Roland Lawrence used to be, as they say, career-oriented. He was a publicist for a New York book publisher, an assistant to a Los Angeles city councilman and an executive assistant to a Motown Records vice president.
Back in his native Detroit, however, Lawrence became increasingly haunted by the kids he saw who were, as he puts it, "really lost. These kids are dying. Nobody wants to deal with them. They're afraid of them. They write them off. I felt like I was contributing to the problem by not doing something."
So, three years ago, Lawrence left a job at Detroit Edison and formed a group called YES (Youth Enrichment Source): The Beginning of a New Tradition. At times, he has had as many as 200 black males between the ages of 10 and 17 involved in field trips, visits to science and African-American history museums as well as hiking, swimming and group meetings on how to stay clear of the epidemic of violent death among Detroit's teenagers.
Each YES member takes an oath to stay in school, to treat drugs like the plague they are and to work to improve their neighborhoods. The pledge alone won't work, says Lawrence, but "if you give them some alternatives, they'll get involved."
A chronic necessity for Lawrence's programs are vans. As George Waldman reportedin the Detroit Free Press, "If there's no transportation, there's no program, because there's no clubhouse."
This year, Lawrence devised a plan that seemed to ensure his being able to raise the money for a van. At the high school in Highland Park -- a separate, largely black enclave in the middle of Detroit -- YES's second annual charity basketball game would feature the nation's most popular and most controversial rap group, Public Enemy. Also on the program would be Detroit rap stars, amateur rap groups and dancers.
A few days before the event, which was much anticipated by Highland Park kids, some school officials became apprehensive. Public Enemy had been accused of being antisemitic although its leader, Chuck D., had disavowed the antisemitic comments of a member of the group whom he later rehired. Fearing some kind oftrouble would come down, school authorities, three days before the basketball game, decided that Public Enemy could come only if its members were silent throughout their appearance. No speeches. Not a mumbling word.
But no restrictions were placed on speeches by local public officials and disc jockeys.
Public Enemy is represented by one of the most relentless legal firms specializing in First Amendment law -- New York's Frankfurt, Garbus, Klein & Selz. Russell Smith of that firm informed Highland Park School District Superintendent Eldon Martin the day after the edict that because the school is a public institution not even a school superintendent can place a gag order on people appearing there.
Rather than deal with an immediate application for a temporary restraining order in federal court, the school district backed off. It agreed that "as scheduled, Public Enemy will appear, play basketball, make remarks and participate in either the pregame show, or the halftime show, but will not be performing a concert."
Although the First Amendment had prevailed, the long-anticipated event was a disappointment. The school district, having taken Public Enemy literally, had set down stiff conditions to limit the audience.
No tickets were to be sold at the door. Aside from the local rappers, no music, live or taped, was allowed. There were to be no concession stands, so no refreshments or posters could be bought, and news of the last-minute triumph of the First Amendment did not reach all those who had been told that Public Enemy was prohibited from speaking. The chill was still on.
Instead of funds for a van, YES wound up $2,500 in debt, and soon after that, YES was let go by its parent organization, the Detroit Society for Advancement of Culture and Education, which was not pleased with how the event had turned out.
Lawrence is now operating YES from his apartment with about 40 kids -- not all at once. There have been some field trips and group meetings this summer, and Lawrence keeps trying to get grants -- among his other responsibilities -- such as being at the hospital when the mother of one of his members overdosed.
The basketball team, by the way, that played against Public Enemy was composed of three bitterly antagonistic gangs. "It was a small miracle pulling them together," says Lawrence. "And they're friends now."
It turns out that Public Enemy wasn't so dangerous that they needed a law firm to enable them to speak.