When 17-year-old James Rubin was shot in the forehead on March 17 and landed hard on Hough’s rough-and-tumble Bayliss Avenue, it wasn’t the first time a black child was killed by another in Cleveland.
Read the papers and witness firsthand why gunfire is officially the greatest danger to black teens, in their very own neighborhoods. But it doesn’t have to be, said those who came Wednesday night to rally about 50 grownups to action at East High. They called the event “Save Our Streets,” a vigil of sorts without the candles and tears.
New Councilman TJ Dow, who won the chance to carry on Councilwoman Fannie Lewis’ legacy, started by ticking off the homicide stats for his ward: in 2005, 14; in 2006, 11; in 2007, six; and last year, 9.
“And a majority of them, as I read down the list, were 1) black males, 2) young, and 3) usually the offender was a black male too, so we’re dealing with black-on-black crime here,” said Dow, whose uncle was shot dead when he was just a boy himself. “I know the hurt it does to a family,” he added. “You never get over it.”
A succession of police leaders and activists took turns expressing their hope in a concentrated effort to battle a grim reality, to start as many street clubs and youth programs as possible to divert children from the magnetic menace of the streets. And many said they believe that Dow, a former assistant county prosecutor, was the leader to pull it all together.
“[Late Councilwoman] Fannie Lewis was great woman, a legend,” said Black-on-Black Crime founder and WTAM radio host Art McKoy, a proud alum of East High, “and when Fannie Lewis came in, back in my day, it was like God sent her. But these are new times, and I think God sent Mr. Dow for now.”
The audience then welcomed activist Kevin Bell, a former gang-banger and founder of the Partnership for a Safer Cleveland. Bell talked about being able to negotiate a truce between gangs three years ago, but then funding for his program ran out.
“I pledged to do everything I can to bring this neighborhood back to where it was when I was growing up,” he said. “We have a real serious problem in this ward and I wish we had more young people here. It’s a pretty mature audience.”
Dow pledged to take this forum to student assemblies as well.
“I do believe we have to pass things down, that adults need to be the leader in all this and not the kids,” said 3rd District Police Commander Calvin Williams. “It has to start at home. If they don’t have it there, they’re going to get it from the streets.”
The audience amen-ed and uh-huh-ed.
“A lot of kids are pushed into this life,” said Mitchell Steward of the city’s Gang Task Force. “A lot of them are doing bad things to keep the bad boys off of them.”
He encouraged the adults present to assume the role of protector: “If you know something, or hear something or see something — say something.” Then he pledged: “We’re going to straighten out as many as we can.”
There are about 50,000 students in the Cleveland Municipal School District, so he better get back to work. The district has grown its surveillance effort in recent years to 2,500 cameras, metal detectors and a doubling of security staff. Dow also pledged federal block-grant money to put more cams up and down the streets of Hough, to carry that role of overseer closer to home.
“The problems on 81st and Decker are the same problems we’re having in our schools,” said Lester Fultz, CMSD’s chief of security. “The same things that are happening on the streets on Saturday night are inside our schools on Monday morning.”
But those problems are decreasing, apparently: Fultz said serious incidents dropped 34 percent over two school years ago. Some credit an effort to reach out to as many troubled kids as possible: “They really just want an adult in life that’ll talk to them and be there for them,” said school probation officer Celeste Wain-Wright.
Said East High Principal Carol Lockhart: “The school house can’t do it alone.” Neither can some of these parents we’ve seen out there. — Dan Harkins