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How Can You Laugh at a Time Like This?

Willy Chaplin

No. 21

Not so Simple City

March 21, 1998

Recently, an article in the March 16th issue of U.S. News and World Report, my favorite general news magazine, caught my rapt attention. Entitled "Cease-Fire in Simple City," it concerned the gentling of a housing project in Southeast Washington D.C. known colloquially as Simple City. To quote the magazine, the project was "so desperately violent that some homeowners nailed their windows shut...(and blocked) their back doors, preferring the more distant threat of death by fire to the ever present one of stray bullets and home invaders."

In fact, the degeneration of the project was so far gone, so completely ruled by gang warfare, that a court-appointed "receiver" had all but decided to demolish it and disperse the residents to other places. Gunfire was so prevalent, that he could not coax his driver into the area so he could inspect it.

Except fate intervened in the form of a small group of middle aged ex-con black men who were so disheartened by the carnage in their home town, that they got together, casually at first, and decided to "do something about it." With no plan, no money, no agenda, they simply decided that something HAD to be done. Working from their cars on their own time at their own expense, at first they simply visited the area and rapped with the youths they encountered hanging out on the streets. They did not chastise the youth. They did not denigrate either them or their families. They knew from their own experience how useless such entreaties are, especially delivered by "outsiders." The first "program" they instituted was transporting a group of kids to visit their fathers...in prison.

As time went on, they discovered that, contrary to popular opinion, these kids knew what they were doing was wrong. They just had no idea what to do about it. No one was offering them any sort of "exit strategy" whatsoever. They also were only too well aware what the "end game" was. If they continued their criminal behavior, eventually they would be caught and imprisoned, probably for very long stretches.

So the group, calling themselves the Alliance of Concerned Men, arranged for the youngsters to get paid to clean up the project. The kids leapt at the opportunity. Making slightly more than minimum wage, far less than they could "earn" as robbers and drug dealers, they were nevertheless eager to demonstrate that they were NOT shiftless, lazy bums. They claimed that they had ALWAYS wanted straight jobs, but couldn't get them because of their criminal records and lack of training.

So they cleaned up the graffiti...their own idea, suggested indignantly to the receiver when he suggested hiring "outsiders" to do it. They picked up litter. They repaired damaged property. They "taxed" their own paychecks in order to build and equip a basketball court for younger boys, who had not yet entered the cycle of violence and criminality. They held cookouts and other gatherings to spread the message. Besides cleaning up their own acts, they ran other drug dealers out of their territory.

The natural leadership skills enjoyed by some of the former gang leaders quickly translated into more conventional leadership. When the group finished the cleanup four months ahead of schedule, they credentialed themselves for other, non government supported jobs. This was a definite win-win for both the kids and for the government...read: taxpayers. For, the amount of money saved by not tearing down the project and scattering the residents, by not incarcerating a good percentage of the adolescents (which, remember, costs MORE than sending them to college and graduate school) was an enormous tangible saving. The intangibles, the lives salvaged, the self esteem restored, the fear lifted from the brows of the other residents is beyond calculation.

U.S. News saw this effort as evidence that both liberals and conservatives were right. The liberals were correct in predicting that the delinquents would work if given the chance. The conservatives were right in saying that deterrence, long prison sentences would "scare them straight." I saw something else as well. I saw something that libertarians cherish above all else; the freedom to choose. What the older men offered these kids was an opportunity to choose what they really wanted to do with themselves. Without luring them with carrots or beating them with sticks...they had gotten plenty of both from the liberals and conservatives...both groups of whom felt that THEY knew best what these children needed...the Alliance simply pointed them toward opportunity, opened the door just a crack and said "Choose!"

CEBBTOs on both sides of the left-right spectrum always underestimate the value of freedom of choice. So eager to advance their own theories of social control, they continually discount the value of human dignity and underestimate the enterprise and initiative of truly free people.

There is something else which should be underscored by this lesson. In previous articles entitled Racism - How can I miss it if it won't go away? and The REAL end of racism, I strongly argue that the only people who can change the image and direction of African American people, especially black males, are African American people themselves, again, especially black males. The rest of us could (and did) get rid of racist laws and official discrimination. Many of us also changed our attitudes and personal behavior toward people of African descent...voluntarily. What we could not and can not do, is legislate the attitudes of those who do not agree with us. No amount of reverse racism, masquerading as "affirmative action" (see: Please give a poor, dumb nigger a job...), can alter morality. Like the boys in Simple City, when given the chance, CHOSE to exit their lives of violence, despair and hopelessness, we have to give those in our society who still harbor prejudice toward people of color a CHOICE to do otherwise. As long as they have to fear every black male they meet on the street MIGHT rob them or worse, this is not going to happen.

Note that NONE of the people involved in the Simple City saga was white. No white do-gooder liberals or hard-line conservatives had anything to do with what happened. You could argue that the receiver, when he "handed out" jobs to the kids, was administering "welfare" or even "affirmative action." But, paying people to work hard is MY kind of affirmative action. It's a lot cheaper than jails. Besides, the receiver of the project was black too.

The men in the Alliance arguably did more, in a few months, toward the REAL end of racism, than all the white CEBBTOs have done in the many years since the Civil Rights Act was passed. My hat goes off to them.

See you tomorrow...

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