William P. DeVeaux {op-ed, July 17} asked us to "cool the rhetoric" about the Marion Barry case, saying that it could help to ignite violent outbreaks in our city. He asked us not to violate Martin Luther King Jr.'s philosophy of nonviolence. Especially in this tense period, he wrote, we should strive for "healing rather than further divisiveness."

No one disagrees with that. However, if Mr. Barry were to be led off to jail, shackled with his hands behind his back, and if African-American youth then were to bust windows in Georgetown, the cause would not be the emotionally charged scene of a proud, black mayor being led away. Rather the cause would be years of societal and governmental neglect of a festering and deteriorating urban life.

Yes, we must cool the rhetoric. But the rhetoric of Mr. Barry, Bishop George Stallings and Minister Louis Farrakhan and others is actually a cry to government, to society, to the president and to Congress, to business and to our social institutions to do something about poverty -- now.

We are not able to measure very well the pain and anger that has beset the African-American community as a result of drugs, crime and violence. But we can see the effects of overcrowded classrooms, teenage pregnancy, joblessness, homelessness, the lack of drug and alcohol clinics, child care and health insurance. As more and more black youth are raised in households without fathers, with economic chaos and lost hope of a future, they become more desperate, more disillusioned and readier to explode. These are the social and economic failings that cause divisiveness and destruction, not rhetoric.

What we need are leaders who advocate and organize for racial and ethnic harmony. In New York City, for example, Mayor David Dinkins has begun a campaign that asks New Yorkers to wear blue ribbons as a symbol of such harmony. The media, churches and synagogues, unions and educational institutions are promoting the campaign for racial and ethnic cooperation. The mayor is not blaming unemployed blacks or underemployed whites for the Bensonhurst episode; he is reaching out to that which is best in America -- the belief that we can live together.

But he is the exception. Here and elsewhere in America, those in charge -- including the president and Congress -- are letting the turbulent waters of social and economic divisiveness wreak havoc on communities and individuals.

We must stop blaming the victims. We must start curing our society's ills by stopping poverty first. The rest will take care of itself. BERNARD DEMCZUK National Labor Coordinator National Rainbow Coalition Washington