In May 2010, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) reported that the number one cause of death for male African-American children and teens aged 12 to 19 is HOMICIDE! Elected officials – especially black leaders – have a moral responsibility to address this national emergency. Congressman Charles Rangel (D-NY) recently spoke EXCLUSIVELY with Cheryl Blue, CBN’s Managing Editor, about Harlem’s handgun crisis.
On November 29, 2011, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Edward McLaughlin took Harlem residents and leaders to task for the area’s rampant shootings. Calling Harlem’s gun violence “the responsibility of that community,” he said leaders who are sick of “pools of blood on the block” should encourage residents to purge their homes of guns.
The Justice spoke while sentencing Jaquan “Jay Cash” Layne, 21, leader of Harlem’s violent 137th Street crack gang, and members of his crew to terms of up to 20 years to life. But the sentences were overshadowed by McLaughlin’s sobering words to a community under siege.
According to the New York Post, McLaughlin said that in an 11-month period (Jan. 2011-Nov. 2011), Harlem’s five precincts recorded 244 shootings (34 resulting in death), with 91 of the victims aged 19 or YOUNGER.
At odds with the Post’s reporting was DNA Info.com, which reported that McLaughlin cited 244 shootings since Jan. 2010 (not 2011), making the pertinent time frame 23 months, not 11. DNA also reported that the Justice indicated that more than half of the 244 victims were 19 or younger, and that at least 71 of the shootings were gang-related, though he acknowledged that that number was probably a low estimate given the community’s general lack of cooperation with the police.
We contacted Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance’s office for verification of the numbers and time frame. They eventually received confirmation from the NYPD that the statistics run from Jan. 2010 (not 2011). (We held this story for several days while we awaited the DA’s confirmation because we are dedicated to bringing our readers the most accurate information possible.)
While the time framemay have been murky, what is not in dispute is that Harlem is now two communities: One is a gentrified enclave of well-heeled white professionals who are safely ensconced in new luxury high-rise co-ops. The other is a terror zone that youth gangs have turned into a modern-day OK Corral for black residents, one where indiscriminate gunfire routinely claims innocent bystanders like Christopher Owen, a 13-year-old slaughtered by a gunman who fired into a crowd of teens at a Harlem barbecue.
Since CRISIS is the only word to describe the daily subjection of innocent children to the horror of gunfire, we wondered why the much-needed call to action was issued by a white jurist rather than by Harlem’s black elected officials. After all, those leaders lost little time rushing downtown to loudly support the mostly white, middle-class, Occupy Wall Street demonstrators . So why have those same leaders remained silent while their own community is turned into a killing field? We decided to direct our inquiry to Congressman Charles Rangel, representative of Harlem’s 15th District for the last 40 years.
Mr. Rangel made at least four visits to Zuccotti Park in support of OWS — a group that pocketed $500,000 by camping out for two months – so we wondered why he hadn’t used his considerable clout to bring a similar level of public attention to the carnage in his district. We sent his office a request for comment on the gun violence and on Justice McLaughlin’s plea that Harlem’s leaders take action. Our email ended with a question: “Does the Congressman believe that the lives of innocent black children in his district are less important than white, middle class, OWS protesters?”
Since we are CBN and not CNN, we didn’t really expect to hear from Mr. Rangel. We anticipated a “no comment” or, at best, a brief reply from a low-level assistant.
To our surprise, we were immediately contacted by Mr. Rangel’s Communications Director, who asked about our publication deadline. That gave us hope that our fledgling conservative news and opinion blog might eventually receive a written sentence or two from Mr. Rangel’s office. Instead, we received quite a bit more.
On Dec. 19, after leaving the Floor of the House of Representatives, Mr. Rangel called us. It was not an assistant asking us to “please hold for the congressman” – Mr. Rangel made the call himself. That gesture not only revealed his recognition of the gravity of the subject matter, it also evidenced a level of professional courtesy rarely exhibited by today’s politicians (and for that we are duly appreciative).
We began by asking Mr. Rangel about Justice McLaughlin’s comments.
“Was that the case involving the young lady from Abyssinian?” he asked, referring to Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, which made headlines last year by posting $50,000 bail for congregant Afrika Owes, then-girlfriend of gang-leader Layne. Owes was a 16-year-old student at prestigious Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts when she acted as gun courier for Layne’s street thugs.
After we confirmed that it was indeed the same case, Rep. Rangel addressed the Justice’s call for leaders and residents to act.
“I have to say, I think he’s right. I can’t disagree with him,” Mr. Rangel said. “As a nation, we just support violence too much. It’s everywhere. ” He even criticized the Obama Administration’s Fast and Furious gun program, stating, “This whole idea that we can send thousands of guns to Mexico is part of the problem. Why do we need them all over the word? ”
We mentioned the amount of publicity Mr. Rangel has given to OWS and asked why he has not used his powerful profile to bring a similar level of media attention to the young victims of Harlem’s gun crisis. But he was quick to correct us.
“These are my people. They are the reason I’m in office, so of course I care deeply about this problem.” He said he has been working on the issue for years and added, “I’ve spent the last few months calling on black ministers and offering to help with this problem in any way I can.” He has also “reached out to Commissioner [Ray] Kelly and Cy Vance and worked with them on various programs,” including gun buy-back initiatives. “Whenever anyone asks me, I’m there to lend my help.”
Although he abhors the presence of so many illegal guns on the street, Mr. Rangel also worries about discriminatory stop and frisk policies. “Any minority kid with his pants hanging low is likely to get stopped and frisked, even those who are innocent of any crime. And that’s also wrong,” he said.
We asked Mr. Rangel about Justice McLaughlin’s poignant call for residents to turn in the guns in their own homes, a call that included the specter of dead relatives as McLaughlin intoned: “If I did not wish to see another grieving parent or sibling and … finally concluded that wakes and funerals for young people did not have to be a fact of ‘life’ in my community, I would say to my constituents and fellow residents that it is all right to look aggressively for guns in your own home.”
While Mr. Rangel did not disagree with the Justice’s call for in-home confiscation, he noted such a course of action could be problematic. “Sometimes the mothers know that their kids have guns, but sometimes even the mothers are afraid to take action, afraid of their own kids. That’s how overwhelming the problem is,” he explained.
We wanted to learn what Harlem’s longest-serving official has actually done to combat an epidemic born of the deadly trinity of crack cocaine, quick money and omnipresent firepower, so we spoke with some of the area’s grass-roots activists.
Rev. Vernon Williams is founder of Perfect Peace Ministry and president of Harlem Clergy Community Leaders Coalition, two of Harlem’s most influential anti-violence organizations. Profiled by the New York Times in 2009, his work has earned him the respect of both gang members and police officials. One of his initiatives is an Information Network of over 2000 volunteers who patrol the streets nightly, texting each other with updates on actual or potential violence. Teens, who can also text anyone in the Network, often notify Rev. Williams of brewing street disputes. He routinely injects himself, physically, between combatants to quell problems before they escalate into deadly violence.
On Dec. 21, Rev. Williams said that in the previous four days there had been six shootings within a 10-mile radius of his W. 124th Street office.
“At least four times a week there is a shooting in Harlem,” he said. “More money needs to be directed to grassroots programs so we can monitor problems at the ground level and provide activities through our Save Our Children Project. Our goal is to create safe havens for kids and provide options and opportunities before they are lured into the gangs.”
Rev. Williams relies on limited donations and uses his own money and that of other volunteers to provide activities for neighborhood youth, so he stresses the need for a redirection of public monies. As an example, he mentions the $7 million spent on police overtime for OWS. “That $7 million could have been used for grassroots programs that could have saved teenagers’ lives,” he said.
Instead, it was spent to babysit campers and drummers in a private park.
Save Our Children has received help and support from Harlem leaders like State Senator Malcolm Smith, and Rev. Williams said that Congressman Rangel “has always been there when I’m doing any community work, and he’s joined us for neighborhood marches and rallies.”
One of Harlem’s most influential anti-violence organizations is Harlem Mothers Stop Another Violent End (Harlem Mothers S.A.V.E.). Formed in 2006 by Jean Corbett-Parker and Jackie Rowe-Adams, two mothers who tragically lost children to gun violence, S.A.V.E. not only provides bereavement and counseling services to grieving families touched by violence, but they have become one of Harlem’s most important outreach and referral community organizations.
S.A.V.E. also focuses on gun-violence prevention, including counseling mothers who suspect their children may have guns in the home. Rowe-Adams says that the group wants to give parents the language to speak persuasively to their children about how gun violence is destroying their neighborhood.
Ms. Rowe-Adams, a recent appointee to Councilwoman Christine Quinn’s Gun Violence Task Force, is realistic about the problem. “We can’t stop it [gun violence] altogether,” she acknowledged, “but we can look for ways to slow it down.” And she is emphatic that the key ingredient in the “slowdown” is parental responsibility.
“Parents have to be more involved,” she said. “They have to ‘man up’ and take responsibility for raising their children.” But given the high absenteeism of black fathers (in New York, 66% of black children are raised in single-parent homes) the “manning-up” is inevitably left to mothers. S.A.V.E. helps those mothers find programs and activities for their children, especially the 13-to-16 year-old boys who are most vulnerable to the lure of gangs.
S.A.V.E. has received invaluable assistance from many Harlem leaders, including Assemblyman Keith Wright, who was instrumental in the 501(3)(c ) charity’s formation, and Councilwoman Inez Dickens, who helped procure donated office space for S.A.VE. from Harlem developer, the Richman Group.
Rep. Rangel has also been instrumental to S.A.VE. “He worked really hard trying to get us state funding, but just as we were on the brink of success, funding was cut by the Patterson Administration,” Rowe-Adams said. She is hopeful Mr. Rangel will be able to help with federal funding. Both she and Ms. Corbett-Parker work full-time jobs, and devote all remaining time (and personal resources) to S.A.VE.
If S.A.V.E. receives its “desperately-needed” funding, Ms. Rowe-Adams’s number one priority is a teen job-training program, but with an added element of life training.
“Everyone talks about getting jobs for these kids, but they first need to learn how to present themselves in public. No one wants to hire somebody standing on a street corner with their pants hanging down and their butt sticking out,” Rowe-Adams said bluntly. “They need to learn to write a resume, but they also need to learn how to respectfully greet a potential employer, how to look someone squarely in the eye, shake hands and properly conduct themselves during an interview. These are basics that many of them just don’t know.”
Ms. Rowe-Adams hopes to partner teens with employers who will offer guaranteed employment to any student who successfully completes the program. “Even if we have to start with just 10 kids,” she says, “that would be better than nothing.”
Both Ms. Adams and Rev. Williams say that funds are also needed for grief counseling. “When students were killed at Columbine or at Virginia Tech, grief counselors were immediately sent in. Some even flew in from other states. That never happens when black children are killed here in Harlem,” said Rev. Williams.
S.A.V.E. has weekly meetings with grieving families and offers referrals to licensed counselors at Harlem Hospital and other facilities, but there is no full-time counseling available. “With funding, we could have a full-time psychologist or other license counselor right here on staff in our office,” Ms. Rowe-Adams said.
Given the number of shootings to which Harlem’s children are exposed, it defies logic that there are no full-time grief counselors available. Every Harlem elected official could (and should) immediately rally to procure resources for salaries for one (or more) full-time grief counselors. Even if public funds are unavailable, a few conversations over cocktails at a Washington or Albany dinner party should be sufficient to tap into private charitable donors. But first, Harlem’s leaders would need to actually care enough about black children to acknowledge the long-term psychological damage being done to them.
Harlem anti-violence groups are also calling for tougher gun laws. After a December 10th incident in which a mother walking with her child on 116th Street was shot by gang members firing wildly, Rev. Williams is demanding a 10-year mandatorysentence for the possession of an illegal gun, and “one additional year for each bullet,” stating that “black mothers must be free to walk the streets on a Sunday afternoon.”
Ms. Rowe-Adams is also seeking tougher penalties, but she is advocating seven years instead of 10. “I don’t think we can get 10 years,” she said, “but I think we can get legislative passage on seven.” (In October 2006, then-Governor George Pataki signed into law the present mandatory minimum sentence of 3½ years for illegal possession of a loaded handgun.)
But that begs the question, why can’t the tougher legislation pass? If those living in the communities beset by violence — those burying their own children — are asking for 10 years, why would New York legislators refuse to accede to the will of their constituents? The present law is clearly not a deterrent; if children in body bags do not move legislators to do more, then what will?
So, although no one is going door-to-door as Justice McLaughlin advocates, much is being done by community activists in the midst of the daily violence. They are receiving some support from Harlem officials, but is it enough?
When we told Mr. Rangel we would continue to cover this issue, he was gracious (as he was throughout our interview), and invited us to contact him again whenever we desired, but especially if we stumbled upon the equivalent of an ‘oracle of truth’ on this issue.
“If, in the course of your research, you discover something that needs to be done that we’re not doing, if there’s something that’s working and we’re not aware of it, then please let me know. You can count on me to be there.”
We believe Mr. Rangel recognizes the tragedy in his district, but simply does not know what to do about it. He is, after all, human. But he is also the man in whom Harlemites have vested their trust for 40 years. That unwavering loyalty demands that he do more than simply come “when asked.” No one had to ask him to go to Zuccotti, yet he was there, over and over again. So why was be not in attendance at an October Youth Violence Candlelight Vigil at the Beth Gospel Assembly in Harlem to raise awareness of the increasing gun violence?
Someone who was there was Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., along with representatives from the NYPD, S.A.V.E., and Street Corner Resources. The vigil was followed by a gun buyback program sponsored by the Manhattan DA’s Office and the NYPD.
D.A. Vance has built a uniquely close relationship with the Harlem community to combat violence, and has even partnered with S.A.V.E. to organize events such as an Annual Youth Basketball Tournament aimed at providing a positive recreational outlet during the winter school recess. Sadly, D.A. Vance has shown more interest in the safety of Harlem’s children than many black elected leaders.
In the 21st century, media shapes opinion, so the deafening media silence surrounding the violence afflicting black children sends the tacit message that these children do not matter! That mindset must change before anything else can change.
The one thing Congressman Rangel and other black leaders can do above all else is be proactive. No one had to ask Mr. Rangel to visit Zuccotti Park, and no one should have to ask him to visit every parent of every child killed in his district.
In interviewing those working at the grass-roots level, we quickly learned that more money is needed, but is reliance on government programs the best route? OWS was able to make an exorbitant amount of money in a very short period of time, and not through government funding. The daily news coverage of visiting politicians, entertainers and public figures gave legitimacy to the OWS cause (though even Congressman Rangel admitted to us that OWS has never adequately articulated their agenda). That same level of media attention and “star power” must be brought to bear in the handgun crisis.
It should be front page news every time a child is shot. Black leaders should hold press conferences and each maimed or deceased child’s face must become as familiar to readers/viewers as the faces of Leiby Kletzky or Natalie Holloway or any other young white victim.
And every American must be informed that murder is the number one cause of death for 12-year old black boys in America. It is the shame of our nation, but it is also one of the best kept secrets in the nation. Why?
Congressman Rangel ended our interview by telling us that we could always “count on [him] to be there” for Harlem’s residents. His constituents should hold him to that promise, and demand that he do more than merely wait to be called. Mr. Rangel and all other black elected officials should dedicate themselves to addressing the “shame of our nation.” If they do not, then black voters must cease giving blind allegiance to leaders who care more about spoiled, over-indulged Wall Street “protestors” than they do about black children.●