Ask Roger Wilkerson, a nurse who lives southwest Philadelphia, if he has seen violence in his neighborhood, and he laughs and asks, "Is that a trick question?" Wilkerson was shot last year when he tried to break up a fight on the street. "Crack has taken over these streets," says the Philadelphia native. Vernon Brown, a middle-aged recruiter who lives in the same area, has seen two murders on his block. The African-American teenagers in his neighborhood, he says, have "a lack of purpose. There's hopelessness."
It's not an uncommon sentiment on Philly's mean streets. The city has seen 348 homicides this year as of Nov. 7. Among America's 10 largest cities, Philadelphia had the highest homicide rate last year, leading many to dub the City of Brotherly Love the country's murder capital. It looks as if it's in danger of recapturing the crown.
Fed up, Wilkerson and Brown turned out on a recent Tuesday night for an orientation session of 10,000 Philly Men, a grass-roots movement that aims to reduce violence by increasing the presence of black, male role models in some of the city's most dangerous neighborhoods. Philadelphia's black community has been quick to embrace the movement; at the kickoff event on Sunday, Oct. 21, the crowd was somewhere between 7,000 and 11,000 attendees. Hundreds have turned up at training sessions over the past two weeks. But the biggest challenge lies ahead, as the group seeks to convert an initial burst of enthusiasm into tangible, lasting results for a city desperately in need.
It's an unusual if not unprecedented gamble. If 10,000 Philly Men carry out their mission, the organization stands to dramatically improve the quality of life in the crime-wracked city—and become a model for other urban communities wrestling with violent crime waves. If they fail, the group could dash the expectations of a battered black community—and leave it more disillusioned than ever. "You can't just call 10,000 men to action next year," says E. Steven Collins, a Philadelphia radio host and head of 10,000 Philly Men's marketing and public relations committee.
The call comes at a crucial juncture. Philadelphia's homicide rate has steadily increased since 2004 and disproportionately affects the black community. (A recent data analysis by the Philadelphia Inquirer found that African-Americans, who make up 44 percent of Philadelphia's population, account for 79 percent of the city's homicide victims.) "The situation is very urgent," says Molefi Asante, a professor in the African-American Studies department at Temple University in Philadelphia. "It's not just a situation of homicide but of suicide. It's self-murder. Black youth are killing themselves." The roll call of social woes is all too familiar: economics, education, easy access to weapons, and a lack of male role models. Rates of incarceration are particularly high in the African-American community nationally; the most recent data, from 2006, shows that one out of nine black men between 25 and 29 is incarcerated.
"Right now they think there's no life beyond 24. It stops. It ends," says Anthony Murphy, executive director of Philadelphia Town Watch, who runs the orientation sessions. "At 13 you make your first decision and at 24 you make your last. At 25 you think, 'What do I do now?'"
Seventeen hundred men have attended the nine orientations over the past two weeks. They are trained as "Philadelphia peacemakers," instructed in nonconfrontational behavior and nonviolent conflict resolution. They will not carry weapons and are told not to come into physical contact with the young men they speak with. When training finishes (the organizers estimate that they'll wrap up within 30 to 45 days), the men will be deployed to the street in groups of 10, patrolling from 7 to 10 p.m. They will, in the organizers' eyes, provide the strong role models the community now lacks.
Right now it looks as though 10,000 Philly Men is on the right track. The men at the orientation sessions are excited and ready for change. "I want to play my part in the community that I need to be playing," says Brown, the recruiter who has seen two murders on his block. Some of the enthusiasm is generated by the movement's roots in the African-American community, as opposed to a government-sponsored program (the program does, however, plan to work in conjunction with the Philadelphia Police Department and has received the support of Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson). Within the black community it has the backing of prominent leaders like Charlie "Mack" Alston (longtime assistant and friend to fellow Philadelphian Will Smith) and Philadelphia music mogul Kenny Gamble. Alston and Gamble have been essential to organizing the movement and drumming up excitement among participants.
Their program has not been without its critics, who question whether this is an appropriate role for Philadelphia's black men. Marc Lamont Hill, a professor of urban education at Temple University and a Philadelphia native, knows that the violence is bad—he recalls driving in his childhood neighborhood and coming across an old friend, dead in the street. But he has reservations about what message this could send to the city government. When Philly's black men take their community's safety into their own hands, does that free the government of its responsibility to protect black citizens? "If 10,000 men can reduce crime, what would 10,000 armed police do?" says Hill. "We can never let the state off the hook." And then there's the larger question looming in the background: can putting 10,000 black men on Philly's streets actually cut the murder rate and reduce gun violence?
Organizers like Collins, the radio host, says that it has to; all other attempts have failed to stem the bloodshed. "The proof [that other programs have not worked] is in the killing," he says. The government and police do have their own initiatives, like Operation Safe Streets, but the homicide rate keeps rising. As of Nov. 7, Philadelphia was two murders ahead of its pace at this time last year. That will not change, Collins says, until the community commits to saving its streets.
As 70 or so men shuffle out of the 10,000 Philly Men orientation last Tuesday, some carrying their young sons and others chatting with friends, Gamble's closing remarks seem to resonate with them: "There is madness going on in our community. But we will be successful." After all, it may be the only option they have left.