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But can we get the kids to church?

28 Nov 2006

Last year, I was invited as a guest commentator on CBC’s Metro Morning to discuss the “Boston Miracle,” a method that was used to decrease the crime rate in the more impoverished neighborhoods in Boston. The segment was so short that the commentators barely had any time to flush out the conversation to the point where it should have been thoroughly examined. I left the CBC building, feeling a bit disjointed and wondering if the segment would have the impact on the city as I had initially hoped .

With a recent three-day visit to Toronto from Reverend Eugene Rivers who was one of the principal founders of the project, his message to Torontonians was stereotypically American: harsh, brash and to the point.


Reverend Eugene Rivers from Boston.

In Boston, the strategy was able to decrease the amount of violence on the streets. In 1999, the city recorded 30 homicides, compared with 150 nine years earlier, but note that it took nine years to decrease the homicides. Can Toronto wait nine years? But as many critics have said, is this a method or a model, and more importantly, can we do it?

While faith-based initiatives have always played an integral role in the lives of black people, some of Rev. Rivers’ suggestions that are listed below are questionable. Perhaps this is a knee-jerk reaction from those who watch the American news reports and fear that Toronto will succumb to the violence we see in cities with larger populations. Will the recent violence affect tourism, thereby damaging our reputation of being a clean and friendly city?

In 2005, we witnessed a number of natural disasters (the closest and most painful one being Hurricane Katrina, where the poor and the black were left to fend for themselves) and the continuation of an unjustified war which led to the unnecessary deaths of thousands of people. Is it safe to say that our faith in a higher being has been tested?

Here is a summary of what Rev. Rivers said (with my comments):

More funds for law enforcement: “It is a more expensive proposition and you don’t get a great return,” suggesting ‘wraparound care,’ resources that are needed seven days a week, most notably during the late afternoons when children are finished school for the day. He also suggested a partnership between faith communities, the police and community groups. But not everybody adheres to faith-based initiatives. And while there is a huge problem of single parenting, fathers who abandon their children at a young age, will and should the church be responsible for being father-figures to these children? How can they find Jesus if they cannot find themselves? Our black communities, especially African and Caribbean immigrants still suffer from the residual effects of European colonialism, enforced under the guise of religion. This has caused a great divide in the black community, as our elders were raised to segregate based on physical features and class divisions. Some still pray that their daughters are light-skinned, with hair that will grow to their shoulders – naturally. Some make fun of those whose skin is of a darker hue, believing that they are to be more dangerous and animalistic than lighter-skinned folks.

The blame game: “Own the problem of gun violence because it is blacks who are the ones shooting and killing each other….The worse kind of racial profiling is black people killing black people; that’s the worse crime committed in this city.” Really? I always thought slavery and colonialism were sort of the result of a certain racial profiling. Or tell that to African-Canadian Jason Bogle, who was recently stopped by police as a suspect in the Boxing Day shootings and is suing the police force. And after the incident was widely reported in the press, police spokesperson Mark Bogash told the Canadian Press that the fact that he was a lawyer ‘is simply not relevant’. No kidding, son. It was because he was a black man sitting in a Lexus with his white girlfriend.
No, the worse kind of racial profiling is when black folks are harassed by police for no particular reason. When black folks are followed around retail stores by security guards and staff that assume that they will steal. This causes anger and a feeling that whatever you do or achieve in life that in one second, you can be branded a criminal. Black people are killing each other because we have been socialized to believe that our lives mean little to the greater society and we internalize that hate.

On racism: “White people control all the strings because black people refuse to fight….Whining is not fighting.” What would he say to the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Panther Party (who created breakfast programs for inner-city youth in the ‘70’s), and the number of conscious Hip-Hop artists, such as Common, Dead Prez and Paris, who ‘preach’ self-love and messages of self-determination? And what exactly is whining? Telling our stories about how we are being treated unfairly? What should we do – sit on our hands and keep quiet, therefore internalizing our pain? Perhaps this is why we have a generation of youth who lack self-esteem.

While it is great that the Reverend was invited to visit Toronto by the GTA Faith Alliance, who paid for his travel and accommodations, he was here for an agenda: How the church can assist with the elimination of gun violence. But while his words were powerful and a support to those who are already involved in a faith based community, what about those who are not? If people do not assume a belief or an adherence to a religious organization what is the next step? Are these perceived gang-bangers who turned Boxing Day into the Wild West going to drop their guns and find a minister to mentor them?

And why did Premier Dalton McGuinty, Mayor David Miller and Police Chief Bill Blair meet with the Reverend when they have not bothered to meet with representatives of the coalition of African-Canadian community organizations?

Regardless of whether you are involved with organized religion or not, if we want to solve the problems affecting our community, we need to come together because of the issues at hand, instead of waiting for others to do the dirty work for us (Okay, Rev. Rivers does have a point). I wonder where the public announcements were when the Coalition of African-Canadian community organizations decided to form. There are a lot of black people – especially in the downtown core who are not privy to the forums that are organized. We need full-page public announcements to tell us how we can be of assistance, instead of finding it buried as a side-note in the Op/Ed pages of the newspapers.

There are so many questions to be addressed and little time to address them. But one thing that Rev. Rivers did successfully on his trip was to reinforce what a lot of the general population thinks: It’s not our problem, it’s theirs. And maybe, that is why he was able to garner a wider audience than the Coalition of African Canadian community organizations. It is sad that the voices of the people living in Toronto have been dismissed by someone who does not reside here.

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