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Grassroots Coalition Seeks To Curb Urban Violence

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The leadership of a fledgling national coalition that sponsored a "gang summit'' in Chicago this fall was set last week to meet in Washington to draw more attention to its efforts to end urban violence and give a national voice to inner-city youths.

The National Urban Peace and Justice Movement, made up of 27 black and Latino community organizations, was scheduled to kick off its weekend gathering by holding a press conference in front of the office of the National Rifle Association to challenge that group to join in the coalition's effort to curb violence.

The coalition was also expected to offer a counterproposal to a $22 billion crime bill passed by the Senate last month.

The group objects to several provisions in the bill, such as those funding new prisons and allowing federal prosecutors to try juveniles as young as age 13 as adults if they use a gun in a robbery, assault, or murder.

"Instead of building jails,'' said Carl Upchurch, a co-chairman of the movement, "we're into building communities.''

Mr. Upchurch said federal officials should seek guidance from leaders of such grassroots efforts as the gang-violence truce in Chicago's Cabrini Green housing project.

He said his group also favors policies similar to those espoused in a report last winter by the Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation on the 25th anniversary of the landmark 1968 report by the Kerner Commission on racial and urban issues.

This year's report called for massive new federal spending to help children and youths, improve housing, and foster community and economic development. (See Education Week, March 10, 1993.)

A 'Peaceful Presence'

Another purpose of the coalition's meeting last week was to plan for a large meeting and march in Washington this time next year, Mr. Upchurch said.

The coalition seeks to "restore some type of peaceful presence in urban communities,'' he explained, and to identify new, young inner-city leaders who feel they have been ignored by the civil-rights establishment.

In addition, the activists want to begin to develop ways to restore the economic health of urban communities and to create a comprehensive strategy for coping with "police abuse and brutality.''

It is imperative for black men to get involved to save their communities, said Prince Asiel Ben Israel, a representative of the Israel-based Hebrew Israelite Community who works to reduce drug use and violence in Chicago.

"The problem facing inner-city communities is black boys killing black boys,'' he said. "It is the responsibility of black men to bring to the situation a set of principles and values.''

The coalition is made up of groups such as United in Peace of Chicago, Peace in the Hood of Cleveland, the Righteous Men's Commission of Washington, members of the clergy, and current and former gang members. It was born at a national meeting last April in Kansas City.

Meetings in other cities followed, drawing hundreds of people. The Chicago gang-peace summit drew national attention and featured such prominent black leaders as Benjamin F. Chavis of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam, and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson of the National Rainbow Coalition.

Gang Members Included

By uniting on a national level, the coalition aims to give local grassroots organizations access to knowledge and resources around the country.

"Heretofore, the guy that was trying to solve the problem in Baltimore had no idea what the brothers in Chicago were doing,'' Mr. Ben Israel said.

The involvement of active gang members in the Chicago meeting was criticized by some observers. The president of the city school board, for example, faulted officials at a high school for allowing their facility to be used for an awards ceremony for gang leaders.

But Mr. Upchurch defended consulting with gang members in trying to effect urban peace.

To leave them out, he said, is "kind of like saying the Palestinians shouldn't be involved in [the Middle East] peace process.''

"We can either keep going on doubting [gang members'] sincerity,'' he said, "or we can bring them into the process.''

Taalib-din Uqdah, the president of the Righteous Men's Commission of Washington, said working with the coalition is valuable for his grassroots group.

"None of us singularly are going to be responsible for turning our kids around, because none of us singularly were responsible for leading them down the path of destruction,'' he said.

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