Fighting neighborhood crime, nonviolently

Sign held at a rally in New York City calling for justice after the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012. (Flickr/Michael Fleshman)

Sign held at a rally in New York City calling for justice after the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012. (Flickr/Michael Fleshman)

Break-ins, muggings and worse were definitely up in the neighborhood. Neighbors were justifiably worried, and they talked about two responses. One was to leave for the suburbs, where people were safer (and whiter). The other was to demand that the city send more cops.

We were new to the neighborhood, the 30 of us having just moved in to form an intentional community of activists. We didn’t like either of the two “solutions” the neighbors talked about.

Moving to the suburbs played into the hands of unscrupulous real-estate types who wanted to “turn over the neighborhood” — turn it from largely white to black, from largely homeowners to absentee landlords who would carve up the large houses into tiny apartments and collect rents while allowing the properties to disintegrate into slumhood. That was the history of a lot of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. In 1971 it was West Philly’s turn.

Demanding more police presence played into the hands of Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo, the populist proto-fascist who had made his reputation by raiding coffeehouses while crusading against “hippies.” Rizzo won national attention with the photo of him attending a fancy-dress occasion with his billy club in his cummerbund. He’d lined up a group of Black Panthers on the street, stripped them naked after raiding their office and called it a strip search. Lately he’d been demanding more police officers to command. Did we really want our neighborhood to be Rizzo’s ally?

Our group felt the pressure as much as anybody — collective houses broken into, members assaulted on the street. Two of us, Lillian Willoughby and Ross Flanagan, formed a collective to develop a nonviolent alternative that would somehow respond to the racism inherent in the situation and the momentum toward “white flight” that was starting to build.

The collective started to go to the meetings in neighbors’ living rooms where people would tell alarming stories and shake their heads. Our members would get acquainted and show it was our problem, too. When the conversation turned to the demand for more police, as it always did, our members asked what the track record was. “What have the police done for you lately?”

After some disappointing stories on that front, people were ready to listen to an alternative.

“What if,” our members suggested, “we got together and took action to have each others’ backs? What if we formed block groups where we got to know each other so we could tell, if someone was loitering on the sidewalk, whether they were neighborhood folks or not? And the block groups could send their captains to regular meetings where we could come up with ways of becoming safer?”

“Right,” someone would say. “There might be a bunch of specific things we could do. We could agree to keep our porch lights on all night, and put lights in the backs of our houses, too, that could be on automatic timers. Everybody knows that light deters crime.”

At most of the living room meetings, people relaxed and started to generate ideas. “We could exchange phone numbers so if somebody needed to go to the store at night, they could ask someone to go with them.” “People who walk their dogs could talk with people they see on the street and be nosy about where they live; the word would get around that our neighborhood is getting together.” (That one brought laughter, and nods of approval.)

“How about we carry whistles, and if somebody scary approaches us, we just blow the whistle so people in their houses could come outside to see what’s up?”

“Better yet, there are those air horns that bicyclists use — they are so f-ing loud! If you’re too scared to blow your whistle, you can just press that button.”

If no one else brought it up, one of our members would point out that studies show that pedestrians make safe streets, and the practice of hiding behind the doors stimulates crime. Someone else would often say, “Well then, let’s walk around at night, in pairs during peak crime times; we can take turns.”

“And we can carry those air horns!”

Organizing equals safety

After months of having conversations, identifying strong community partners and holding tentative meetings of some block groups, the Block Association of West Philadelphia formed. The co-chairs were, very intentionally, African American and European American. Police were brought into the picture for the crime statistics and other information they could bring.

Car windows continued to be broken and street assaults continued to scare us. One skilled, ninja-like thief broke into our house and stole my wallet from my pants hanging on a chair in the bedroom — while I slept a few feet away!

Our collective, a unit of the Movement for a New Society, organized more blocks, with more meetings and more neighbors to join the teams nonviolently patrolling the streets.

I remember a neighbor showing up with a baseball bat to join me on our scheduled walk. We dialogued intensely while we walked back and forth from his house to mine, trying our best not to let male ego get in the way of the issues. At last he took the baseball bat back into his house and rejoined me for our patrol, carrying his air horn instead.

The neighborhood-wide agreement by that time was that we were to keep our air horns close to the front door, so if we heard a cry for help or sounds of struggle, we could dash to the door, grab the horn and run in the direction of the sound blasting our horn.

The way it worked, more neighbors would hear the horn, then grab theirs and run in the direction of the sound. Not one would-be thief or rapist was intrepid enough to stick around when they heard the loud blasts of our horns coming in their direction.

At the monthly meetings of block captains, police began to report declining crime rates. That was also our anecdotal perception.

Then a crisis came. A woman was murdered on the sidewalk outside the Movement for a New Society house where she lived. Compounding the violation in our racially tense neighborhood was that she was white and the murderer was black.

Our collective called other Movement for a New Society members to join them in an intense round of action: support for the stunned household where she lived, washing the blood off the sidewalk, communication with block captains, neighborhood-wide door-knocking, invitations to an evening memorial service at the neighborhood Methodist church.

Although few knew the woman who was murdered since she was new to the neighborhood, the church was jammed with neighbors. After a deeply moving, non-religious but very spiritual event, attendees filed out of the church doors to join in a candlelight procession around the neighborhood. It was one of the early “take back the night” events that became a feminist contribution to U.S. culture in the 1970s. The service and procession strengthened the neighborhood’s resolve to reject white flight as the way to solve its problems.

The Block Association of West Philadelphia grew, and the neighborhood finally stabilized as a community that could tolerate racial (and income) differences.

How to spread solidarity

Other Philadelphia neighborhoods with crime problems paid attention to our experiment, and some began to launch experiments of their own. A foundation funded a statewide outreach effort of that kind throughout Pennsylvania. Under the name “town watch,” the idea that grassroots initiative matters was also trending nationally.

Last year’s fatal shooting by a neighborhood-watch captain of teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., underlines how a grassroots effort can get sucked into the violent U.S. culture. There’s no guarantee that a grassroots initiative will always have the anti-racist, anti-violence character of the Movement for a New Society.

This lack of guarantee highlights a general weakness of alternative institutions as a tactic for change. Needed as they are, alternative institutions don’t necessarily develop in the best direction. For that, a broader strategy is needed as well, such as the one I propose in Toward a Living Revolution.

In the eyes of Movement for a New Society members, our experiment underlined the importance of training. If there were more Lillian Willoughbys and Ross Flanagans — organizers who had a profound understanding linked to excellent people skills — then such alternatives have a chance of yielding more nutritious fruit.

Still, the West Philly experiment may offer a breakthrough for people who reflexively believe in baseball bats, or revolvers. They might begin to see that safety lies in solidarity.

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