Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

Going back to the grassroots to reclaim trouble spots

Buildings ablaze during rioting, and civilians killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, are scenarios all too familiar to Northern Ireland.

They are also realities that spurred two Americans who met a visiting loyalist delegation last week to begin grassroots efforts to fight murder and poverty in their respective cities.

"I was 100ft from the [police] precinct when it broke," Monsignor William Linder said, recalling the July 1967 explosion of violence that rocked Newark, New Jersey.

A black cabbie had been arrested for allegedly unlawfully passing a police car. After some residents thought they had seen him dragged unconscious into the station, tensions spiked. The ensuing rioting left 26 dead.

"The local police failed," added Msgr Linder. "Then they brought in the state police and they failed. And then they brought in the National Guard.

"It stopped when the governor removed the National Guard. Actually, the presence of the military and the police were not a positive." Social and economic factors had fuelled widespread alienation that sparked the rioting. And Msgr Linder said that a tragic death in his parish had convinced him that a citizen-based community development project was crucial to addressing the area's ills.

"I'd just witnessed an infant child dying of pneumonia in a cold-water flat," he said. "And that always bothered me. In our society, how the heck could we have something like that happen?"

Frustrated by the seeming lack of political will to tackle endemic poverty, in 1968, Msgr Linder founded Newark's New Community Corporation (NCC). It has since created thousands of community-run businesses, jobs, and housing units.

Such is NCC's reputation that in both 1998 and 2000 the then President, Bill Clinton, asked Msgr Linder to join him on visits to Belfast to share his experiences.

As for what he thinks the loyalists he met last week could learn from the NCC, Msgr Linder said: "I think one thing is to get people to understand that they really have the power to do things more than they think."

Two hundred miles to the south, Washington's Tyrone Parker recalls a key moment in the history of an organisation he formed to address the homicide rate in a city once dubbed America's 'murder capital'.

"The tipping point for us was that this 12-year-old kid had been kidnapped and killed on his way to school," said Mr Parker, co-founder of the Washington-based Alliance of Concerned Men (ACM), referring to the 1997 slaying of Darryl Hall. "I saw there didn't seem to be any type of movement to circumvent the homicides that were occurring among our kids," added Mr Parker, who helped create ACM while on parole for a 45-year jail term for armed robbery. "So I began calling my friends, saying 'Now, we got to do something.'"

After a local community activist had steered them towards the boys who'd been at the heart of the area's violence, ACM approached them.

ACM went on to broker a truce between rival gangs in Washington's violent Benning Terrace housing development. There were 482 murders in Washington in 1991, when ACM began its work. Last year, there were 132.

Other factors contributed to the decline. But Parker says ACM's key role has been "not to go into areas judging, condemning, or passing our own opinions. Instead, we ask what kind of services can we help with."

Asked his impression of last week's loyalist delegation, Parker said: "I think that they are extraordinarily serious about transformation in the places from which they come."

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