On April 26, the Tampa Bay Times published a story about black-on-black crime and violence that focused on the Stop the Violence Coalition, a new neighborhood group.
In the photo accompanying the article, 7-year-old Jordan Balloon sits alone near three tombstone replicas representing the victims of black-on-black violence. The image of the boy reminded me that many black children are deeply affected by crime and violence.
I have expressed my views on this problem many times in this space. Now, I want to introduce readers to 36-year-old John Muhammad and his views on this crisis, especially on how it affects black youth. He is a founder of the coalition, president of the Childs Park Neighborhood Association and a local leader in the Nation of Islam. He is married with three daughters and a grandson. He wants his community to rid itself of tolerance for black-on-black violence.
"When you look at the murder rate in the black community, this is civil war," Muhammad said. "Look at all the funerals. Mothers are taking their children to their final resting place because of neighborhood conflicts, aggravated assaults and home invasions. How can the killing of our black brothers and sisters by white policemen or neighborhood watchmen warrant more response from black community leaders than our shooting of one another?
"Look at the statistics. It's not whites killing us. It's us killing us. We must mobilize our people and get our young people to stop the senseless killing of one another. But if we're not willing to confront the murder and mayhem that's going on in our own community — at our own hands — then we will not be taken seriously because we are demanding something from others that we are not demanding of ourselves."
Part of the solution, he believes, is for the entire community to recognize the cost of violence not just for the victims' families, but also the perpetrators'.
"When we hear about violence and violent crimes, lots of attention and sympathy are directed toward the victims and their families, and rightly so," he said. "I have four relatives in prison for murder and have firsthand experience with the burden it places on the other family members. When a parent has a child that is given 10 or 20 years or even life in prison, it is a great trial for them and the other family members. They go through a wide range of emotions, including guilt, shame and regret, and even blaming themselves. So, there is great loss on both sides. What we're asking the would-be offender to do is to stop and think before responding to conflicts with violence."
Muhammad said that turning young people away from crime and violence and putting them on the path to success will take wise adult leadership.
"Our children can't lead themselves," he said. "But they are not going to follow leadership that is not productive. The leadership they are seeking must outline goals and targets that are in line with the time. They look around and see millions of unemployed and know there are no jobs for them.
"When you look at the way some of these young people control and operate drug houses and open-air markets, you can see they have the drive and skill that can compete with the best Fortune 500 CEOs. Wise leaders would recognize that with the right vision and a different product, these young people can be productive business owners. They just have no desire to work for others. They want to do for themselves."
He said new black leaders are needed to help cultivate and positively redirect the entrepreneurial spirit many young blacks naturally possess.
"We have to show them by example that they can own their own businesses and that we will support them," he said. "We can show them this by taking them to the few remaining black-owned businesses and support these businesses. Our responsibility is to pool our resources so our young can learn from our example. We need to organize the craftsmen, those who have knowledge of plumbing, roofing, brick masonry and electric wiring. Let's ask them to teach the young people their trades.
"Then we can look at these vacant lots and abandoned properties in the 'hood' and approach city government and ask them to help us put our brothers and sisters to work in rebuilding their community with the skills they now have. We can then begin to legally own the city blocks we once foolishly used for our illicit purposes."
Although the Stop the Violence Coalition began in the black community, Muhammad said it is not an exclusively black organization.
"This is a citywide coalition," he said. "Anyone willing to take a stand and be present for peace is welcome to participate, regardless of creed, class or color. Violent crime affects every member of our community — especially our children."