On the corner of 1901 Susquehanna Ave., a group of about 20 black men, calling each other brother, formed a close-knit prayer circle, shortly after 6 p.m. on Sept. 27. They asked a higher power to protect them throughout the march they were about to embark on.
At 6:30 p.m., Stanley Crawford, founder of the Black Men Engaging Neighborhoods, grabbed his microphone and headed for the streets. Determined, jovial, and gregarious, the men followed his lead into the setting sun.
As they marched around the block, they chanted. Statements like “I, black man, will never hit my significant other nor my children,” or “I will pick up my trash,” were heard throughout the rally. Other chants focused on issues such as drug consumption and violence.
As the participants in the march made their way around the block, they called out to people who were watching. Neighbors seemed standoffish and annoyed at the marching crowd. Residents walked inside their homes, watching the event from their windows. Crawford did not let that affect him; the rally went on until 8:30 p.m.
Black Men Engaging Neighborhoods is an association encouraging black men to recognize the negativity they have been causing in their communities and pledge to change. Crawford created the association in 2017 to stop the killing of black men in higher-crime neighborhoods.
“A year ago, my son was murdered,” said Crawford. “I could have went into fetal position and went into a deep grieving process. I could have gotten some revenge. Or I could have done what we have done […] so another family might not have that experience.”
The association hosts these kinds of informal neighborhood rallies twice a month, on blocks all over Philadelphia that are known to be sites of violence. Crawford wanted to make sure no more killings would happen on his watch, and encourages his association to protest peacefully.
“The goal of Black Men Engaging Neighborhoods is for us as black men to start coming back and having a presence in the black community so we can say we are back to give our women, children, and elders, a sense of safety and security,” said Crawford. “No one is coming to our rescue as black people.”
Crawford is not the only one adamant about changing mindsets in the black community. Gregory Bonaparte, a general mechanic at Temple University and member of Black Men Engaging Neighborhoods, was present at the event.
“I’ve been living in this neighborhood all my life and I’m 62,” he said. “We’re here to show our neighborhood that we still have men and people who are concerned about the neighborhood and the issues of guns and violence.”
Deion Sumpter, a program specialist at the Office of Violence Prevention of the City of Philadelphia and member of Black Men Engaging Neighborhoods, said young people could engage with their community more. If they attended these kinds of rallies and events, they would have more of a voice in the issues directly affecting them, he said.
“As a presumption, the average attendee was above the age of 40,” he said. “The lack of young people was daunting and concerning. Majority of victims and perpetrators of gun violence are between the ages of 17 and 34.”
Bonaparte said the lack of youth participation is a problem city-wide. His own organization does not have enough resources to pull younger people into its rallies.
“The young black brothers create murder and mayhem in the community,” said Crawford. “In order for us as black men to have engagement with the youth, we have to meet them where they are at and engage with them to the point where we can have dialogue.”
Crawford has covered many of the costs of running the organization—renting meeting space, purchasing supplies—out of his own pocket. Black Men Engaging Neighborhoods also depends on money gathered from merchandise: hats and shirts they sell at rallies and events as well as donations. In 2017, they received a grant from the City of Philadelphia.
“We received one grant from the Office of Violence Prevention of the City of Philadelphia, which helped us out tremendously,” Crawford said.
Crawford sees Black Men Engaging Neighborhoods’ rallies as an important way to raise awareness around gun violence in Philadelphia.
However, Sumpter said that if organizations seeking to do good struggle to attract youth, their impact can be stifled.
“The semblance of the walk may not be quite understood by youth in the community,” Sumpter said. “A peaceful walk may not equate to solutions. Most youth in Philadelphia are action-oriented. Results need to be seen at an instant.”
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