MAXWELL:  Blacks could make streets safer simply by helping police

4/30/2000 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Police and witnesses say that on April 24, 16-year-old Antoine Jones shot seven youths at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

As of this writing, the 11-year-old boy who was shot in the head remains in critical condition, kept alive on life support so his organs can be donated.

According to unofficial reports, the shooter and his victims, the oldest 16, are black.

On one level, the incident shows that random violence can strike anywhere, even in the exclusive Woodley Park residential neighborhood in Northwest Washington, which is home to the 111-year-old zoo. On another level _ one with ramifications that should concern African-Americans everywhere _ the incident shows that when black people assist the police, black-on-black crimes can be solved and the cycle of violence among black people can be broken for good.

By now, most Americans are aware of the irony surrounding the tragedy: The shootings occurred on the day celebrating the African-American family. Since the turn of the century, Washington’s African-Americans convened at the zoo on the Monday after Easter to enjoy picnics, hunt eggs and roll them down the park’s landscaped slopes, display original arts and crafts, watch African dancers, listen to music and, of course, observe the many animals.

This event should have been the last place at which black-on-black violence erupted. This was the first time for violence. Irony, frustration and shame laced the comments of Washington’s black leaders.

+ “It is a rare event that happens at a national site like the National Zoo,” Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who is black, told the New York Times. “But quite frankly, it isn’t rare, it’s all too frequent, in our neighborhoods.”

+ Again, the mayor, in the Washington Post: “I think this is particularly a tragedy because it happened on a day of celebrating the African-American family . . . It’s a particular tragedy because all of us are tired of talking about this, and we’re tired of talking about something that happens all too often.”

+ Metropolitan Police Department Chief Charles H. Ramsey, who is black, during a press conference: “Parents and other adults need to take a new look at the way in which violence is promoted as entertainment, through music, videos and television. All too often, we as adults seem to instill in our young people the notion that violence solves problems _ when, in fact, violence only leads to more violence. So we really need a wide-ranging approach to this problem.”

The “wide-ranging approach” the chief refers to includes courses that teach young people to manage anger and to resolve conflicts without resorting to violence, various communitywide efforts and quality parental involvement. As a law enforcement officer, Ramsey also wants more black inner-city residents nationwide to follow the lead of the black Washingtonians who identified Jones as the gunman.

From the beginning of modern law enforcement in the United States, many blacks _ who saw law enforcement as one of their oppressors _ generally have refused to cooperate with the police, even refusing to identify armed robbers and murderers. Each year, police departments nationwide complain that thousands of crimes go unsolved because of the black wall of silence.

In the zoo shootings, however, matters were different, Ramsey said. Thanks to forthright witnesses, the suspect was arrested exactly 24 hours after the attacks.

“We were very fortunate that so many witnesses stepped forward with information about the incident and the person responsible,” he said. “Detectives were able to identify the individual, his last known address, as well as places where he was known to frequent. … We need that same kind of cooperation in all of our cases. … Unfortunately, it is unusual for this large a group of witnesses to step forward. This just highlights the need for people to get involved in helping us solve crimes in our communities.”

Many black people around the country need to learn, as some in D.C. apparently have, that identifying suspects is a citizen’s duty and that leaving criminals on the streets perpetuates crime in black communities.

Listen to an African-American mother living in a black community where residents do not cooperate with police: “I no longer let my kids go out and play. And I rarely take walks in my Northwest neighborhood anymore.”

Clearly, black people are responsible for their communities. A white reporter speaking at the police chief’s press conference may have sounded cynical and inappropriate to many black listeners, but the subtext of the reporter’s comments went to the heart of the nation’s black-on-black crime crisis:

“What do you think it will take to get an influential member of the African-American community to stand up and say, “Enough. Let’s get our communities under control’? I’m talking about someone like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Jesse Jackson. … Jesse Jackson was very vocal about making sure the young black men involved in a high school fight weren’t suspended. Why doesn’t anyone spend equal effort trying to stop the carnage? I think the white community is powerless to help. It has to come from within.”

I also ask: When will our most prominent national, state and local leaders declare “enough”?