In the last month, many young people and others have been murdered in Camden, New Jersey. Some were shot on a street during daylight.
In a city with high unemployment and a decreasing population with people moving out as soon as they can afford to, and a myriad of other issues, it’s times like these that call for transformational leadership. The mayor is the leader of the city, both politically and socially. She is the most well known person and when she speaks people listen. And when she acts with her powers, the light of every decision hits everyone.
Before I say anything else about the mayor, I have a disclosure. The mayor appointed me to the school board in 2010. Putting me on the Board of Education is a pick that created frantic and fearful waves from those that thought I didn’t deserve it or earn it. She ignored the convenient politics and gave me the unique opportunity to be a part of a group that serves 12,000 students and approves a $330 million annual budget during the most tumultuous time in its recent history. It was an example of how she put people and policy before politics. I am fortunate and truly grateful. But I don’t feel like I owe her anything like I used to. Since I’ve been on the board, the mayor asked me for one thing (a few hours before taking the oath). And I told her no. She’s certainly never pressured me to vote a certain way, and I say that after two years and dozens of controversial votes. She talks to me respectfully and never minds taking a picture with me. I felt bad writing this. Guilty. Sad. Then I remembered Albert, Anjanea, Jeremiah, Tyreek, Ralph, Curtis, William, Jose, Carlos, Angel, David, Leroy, Matthew (a baby), Leonard, Houston, David, Daquanta, Juan, Jonathon, Kevin M., Kevin J., Felicito, Elaido, Antwan, Travon, Carmen, Taurean, Husani, Francisco, Lori, Kevin, Kano, Vernon, Brian, Jeremy, Julian, Ashley, Marvin, Sahmir, Hanief, Tara, Tarik, Jeffrey, Erick, Damon, Wallace, Jawan, Deogones, Joram, Deogones, Joram, Allen, Lisadro, Barry, Paul, Bruce, Louis, Jose, Carlos, Josue, Lee, Tyhan, Shavor, Nicholas, Franklin, Gary, Shaun, Sophia, Samazie, Vincent, Khalil, Kishaun, Alma, Jacquelin, Wilfredo, Lashaad, Robert, Delita, Jovan, Reynaldo, Franklin, Khalil, Luis, Jose, Wauynee, and as I’m writing this, Jermaine, and John; the people that died in the last 18 months. And then I stopped feeling bad.
The lives lost, the grief that families have, the continuing bad reputation of our city, and the need for someone to speak out or write about these issues are all more important than my own political convenience.
In the last few weeks, I have talked about the violence with the mayor and her chief of staff briefly. Mrs. Novella Hinson first talked about David Kennedy at the school board retreat on July 14th. I talked to her about it again and she told me that the mayor is working with the state attorney general and Mrs. Hinson would soon begin training.
So after all these murders and weeks passed, where is David Kennedy? Okay, obviously I owe an explanation of why he is so important. Read this article. As for Camden, according to his strategy, known gang members on probation or parole would be urged to talk to their fellow thugs and demand that they stop shooting and killing or they’d receive harsher sentences. Save lives or stay in prison. It might be mean, but it has worked in other places. A similar program was used in Chicago and became a documentary call The Interrupters. You can see the whole movie here.
People can debate how successful this program may or may not be. But it is something and it means the community has the opportunity to take part in decreasing the violence. It if that doesn’t work, try something else. That is what leadership is - making things happen for people.
Girls are living in neighborhoods where the boy that tried to “holla” at them yesterday is dead today. Although the drug addicted prostitutes are occasionally arrested, we know little about what’s being done about to decrease the obvious prostitution on Broadway and Morgan Blvd which persists. Although cops stand on the intersection of MLK and Broadway, we know little about what’s being done to stop the selling of pills and other narcotics in that area or the mugging or people that are just trying to go home. Although “wet”, marijuana soaked in embalming fluid, has overtaken some families and this addictive and dangerous drug is quickly becoming my generations’ crack, this is a silent issue.
The best opportunity that the mayor had to motivate the city to be safer was last Thursday at the Peace of the Streets event. In front of one thousand people, she could have talked about the David Kennedy model among other things. If I may, she could have said:
In our city, there are a few people, that commit too many crimes; there are too many gangs that hurt too many people. And this may be because there are not enough good schools, not enough good paying jobs, and not enough alternatives to gangs for our young people.
So that is why, as mayor, I have worked with ________ to ____________ and because of that ____________. We will continue to ____________ and I ask you the community to join me by_______________.
Instead, she introduced all of the present elected officials and the school board members, including me. At an event mostly paid for by the school board, and well coordinated by a school district employee, she asked elected officials and one handpicked school board member to speak. She spoke about “making peace an action”, which was okay, but more boring than inspiring. The event ended with Brother Wassim Mohammed from the Nation of Islam eloquently spoke about his cause bring the message of The Honorable Elijah Mohammed, a prophet of Allah.
Most people there did not know who their elected officials were. They just want them to do their job. A peace concert should never be taken over by politicians clapping for themselves. As people die, people move, and people wonder what is being done, this was a time for answers and solutions, not “also on the stage...”.
I say all that to say this: the reaction from the mayor on the violence in Camden is unacceptable. The mayor is not a failure on the issue of public safety. After almost half of the police department was laid off, she worked to get grants and other funding to hire almost all of them back. That is a great accomplishment. But, the police are much better at responding to crimes that have already taken place than preventing them. Rehiring police is not the answer to the problem of violence. If it was, July 2012 would not be the deadliest month ever in Camden.
The solutions are much more complex, yet all of us know them: have organized activities for teens, make the current public schools safe and clean places where students are held to high standards and learn 21st century skills, bring more businesses to the city, connect the community to jobs in the region. This is list of things most urban mayors around the country do. I look forward to working with a mayor in Camden that will.