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What will it take to stop black-on-black crime?

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God Squad
Members of the God Squad, a ministerial outreach program for at-risk youth, hold a meet-and-greet over lemonade in St. Paul's Summit-University neighborhood.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington views black-on-black crime as a scourge ripping apart his community. Since racial breakdowns of crime statistics are hard to come by in Minnesota, Harrington has been forced to do a lot of digging. 

He determined that in 2006, 70 percent of all aggravated assaults in St. Paul, the most violent crimes on the books, were committed against African-Americans. Given the proportion of blacks in the local population, Harrington was shocked. 

"In the city where ten percent of the [population] is black, how can you have 70 percent of your victims of this particular crime, which is one of the most horrendous crimes you can do, how can that be so out of whack?" he asks.  

As a first step toward controlling the problem, Harrington says you have to figure out who is in the suspect pool. When he divided the suspects by race, it gave him a snapshot of the degree to which black-on-black violence afflicts St. Paul.

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St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington. Harrington has made black-on-black violence one of his top priorities and speaks to community groups about it.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

"Just like 70 percent of my victims are black, 70 percent of my suspects are black," he says.

Harrington says black-on-black crime is an outgrowth of two huge problems affecting Black America: the high rate of out-of-wedlock births and gangs. 

There are generations of African-Americans who haven't had two parents to show them the way. Harrington says their maturity has been stunted. As a result, he says, there's an overabundance of young men who are un- or under-employed, who have criminal histories and who rely on chemicals to deal with psychological or emotional pain, and young women who are unequipped to be mothers, wives or even girlfriends.

"You put those two in combination and you get an explosion," he says.

Gangs provide an identity for these vulnerable youths and respect is perhaps the number-one value in gang culture. But Harrington says gang members are not seeking respect in the traditional sense.

"They want somebody that steps off when they step up on the corner." They see that as a sign of respect, he says. But then he adds, "I don't think that's a sign of respect; I think that's a sign of fear."

Any sign of disrespect, however slight, can trigger an extremely violent reaction, says Harrington, because too many are unable to control their anger.

"It is the behavior of a child who doesn't get their way," he says. "But it's being acted out by people who are six feet tall and 240 pounds. So when they have a tantrum, that tantrum ends up with broken bones and closed eyes and split lips, and sometimes ends up with people being buried."

An early summer heat wave holds St. Paul in its grip as the Reverend Darryl Spence engages in a meet-and-greet with a group of elderly men and some young kids on the sidewalk. He invites them to a lemonade stand being set up a half block away by St. Paul police officers. 

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The corner of Fuller Avenue and St. Albans Street in St. Paul's Summit University neighborhood. Authorities are worried it may develop into the crime haven Selby Avenue was in the 80s.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

Spence heads up the God Squad, a ministerial outreach program aimed toward at-risk youth. Today, they've settled on the corner of Fuller and St. Albans in the Summit-University neighborhood. When the sun goes down, roaming bands of young people take over the corner and residents stay inside. 

Yes, says Spence, there's a crime problem and yes, part of it stems from black teens not being anchored by a positive identity. But he says the media have to shoulder more of the blame for that. In contrast to some who believe the media tend to ignore black-on-black crime, Spence thinks they give it too much attention.

"Every time you see your face on TV it's with a number under it. Every time you see your brother on TV it's because he's done something. Media plays a major part," he says.

Spence points to the high-profile case of Howard Porter, a black man who was murdered in Minneapolis last spring. 

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V.J. Smith, founder of the Minneapolis chapter of Mad Dads, administers an oath. People who take the pledge promise not to commit acts of violence and become "Menders of the Nest."
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

"Our brother Howard Porter suffered a tragic death and immediately it was flip-flopped. His neighbors couldn't come out of the door without a microphone being stuck in their face," he says.

Porter was a respected St. Paul parole officer and former college basketball star and NBA player. 

"People weren't allowed to grieve the loss of somebody we'd come to love, because everybody wanted to know if he was doing something bad," he says.

Spence says they wondered about wrongdoing not because Porter was well-known, but because he was black. He also wonders why there's so much emphasis placed on black-on-black crime, but no one uses the term "white-on-white" crime.

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V.J. Smith says the black community needs to figure out a way to turn black-on-black violence into black-on-black love.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

Every Thursday this summer, V.J. Smith, founder of the Minneapolis chapter of the anti-crime group Mad Dads, has been hitting the streets with his crew of volunteers. They've been stopping  male passers-by and administering an oath in which the men promise they will never again commit acts of violence and will become "Menders of the Nest."

Smith realizes that taking an oath may seem like only a gesture in the fight against violence, but he says for many people, their word means everything. Still, he says, it will take much more to rebuild the war zones too many black neighborhoods have become.

"Some individuals aren't quite strong enough to make it through a traumatic situation," he says. "They can't look at somebody lying on the ground and watch blood come from them and then be able to go to school the next day and get all A's. They can't see somebody missing from the family that they love and, without getting any kind of help, still be a productive citizen." 

Smith says African-Americans need to figure out a way to turn black-on-black-crime into black-on-black love, and he says some people are working on that, but not enough. Smith says the black community will accept any help it can get to combat crime, but it has to do a much better job helping itself.

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V.J. Smith leads a Mad Dads meeting. Every Thursday this summer, the group is hitting the streets of Minneapolis to ask people to take the "Menders of the Nest" pledge.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

"When the Catholics had issues they started Catholic Charities," he says. "When the Lutherans had issues they started Lutheran Social Services. When the blacks had issues, we started riots. So we need to do something different."

According to St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington, more black leaders have to come forward to mobilize the community, even if it means taking political risks. Which is why Harrington was pleased when a prominent activist pleaded for witnesses to come forward in the wake of the June shooting in Minneapolis that killed 14-year-old Charez Jones.

"I was delighted, quite frankly, to see Spike Moss come out and call for the community to step up," he says. "I think that's what this takes. We need community leaders to come out and be willing to take unpopular positions."

Harrington says there must be some kind of violence threshold that will cause the black community to rise up as one and demand that black-on-black violence be stopped. Unfortunately, he says, it doesn't appear that threshold has been reached yet.