Prince George’s County elected officials have their script: Crime is down. Our streets are safer now than they have been since 1972.
School officials have their script, too: The schools are safe. The recent murders of county teenagers have occurred off campus and before or after school hours. We sympathize with the families suffering these senseless acts of violence.
But while it may not fit the script, it needs to be said: Enough! Until Tuesday, when Prince George’s officials announced that a task force has been formed to address the spate of killings, the county — from its public officials to its activists to its faith community — has been too complacent in addressing the violence affecting our children. Just this week, two more — yes, two more — teenagers were gunned down in Prince George’s. That makes six in six months. If a gunman had gone into one school and left a half dozen students dead in one shooting, the crisis would be undeniable -- a task force would likely have been formed immediately. But with this slow torture — one student killed after another, month after month — high-profile elected officials and leaders have been too quiet.
Many of us realize that these are complicated issues. Families are responsible for instilling values in our children. One of this week’s slayings was allegedly committed by a group of teens that included several who do not live in the county. But it’s gotten to the point where even a school principal acknowledged that he has been afraid for his children who attend county schools.
No doubt, individual officials are doing what they can, working with police, attending community forums, encouraging and fostering better community-police relations to shore up safety.
“We are working hard to try to deal with the issue of crime by being proactive, talking at community meetings, talking to neighbors. I think this has been a priority for the police department,” said Councilwoman Karen Toles (D-Dist. 6), whose jurisdiction includes the Hillcrest Heights community where 15-year-old Suitland High School freshman Charles Walker, Jr. was killed Monday evening. She presses police commanders for progress, and joins them on community walks organized to bolster community cooperation with law enforcement, which has been suspect in the black community for generations. “I tell them, ‘if you need me to go with you and sit in their living room so they’ll talk to you, I will.”
No doubt, the county’s State’s Attorney is vowing tougher sentences and urging parents to embrace their children and teach them values. And since the killings of Marckel Ross, in September, and Marcus Antonio Jones, last month, police have been joined by community leaders, councilmembers, school board members, parents and neighbors at community meetings. Collaborative community canvassing was conducted after the murder of Amber Stanley in August. Elected officials joined police walking through the neighborhood where she was killed, handing out fliers, asking the community for leads.
No doubt, county officials offer heartfelt words.
“Far too many times this school year we have lost teenagers at the hand of a gun. I want the families of these young victims to know that we will not tolerate outrageous behavior like this in Prince George’s County,” County Executive Rushern Baker III (D) said in a press statement released Wednesday morning. “It is time channel our pain and anger towards addressing this situation. It starts with instilling hope in our young people where there is hopelessness. We must work together to break this chain of violent behavior that our young people are resorting to.”
I’m sure Baker’s words are sincere. His quiet, holistic approach is commendable. But some occasions call for shouting. There hasn’t been a big enough display of determination; the rallying cry has not been loud enough to comfort students who are afraid they could be next. The national community came together when a group of six young men in Jenna, La. were wrongfully expelled and convicted of attempted murder for beating a white student. The national black community seemed to galvanize around the murder of Trayvon Martin last year. The lives of these Prince George’s students killed this year, too, must stand for something.
So what should residents of the county do? For starters, the county’s mega churches could take a stand by calling for a 40-day fast for peace in the street. City mayors and councils from throughout the county might stand together, led by the very eloquent and fiery Seat Pleasant mayor Eugene Grant encouraging residents to do what State’s Attorney Angela Alsobrooks suggests: make it plain that violence is unacceptable. Churches might join Baker’s task force members, flooding schools with mentors, hiring youths, providing more enriching after school and weekend opportunities. And yes, the media can do more to highlight programs that are working so those programs attract more resources to do what they do best. We can all do better and we must. Let these six deaths mean something.
We should follow the lead of Alsobrooks, who has shown consistent leadership: “What I want to say tonight to the community is that we are vigilant. We will ensure that justice is done in each of these cases,” Alsobrooks said at a press conference at police headquarters Tuesday. “But even after we have done all that. After we arrest and prosecute, it is not enough. I want the community to understand that I stand here as the State’s Attorney not just concerned, but outraged that a young person in our community can’t walk the streets with a shopping bag without being shot in the back. That is something that ought to be of concern to our entire community.”
Alsobrooks’s message has been consistent, and at the community meeting held after one of the six, Antonio Jones, was killed last month, community leaders were buzzing with confidence that she means business.
“We will do our work. The police will make the arrests. We will prosecute and then we need the community to come together to ensure that we are not just reacting. ,” Alsobrooks said on the press conference video. “Something greater has to be done.”
Tate Montgomery is a columnist for The Root DC.
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