches would allow their facilities to be used. The Quakers stepped up and permitted the use of their historic building at Fourth and Arch streets, but for the first time in the city's history, the annual Mummers' Day parade was canceled in anticipation of the violence that might result from bringing together warring gang members.

All the dire predictions were wrong. The "No Gang Wars" campaign of 1974 led to a drop in Philadelphia's gang death rate from 48 annually to one or two, and it remained low throughout the decade and beyond.

At this time I was a young staffer at the National Urban League, and I went to learn about Sister Fattah, as Falaka was known. I was familiar with the area, having been raised just two blocks away from where Umoja now stood, and I knew what it was to be terrorized by other neighborhood kids. I also had been working at night as a corrections officer in a juvenile jail while getting my college degree, and I didn't think anyone could change some of the youths I saw there.

I was amazed by what I found: The row houses were repaired and painted; when I walked into the main house, I found young men sitting together and talking through their disputes. One was told by the group that his punishment for some infraction would be to sweep the playground -- a demeaning public task that I thought would surely make him rebel. But he trudged off to do it, his allegiance to the family more important to him than his pride.

What Fattah did was to serve as a catalyst, transforming gang leaders from predators to peacekeepers. The original 13 gang members inspired others to believe that it was possible to have better lives. They were effective because they came from the same broken homes and dysfunctional neighborhoods, but instead of carrying guns, they were now carrying books.

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