On the evening of Sept. 28, a family of six was gunned down as they returned to their home, killing a grandmother and a pregnant mother and wounding three others, including an 11-month-old baby. The weekend marks the second in a row when more than 50 people have been shot on the streets of Chicago.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Democratic leadership in Chicago continue to run around in a daze, denying the obvious and blaming the problem on gun laws to deflect from the real issues. The crux of the issue is that in Chicago, entire communities have completely disintegrated from within. Effective leadership at the local community level is sorely lacking, as are present fathers and strong family structures. The vicious cycle shows no sign of abating, as gangs of fatherless children and young adults raised by the prison system are left to fend for themselves and form their own fractured and violent facsimile of a social structure.
The situation in Chicago is so desperately broken that alternative solutions bear considering. One of the few sources of strong leadership in many of these communities is the Nation of Islam.
The religious organization has long endured controversy over allegations that it is a virulently anti-Semitic and extremist black-nationalist group. The inflammatory rhetoric of some of its leaders — including its current leader, Louis Farrakhan — lend credence to such claims. These extremist elements should be sternly and unequivocally condemned. On the other hand, more moderate Muslims have made it a point of standing up for their communities.
David Muhammad, a retired mechanic who lives on the West Side of Chicago, was featured in the CBS News “48 Hours” documentary “The War In Chicago” for his work in documenting drug dealing in his neighborhood. For more than a year, he recorded live video of an open-air drug market that had set up shop in front of a Baptist church, and posted the videos to YouTube. The radical strategy garnered Muhammad scores of death threats from local drug dealers, but the spotlight ultimately proved more than they could endure and they eventually moved on.
Some might be perplexed as to why a Muslim would risk his life protecting Christian worshippers, but for Muhammad, the answer was simple. “In Islam, we’re taught to protect all institutions of God. So it was like a slap in my face for them to deal drugs right out of the door of the church.”
Security firms affiliated with the Nation of Islam began informally patrolling communities beset by violence in the late 1980s, and proved quite effective in several cities — including Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Chicago. The basis of their presence was to establish respect among the community and serve as a presence teaching young men how to carry themselves with dignity. A largely unarmed force, they were able to achieve consistent and dramatic reductions in violent crime in the neighborhoods they patrolled. Ultimately, security firms affiliated with the Nation of Islam entered partnerships with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to guard HUD-operated government housing projects in several cities.
Although few complained about the effectiveness of the Nation of Islam in reducing violence and crime, its relationship with HUD created a political firestorm that resulted in most of its government contracts being rescinded. Most notably, in 1995 HUD abruptly canceled the security contract of a firm affiliated with the Nation of Islam to secure Baltimore public housing buildings, citing bidding irregularities and other violations that were widely viewed as a smoke screen for a political battle raging in Congress over the group’s anti-Jewish rhetoric.
Tenants of the city’s seven high-rise public housing projects complained bitterly. Wells Fargo Security, a competing firm that was eventually granted the security contract, drew the ire of residents who complained that crime, vandalism and violence had skyrocketed within a mere two months of the takeover. Within two years, Wells Fargo’s contracts were also canceled and the firm was chased out of town amid a rapidly disintegrating quality of life in the city’s housing projects.
The fact is, the Nation of Islam brings to the table things that other private security firms and the police don’t: Credibility within the community. It is one of the few community-based organizations that actually recruit in the prisons and also offer transitional services to ex-offenders. One of the problems cited by HUD with regard to the group’s Baltimore contracts was that it had hired ex-offenders as guards. But this was actually a strength. The Nation of Islam had in fact cleaned up ex-offenders, taking them off the streets, getting them off drugs and instilling them with discipline before redeploying them in neighborhoods where they were known and now respected.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men have given it their best, and yet violence in Chicago remains an ongoing tragedy that has shown no signs of abatement. It is time Chicago takes the next practical step in partnering with moderate members of community-based organizations with proven track records of curbing violence and crime. While we should condemn bigotry and extremism in all forms, this should not deter us from engaging with more moderate members of the Muslim community to develop constructive, community-based solutions to address the acute problems Chicago is facing. Certainly there is some middle ground to be found in a city that is being torn to shreds in the absence of sane leadership and mutual cooperation.
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