Chavis puts himself and NAACP on the line to combat black-on-black violence

CHICAGO — CHICAGO -- Standing before a rundown factory building, the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. stepped from a knot of men and made a pledge that links his reputation and that of the NAACP on a risky, albeit honorable, endeavor.

He committed the financial resources of America's oldest civil rights organization to help renovate the building into an education-employment center in the hope of diverting young blacks from gangs such as the Gangster Disciples and the Vice Lords and their violent ways.


"We are family . . .," Dr. Chavis had said during an NAACP-sponsored gang peace summit here last weekend. "This is a life and death issue for us."

In the name of peace, Dr. Chavis has embraced the emissaries of some of the most infamous gangs in the country to stop the "fratricide" that threatens a generation of African Americans. His moral conviction and the use of NAACP's money have brought attention to the cause.


And so far, Dr. Chavis' gamble with the gang peace movement has earned him mostly praise. It has come from civic and religious leaders and members of his national board who look to Dr. Chavis to make the 84-year-old National Association for the Advancement of Colored People more relevant to today's African-American community.

"The new frontier for the civil rights movement is definitely the internal problems that we are now facing in the black community," said Joseph E. Madison, a Washington, D.C., radio talk show host and member of the NAACP's national board. "The leadership to address those problems has to come from the black community itself and that would certainly include the NAACP."

"These are our children," said Arnold Pinkney, a Cleveland business executive who heads that city's Black on Black Crime Committee. "They didn't ask to come here until somebody brought them here. Our responsibility is to reach out and help them. The NAACP and other organizations that traditionally don't deal with this are absolutely right to do this."

But others worry that NAACP support only legitimizes gang activity and may cost the organization other allies. They are skeptical about the motives of gang leaders and the impact they can have in stemming the violence that is destroying America's black communities.

"It's a life and death question if they don't stop," gang violence, said U.S. Rep. Mel Reynolds, a Chicago Democrat who held an alternative summit the same weekend to profile young black professionals who grew up in the inner city.

Frances Sandoval of the Chicago-based Mothers Against Gangs finds it "unconscionable" that the NAACP would deal with gangs without exacting firm commitments to turn in their guns and stop using children to sell drugs.

Lewis C. Freeman, a Minneapolis attorney who heads the Minnesota state chapter of the NAACP, Dr. Chavis' efforts may win him "an acceptance and a respectability in certain aspects of the African-American community that some civil rights leaders don't have."

The risk is that he loses credibility in the larger community. "You are talking about getting in bed with people who by no stretch of the imagination are . . . model citizens," Mr. Freeman said, referring to gangs.


But when Dr. Chavis looks into the eyes of these gang members, the 45-year-old minister says he sees "not just fight, not just violence," but "the future of our race."

Even before he was named the NAACP's executive director in April, Dr. Chavis was talking with former gang members and community organizers who hoped to capitalize on a truce between two sects of the Bloods and the Crips in Los Angeles.

Since then, he has traveled to Kansas City, Cleveland and Chicago and promoted this movement in hyperbolic tones: "a new world order," "a sacred moment in our history," "the most earth shaking event in the 20th century." He talks about "5,000 to 10,000 brothers laying down their weapons to reduce crime in the community" -- even though police in several cities say there is no evidence to support that contention.

The peace he describes is by no means complete: the movement has done nothing to change the activity of Hispanic or Asian gangs. In Chicago, gang-related homicides total 97 so far this year, about the same as this time last year. But violence has decreased in two troubled housing projects in Chicago and in an area of South Central L.A.

Dr. Chavis says he conservatively estimates that "over 100 lives have been saved." To the "naysayers" and law enforcement officials who call the truce movement a sham because the gangs still tote guns and sell drugs, Dr. Chavis has said the NAACP will not be deterred.

"If the Arabs and the people who call themselves the true Israelites can make peace, why can't we make peace in our community?" Dr. Chavis told an audience of summit participants, Muslims and black Hebrew Israelites at a Chicago mosque.


Ronald Walters, a political scientist at Howard University, doesn't expect the summit movement to achieve the peace it seeks without resources and recognition from the political establishment. And Dr. Chavis has to be "a band leader for this effort," he said.

"He has to take it all the way to the [Capitol] Hill and convince the president and Congress that they need that [economic] stimulus package and they need an urban policy," said Dr. Walters.

Unlike his pacts with corporate America to improve minority hiring, Dr. Chavis' alliance with gang summit leaders holds problems as well as promise. It has enabled him to forge an alliance with his once rival, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, of the Rainbow Coalition, and the controversial leader of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan, on this issue.

But peace among these so-called "nations" rests on transforming a segment of America's most dispossessed, thousands of young men who have found a sense of community in urban street clubs that pedal guns and drugs. They need education, jobs, a sense of belonging that doesn't involve wearing "colors" or flashing hand signals. Summit organizers, as well Dr. Chavis, hope a lasting peace will spark a new community spirit and economic empowerment of blacks.