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Cover Story: Another Hot Summer in the City

Local leaders and grassroots groups try to keep kids busy and safe

By Stephanie Dunlap · June 2nd, 2004 · Cover Story
Among those dedicated to stopping violence in the inner city are (L-R) Pam Asberry, Bobbie Royal, Linda Berg�r and Curlee Bobbs.
Jymi Bolden

Among those dedicated to stopping violence in the inner city are (L-R) Pam Asberry, Bobbie Royal, Linda Berg�r and Curlee Bobbs.

The good news is that people seem concerned about summertime violence. People care, or at least they say they do.

The bad news is they're not working together. And most everyone seems afraid it's just not enough.

Not enough funding, not enough efficiency in those agencies receiving funding, not enough attention from those with the ability to allocate funds. Not enough outreach to kids on the street or not enough outreach to the young men who are killing each other.

Conventional wisdom holds that riots -- or uprisings or whatever you call what happened in April 2001 -- usually happen in hot weather. People don't want to stay indoors, especially those without air conditioning. Lacking yards, they congregate on sidewalks and street corners. There's no school to occupy children and teenagers, little work to occupy older people.

Large gatherings, especially of young black men, make citizens and the police nervous, explained Councilman Christopher Smitherman to officials from youth recreation, employment and safety organizations assembled for a May 25 health committee meeting.

"Seeing youth wearing T-shirts in masses on corners, these youth are making some citizens feel uncomfortable," Smitherman said. "How do we reach them? Somebody physically has to go there and make contact, and it has to happen at a nontraditional time."

Turn down nothing but collars
Earmon Powell agrees, and that's why he's sitting frustrated in the basement of the Lincoln Community Center in the West End, where Tyrone Smith has called a meeting to address summertime youth activities.

About 20 youngsters and teenagers sprawl in couches and recliners and lean against walls. A young girl holds her stick overhand as she tries to play pool with the older boys. A young woman cradles a newborn with a white ribbon tied around its bald head.

"Have everybody signed up," Smith hollers over the din of post-school adrenaline.

"How much does it cost?" a girl asks.

"Doesn't cost a dime, sweetie," Pam Asberry says. "You just have to sign up."

Asberry and three other women from The Vision Is Now -- or Visions -- are helping Smith, chairman of Care About People Cincinnati, sign up youth for a summer trip to Paramount's Kings Island.

"Young folks understand one thing, that this is about respect and having fun," he tells them. "No one automatically gets a free ride on any trip. It took a whole lot of talking (to convince Kings Island to sponsor 250 of them), so we're not going to let one person mess it up for the whole community."

Be polite and next year we won't even have to go back to ask because they'll offer, Visions President Linda Bergér tells them.

Smith and his S.T.O.P. Squad -- according to his shirt, that's "Stop Taking Out People (Stop the Violence)" -- are also planning a trip to a farm where kids can fish, go on a wagon ride, host a talent show or nature hike or, if they're under 8, take a pony ride.

"Lunch is only $1," he says. "We hope to be able to take care of that for you all."

S.T.O.P. Squad is about "activists taking action, not about activists hollering and screaming and coming up with no solutions," Smith says. "I don't want to look at a young man or a child and see that glassy-eyed look of no hope."

He organized the trips, and members of Visions are there to help him out, Bergér says.

"There's absolutely nothing we turn down but our collars," echoes Asberry, vice president of Visions.

She explains that Visions works with the mothers of murdered children. One thing Visions does is collect burial funds.

"These deaths are unexpected, of course, but so many of these mothers don't have the money to make sure their children are taken care of," she says.

Visions also holds vigils, takes dinners to bereaved families, advocates community education and sells raffle tickets to raise funds to put video cameras "not up on poles but in people's hands."

"We are by no means a group that is anti-police, but we know some things have to be viewed that are not viewed from a police car," Asberry says.

"We have to stop this now, enough is enough," is Visions' slogan, she says. "We can't wait until tomorrow, our vision is now."

The group tries to get people to put a face on the mothers, sisters and other relatives of people that are killed senselessly, she says.

Visions' executive director, the Rev. Raymond Jones, says trips to Kings Island are "not good enough, like a band-aid." It's not long-range, he says, though he agrees that if young people "were given something to do when it's hot, we'll eliminate some of the crime in the community."

'What else do they know?'
Smith should be well known to Cincinnati City Council members. He's come almost weekly for months to address them during the public comments that precede council's regular meetings. He tells them that Cincinnati Recreation Commission (CRC) made a mistake by closing what he calls one of the largest inner-city playgrounds, Laurel Playground, also known as Wade Street Park, for summer renovation.

"This is the construction season," responds CRC supervising engineer Jeff Koopman, who says that CRC worked closely with the West End Community Council to approve the plans, and quickly names five nearby playgrounds and ballparks that can be substitutes.

As for Smith's concern that the renovation will position a basketball court on a corner just two blocks from the freeway, perfect for drug trafficking, Koopman says, "That would be a much more visible area than where they are now."

"I understand what Mr. Smith's concerns are," he adds. "It's just, we're trying."

Youth recreation is all well and good but the children aren't the ones shooting on the streets, Powell says as he watches lines of shuffling kids sign up for field trips. He and the others were hoping this would be a meeting of activists to discuss how to curb escalating violence during the summer; already 31 homicides have been logged this year.

The kids here aren't the problem, he says.

"They're dying at ages 16 to 32 between the hours of 8 p.m. and 4 a.m.," Powell says.

He's trying to find funding for a successful program copied from other cities called "Brothers Keepers," through which three men would circulate on the streets from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. -- one with a list of jobs, a second with a list of social events and a third encouraging community members to create their own social events.

"There's no aggressive dialogue or movement to get onto the streets," he says. "The streets will not come to the programs."

Powell is upset that the budget for Citizens Committee on Youth (CCY) was slashed last year. During the May 25 committee meeting, the head of CCY says she already has 1,500 applications for 949 total summer jobs available to youth.

Activist Monica Williams says CCY is considered ineffective even for those lucky enough to get jobs; one of her teenage sons' friends waited a long time to get paid by CCY. Her own son heard nothing after turning in an application last year.

Williams says she doesn't advocate violence, but she sees and understands the rage and frustration of most of the people on the street.

"I understand why they respond with violence," she says. "What else do they know?"

Not only have certain police officers been brutal and violent, but they can be downright disrespectful to the citizens they're charged with protecting, she says.

Council needs to start working more closely with grassroots organizations such as the Vine Street Block Club and the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless, Williams says. Such groups can help council members more accurately gauge the temperature of the streets.

"I want council to stop telling the community we need to support the police," she says. "That is a slap in the face to African Americans. The trouble is not that African Americans are not getting along with police. Since when does the citizen have a higher onus than police officers?"

The Cincinnati Police Department was among those at the health committee meeting. They've increased "police visibility overtime" to derail summertime unrest, according to Lt. Col. Richard Janke.

The recreation commission presented a comprehensive list of summer programs to the health committee, including sports leagues, arts camps, lifeguard training programs and a mobile playground. Smitherman aired concern about charging fees for using ball fields.

"I don't want a young person saying 'I can't use the field' and then hanging out on the corner and being stopped by the police department because they're standing out on the corner," he said.

Smitherman committed to helping CRC find funding to keep recreation centers open later at night and to reinstate programs such as midnight basketball.

Cecil Thomas, director of the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission, presented Annette Richardson, who has worked with the CHRC Cincinnati Youth Streetworker program.

"Everybody ain't getting shot up," Richardson told committee members. Many of the 12- and 13-year-olds calling her are suicidal, but they "still have dreams and hopes, even with their pants around their ankles and guns in their pockets."

Richardson sais she can relate to them. The daughter of an alcoholic mother and a distant father, she became pregnant at 13.

"We need street, street, street programs because that's where the babies are at," she said.

Vice Mayor Alicia Reece concluded the meeting unhappily.

"We need a more condensed, coordinated plan with one number to call" for information, she said.

Richardson says later that the organizations who presented to the health committee aren't going to be able to reach the kids who most need help.

"We got to go where they're at," she says. "We have got to go to them as adults and say we've not always been a nice, wonderful adults. I snatched purses at 13, 14, baby. They got to hear that. Because if not, they have no hope. Because if not, they feel like total failures in life.

"And not only will they begin to kill one another, they will begin to kill themselves. We are so busy as adults saying we're not in a crisis that we don't hear them." ©



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