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Bill Maxwell

Crossroads for black community

St. Petersburg's black communities are at a crossroad. I am using Webster's definition to mean "a time in which important changes occur or major decisions must be made."

The recent murder of 8-year-old Paris Whitehead-Hamilton, and other killings and acts of violence during the last 12 months, have hit many ordinary residents and community leaders hard. There is now a sense of urgency regarding the need to find ways to make positive changes now, not later.

This is a significant moment. Now many black organizations, including churches, are collaborating for a common cause. The Police Department's new gun bounty program, for example, has received widespread support in Midtown and Childs Park, even from individuals who until now were reluctant to assist the police.

"People are united," Mayor Rick Baker told the St. Petersburg Times editorial board last week. "Change will have to come from the community, and the community is now coming forward."

The bounty program, a partnership between the Police Department and Crime Stoppers of Pinellas County Inc., will pay a $1,500 reward for each confidential tip to Crime Stoppers that leads to an arrest, recovery of an assault weapon and a charge for possessing a weapon in the city. The program will give $1,000 for tips involving firearms other than assault weapons. It will be financed with a combination of Police Department forfeiture funds and private donations.

Baker cautioned, however, that getting guns off the streets and making arrests are only part of the complex process of significantly improving the quality of life in the city's troubled black communities. The mayor is right.

All segments of society, in fact, are interrelated, each needing special attention. A core relationship is the one between the city's schools and the communities they serve. As schools south of Central Avenue resegregate, the role these institutions play in the lives of the children and their families will become even more critical.

Many experts argue that schools are a microcosm of society. Some of the kids who have been killed or involved in violence on our streets were students in our schools; many of the fights on our campuses began on our streets; many of those campus fights resume off campus long after school is closed.

There is a revolving door. What did these kids learn at home? What did they learn in the classroom? What did they learn from their peers and others on the streets? These relationships need the attention of smart and caring adults both on and off campus. It is essential, therefore, that our principals are competent in every way and that our teachers are professionally qualified and wise.

Of course, parents and guardians must assume responsibility for their children. Police officers cannot babysit our kids; they cannot force our kids to do their homework; they do not know when our kids hide guns under their beds or in their dressers or tuck them in their belts.

Baker has set an example for future mayors and other elected officials to follow. He has used the bully pulpit of his office and his personal clout to link businesses to public schools in the city. These partnerships have resulted in mentors and tutors and money to purchase supplies the schools cannot afford otherwise. Another program awards 500 scholarships to underprivileged children who promise to work hard and stay in school.

Beyond the schools, Baker has been instrumental in attracting businesses to Midtown, and he initiated a beautification effort that has improved the appearance of many streets. The addition of the Job Corps campus on 22nd Street S should make a positive difference for many residents.

While the mayor's efforts are commendable, the seemingly intractable problems facing our black communities cannot be solved from the top down. No insult intended, but these problems cannot be solved by the white people who pledge thousands of dollars to the gun bounty. Although their generosity provides the financial base for action, the day-to-day and door-to-door hard work and the moral leadership must come from black residents themselves.

The city's black communities are at a crossroad. We, black people, must make the hard decisions and determine which way we go.

Crossroads for black community 05/02/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 2, 2009 9:05pm]

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