On Wednesday evening, I attended one of the most energetic grass roots meetings in recent memory, at 320 Park Avenue. It was facilitated by Project Hope, YES, and OPEN (Our People Effecting Neighborhoods), in response to the surge in shootings and murders in our city. The most recent had been 18 year old Manuel Berrios, who was killed last Monday.
The first floor conference room was packed, and many of us were relegated to the lobby, grabbing office chairs from wherever we could find them, trying our best to hear the voices inside.
How do we get the word out about youth programs? Can we mentor more young people, one on one? What is the city doing about this? Can we build a community center? What can we demand from the schools? Where do the city’s responsibilities end and ours begin?
It was hard to hear everything. Eventually, us restless people in the lobby started our own discussions, getting so loud that the door had to be closed.
Three hours after the meeting began, it was over. Anger and concern infused with enthusiasm. Cynics in the crowd grumbled about concrete tactics and follow through, but even among the most pessimistic there was a consensus: the meeting was a good start.
Almost twenty-four hours after Wednesday’s meeting began, store owner Shamar Coleman, 32, was found dead inside Seafood Rama on East Second Street between Garfield and Netherwood Streets.
Coleman’s death marked the twelfth killing of 2016, but we don’t need stats and numbers to know something is going on in Plainfield, especially since around this time last year, in both the city’s East and West Ends. The question is, what do we do?
Let’s recognize that curbing violence is neither easy, nor quick. It’s not easy in Plainfield and other so-called urban communities. It’s not easy in Elizabeth. It’s not easy in Chester, Pennsylvania, or Spring Valley, New York. We all exist as part of the United States of America. The jailing-est, killing-est, corrupt-est, gun-loving-est nation in the Western world. Nothing is easy here.
It’s not easy for us to radically change the economic conditions that influence many of our choices. It’s hard to keep guns from passing over state lines. And let me tell you from personal experience, it’s not easy to make quick, radical change in our underfunded (link) school system, let alone the type of change that shows up quickly in test scores. We exist in the shadow of Lady Liberty and her trillion dollar methods of suppression, inequality, and disenfranchisement.
But we also bear a responsibility in the deterioration of our communities. Not just a 30 year old, second-year Board of Education member like me. Or clergy. Or City Council members, or Mayors, or Freeholders. Not just the police departments that they run.
We’ve all collectively failed at mounting resistance against those that do us harm, both from Uncle Sam and some of our real uncles. Before gentrification threatened the very existence of many of our communities, we – and our leaders – were complicit in allowing them to die.
That’s why during Wednesday night’s meeting, when Victor Webb stressed the importance of strengthening the city’s block associations, it resonated with me.
Mr. Webb was talking about building the community back up, from a social standpoint. Building the types of communities that my parents had. And their parents. And theirs before them. The world that existed before such rampant individualism took hold.
These struggles are not unique to any one population. Americans of all stripes have become more self-centered. Every community knows and cares about their neighbors less than in decades past. But more vulnerable Black and brown communities have suffered far greater consequences from the spread of individualism.
After all, we’ve bore the brunt of the major assaults of the past three or four decades. The loss of good jobs. Mass incarceration. Defunding of social services. The rise of college tuition. Privatization of damn near everything. Militarization of local police. The availability of guns. The War on drugs.
Almost all of this policy is national, top down. In terms of crucial funding and state and federal attention that would help bail out American cities, our local power is limited. It will take a large group of people all around the state or country to force changes up top.
What we can do here, now, is build stronger community.
One of the bigger obstacles to building the neighborhood cohesion we deserve: there’s no finish line, no easy way to count progress, and no clear goal. Like there is with voter registration drives. Or gun turn-in programs. Or political campaigns. Or food and clothing drives. This sort of outreach has immediate results that you can quantify. Sixty new voters, fifty coats, and so on. These efforts get voters on the rolls, eliminate guns from the street, feed people and keep them warm.
Because there’s no direct, short term goal in mind – big picture projects are that much harder.
I can attest to the difficulty in getting residents to cast votes in local elections. Voting only takes ten minutes and in the June primaries we see a 15% turnout rate. Campaign volunteers have to remind and re-remind even some of their best supporters to get to the polls in the hour before they close.
So imagine the effort, and the perpetual outreach, needed to build and maintain strong block associations across the city – at a level of engagement that has never existed.
Think of how hard it would be for leaders to introduce people to their neighbors, and to keep them engaged. Think about repeatedly contacting the residents who evade you. Or don’t even come to the door. This would involve constantly finding newcomers to our always-in-flux neighborhoods. Imagine the leafleting involved. The phone calls, text messages – the rejection. The planning, the events, meetings.
It’s a Herculean task that would involve dozens of committed leaders, with the goal of engaging all sorts of people. Hopefully, many of whom have never been engaged before. It can’t just be the usual suspects.
But I believe that a holistic approach to building community will be needed. I believe that it has an impact not only on violence, but the overall wellbeing of our city and all of its residents.
There’s no way to count the benefits of better communication and collaboration. Of sharing common experiences, recognizing common interests, and developing collective responses. There’s value in the confirmation we get from learning our complaints are more valid, and common, than we thought. When we come together and learn there are more human resources in our neighborhood than we once knew. When residents watch out for each other more, and take collective ownership of everything within its borders.
It’s a shame that elements of the political elite co-opted the African proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child,” because no expression describes this better.
Forgive me if I sound too hopeful – naïve even. And please understand – I know these ideas are not new. What I’m describing existed in generations past. Even as late as the 1980s, neighborhood associations were their most active – perhaps as resistance to the collapse of our communities, and the drug epidemic.
I also don’t claim to know exactly how community building would look. There are difficulties in organizing on a large scale with our modern realities – including more transient populations than those of the past. There are cultural divides, too, which are as present as ever in Plainfield. But I think we owe it to ourselves to try. Community is just that important.
Saturday afternoon at Ruth Fellowship Ministries, National United Youth Council director Salaam Ismial suggested these recent murders could be the motivation we all needed to take control of this town. Ismail noted that Plainfield’s twelve homicides give it one of the highest murder rates in the state. It’s only a shade lower than Chicago’s, for comparison. “Don’t let these young men and women die in vain,” he urged us.
Especially during times of intense struggle, active community members place demands on elected officials – as they should, and have been throughout much of 2016.
A lot of these people have pointed out that the mayor – who is in charge of the Department of Public Safety – hasn’t attended one of the many community meetings and demonstrations regarding violence in 2016. They are right. It’s shameful to not engage with the community – and the people who will be on the front lines – where they are, on their terms. Politicized Town hall meetings are important, but they are not the same. We can not fight this as a fractured community.
But this only demonstrates what we all should realize. Real change will be bottom up, not top down. Even the widely-touted gang truce of 2011 was a bottom up operation, negotiated by concerned residents. That’s the type of work that needs to be done.
Of course, elected officials – and the mechanisms they control – are a big part of the solution. Stronger community addresses this as well. Citizens’ political demands would have more power if they were also backed by a host of strong, functioning neighborhood associations blanketing the city. Engaged members of the community could better formulate these demands based on the conditions they see. It’s political empowerment. It means not being ignored by any mayor.
I’ve heard a lot of great ideas from people of Plainfield on how to make this city better, and to end the most extreme crises of violence that come every so often. There’s always too much violence, even during “good” years. Hopefully, a broad attempt to build our neighborhoods will underlie countless other ways to improve life in Plainfield. We have work to do.
Michael Muhammad of Muhammad Mosque 80 drove home that point at Saturday’s Ruth Fellowship Ministries prayer vigil. “We have to change the culture,” concluded Muhammad. “It begins in our homes. It begins in our mosques. It begins in our church. But we have to take the streets and find people where they are.”
Let’s continue the discussion. Feel free to post your ideas below or as comments on Facebook, not only about ending this immediate rise in violence but working together to build a better Plainfield from the ground up, long term. What can we do?