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The peacemakers (continued)

by Ian Donnis

IN EARLY JULY there was a sense of nervous energy and anticipation when I met with George Lindsay, Cedric Huntley, and Gross — the three voluntary coordinators of the street workers’ program — at Gross’s home near Roger Williams Park on a weeknight. Word had been received that day that Cicilline would fund the street workers’ program with a $75,000 grant from the Dexter Donation, and it seemed as if what the three men had been working toward for months was about to come to fruition. The trio had hoped to hire 14 street workers — $75,000 was only enough for three full-timers — but it was a start. Additional funding made it possible to also hire five part-time street workers.

Huntley and Lindsay share experience as directors of recreation centers in South Providence, and they came to the anti-violence effort with a strong desire to reduce the familiar level of carnage in their midst. As Huntley put it, "If 23 white kids got killed in the city of Warwick, it would be a major issue. Everyone from the governor on down would probably be involved." Given the wider indifference greeting the violence in poor neighborhoods — like the slaying of 12-year-old Jermaine Ellis, who was gunned down at Chad Brown in September 2002 — the men describe how society is failing a generation of young people. Adds Huntley, "I want them to know that there are people out there who are with them and support them."

Jack Levin, director of the Brudnick Center on Violence at Northeastern University in Boston, says politicians typically recognize and respond to crime in poor urban neighborhoods only "when middle class constituents become fearful and fear as if they’re being victimized." The reason for that, he says, "is because poor people don’t vote. They’re just not likely to get the attention they deserve — the money just doesn’t go their way. That’s true across the country, not just in Providence." And when it comes to criminal justice policy in general, Levin adds, "We look for politically expedient, short-term solutions that won’t work, but [that] get [politicians] reelected. We’re very impatient with the results."

Gross learned from some of the best when it comes to getting politicians and other parts of the establishment to pay attention to the needs of poor, predominantly minority neighborhoods. In Boston, he worked closely with the Ten Point Coalition, a group of inner city ministers who came together in the early ’90s after a gang attack reached into one of their churches. Working with law enforcement, the ministers helped to identify the most hardcore offenders and instituted a tough love approach in steering other youths to jobs, counseling, and education. Gross remains in contact with the Reverend Eugene Rivers, the most controversial and charismatic of the original Ten Point ministers, whose face has graced Newsweek and is currently working with Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton.

After gaining a good reputation for his efforts as a street worker in Boston, Gross was invited to Providence several times after particular incidents of violence in the ’90s. As it happened, he met his wife, Julia, the daughter of the Warwick-based activist minister Duane Clinker, while in Boston, and the couple subsequently moved to Rhode Island. In reaching out to blacks, Gross, who can talk with equal aplomb about political philosophy and the Wu-Tang Clan, draws on the self-empowerment mode of how Jews, and other historic targets of persecution, have become successful in America. At the same time, he makes a passing reference to Israeli-Palestinian relations in noting, "Every community can become a victimizer after they’ve been victimized."

Senator Jack Reed and other VIPs were prominently represented when plans for the Institute for the Study & Practice of Nonviolence were unveiled at the Rhode Island Foundation in December 2001. The center, based for now at St. Michael’s Church on Oxford Street in South Providence, has sponsored non-violence programs in a variety of Rhode Island schools and transitional efforts for former residents of the state Training School.

Still, even though the congressional delegation is said to be pushing for funding, the obstacles facing a prevention-based strategy are familiar and frustrating to Gross. In the context of social services, "Basically, what’s billable is provable, which is ridiculous," he says. Some of the street workers’ accomplishments, including preventing two stabbings, a shooting, and establishing a truce to gain time for more extended discussions, aren’t the kind of things that can be readily documented.

Much of the work of being a street worker, Gross says, is patient, incremental, and about building relationships. In terms of the at-risk audience, "Succeeding with them is not the first go-round, the second go-round," he says. "It’s having the stamina. You’ve got to be out there and doing it consistently." The relevant issues — poverty, inadequate education, broken families — are complex and not easily dealt with. "But if we stay with them long enough and they don’t get killed in the process, we will get them to the safe shore."

And so, after a violent start to summer, August went without a homicide until the last day of the month, when Edgar Ortega, 24, was beaten to death, seemingly after a spontaneous argument at The Keg Room, a Richmond Street bar. Speaking before the murder, Gross attributed the improvement to a gun task force initiated by Providence police, heightened recreation programs by the city, and the street workers’ outreach efforts.

COMMUNITY WAS THE word of choice when outgoing US Attorney Margaret Curran announced a $285,000 federal grant, including about $70,000 for use in the street workers program over two years, during an August 20 news conference at Richardson Park in South Providence. But although the money — the rest will be going to the Providence police gun task force and community-based prosecutors — is certainly welcome, the amount for the street workers seems like a drop in the grand scheme of federal largesse.

Cicilline, who is well regarded by the street workers since he delivered on a pledge to fund the program, has a multi-part anti-violence strategy. It consists of developing trusting relationships between the community and law enforcement through enhanced accountability; Taking a proactive approach to problems through the street workers; Aggressive enforcement and prosecution of gun crimes; Offering recreational opportunities to young people; And building better relations between police and youths through the presence of resource officers in city schools.

It seems like a sound strategy, but improving the relationship between police and the residents of poor Providence neighborhoods will take time and steady effort. Lisa Niebels, a community activist in Mount Hope, applauds the coming of a community police station to the neighborhood, for example, and the lieutenant who has been chosen to lead it. Ongoing incidents, however, lead her to say, "I just think it’s very difficult to change the nature of the police department." Problems with disrespect are "still going on — it’s still the same."

Major Andy Rosenzweig, deputy police chief, asserts that the perception that police are sometimes too aggressive "is a perception problem. We need to let the community know that we are taking these actions for them. Sometimes the people we’re going after are dangerous." He stresses, however, that a foundation of the neighborhood-based policing program is that "people always need to be treated with respect, even people we’re arresting."

A more fundamental problem, as Niebels notes, is a lack of jobs and how, "Our young people are not educated at a high school level. That makes them unemployable, and the combination leads to a high rate of crime in the condensed neighborhood that is Mount Hope. If the intense level of criminal activity that occurred in the Mount Hope neighborhood occurred on the other [more affluent] side of Hope Street, there would be an uproar."

The problem of troubled public schools, poverty, violence, and a lack of employment opportunities extend, of course, well beyond Camp Street. Part of the task facing the street workers is to voice the challenges faced by the residents of the neighborhoods in which they work. "By hiring the eight street workers — who are from the community and connected to the community — they’ll be some very vocal voices," says Gross. "They will be able to voice what is quietly going on, on the street — that quiet desperation."

If the early indications are any clue, the street workers — especially if they can galvanize wider support — will also be able to help diminish some of this hardship.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@phx.com

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Issue Date: September 5 - 11, 2003
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