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Philly's troubles mirror our own

The Baltimore Sun

PHILADELPHIA -- Oh, my stars! The things coming out of the mouths of Democrats these days!

Take a gander at this:

"I'll tell you what I'm hearing as I go around the community. I hear it frequently. There's a certain yearning - particularly in the black community - for prayer to go back in public schools."

The Democrat who uttered such heresy was outgoing Philadelphia Mayor John Street. He was talking Monday to a group of men from Baltimore about efforts in his city to recruit 10,000 men to help patrol the streets to stem the growing tide of killings there.

Those men had boarded a bus about 11:30 a.m. and headed north. The titular leader of the group was Alvin Gillard, the director of Baltimore's Community Relations Commission. But the man who inspired the voyage was former state Sen. Larry Young, who hosts one of the best radio talk shows in the country.

Young said that after he first learned of Philadelphia's efforts, he was driving to work one day when the inspiration hit him: If Philadelphians can pull together 10,000 men to hit the streets and curb that city's homicide rate, why can't Baltimoreans? (The Sun ran two articles about the late-October rally in Philadelphia.)

"I put out a call," said Young, who used the airwaves of WOLB Radio. "I asked if five men would meet with me to discuss it. I got 22."

By Monday, that number had grown to about 50. They came from groups as diverse as Israel Cason's I Can't/We Can, Ellsworth Johnson-Bey's Fraternal Order of X-Offenders, the National Urban League and the Black Mental Health Alliance. By 2 p.m., they were gathered in a room at Philadelphia's City Hall, listening to Street expound on why he hears so many calling for a return of prayer to public schools.

"Where are [the children] gonna get 'Thou shalt not kill'?" Street asked. "Where are they gonna get 'Thou shalt not steal'? Where are they gonna get 'Thou shalt honor thy father and thy mother'?"

Was Street implying that there are people outside those City Hall walls who had seriously pondered what kind of society we'd have where condoms and birth control pills are in public schools and prayers and all reference to God out?

Some of them have concluded that we end up with cities like Philadelphia, which averaged over one killing a day last year. But other speakers - outgoing Philadelphia police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson, local activist Bilal Qayyum and music mogul Kenny Gamble of Philadelphia International Records - hinted at another reason for the city's high homicide rate, one that doesn't require anybody to go all fundamentalist Christian to find an answer.

Johnson gave the grim statistics about homicide victims and homicide suspects in Philadelphia, one that mirrors Baltimore almost exactly.

About 85 percent of Philadelphia's homicide victims are black males, Johnson said, and 87 percent of them have criminal records. The suspects accused of killing them also are predominantly black, and 85 percent of them have criminal records.

Of both victims and perpetrators, Johnson said 94 percent were high school dropouts.

Qayyum, who's part of an organization called Men United for a Better Philadelphia, elaborated on the dropout statistic for black offenders: Most of them read at a third-grade level and come from homes with no fathers.

Monday was not the first time I heard Qayyum speak. In early October, he told one of only two Republicans in a group of black columnists called the Trotter Group: "I'm sorry to hear you're a Republican."

I was tempted to point out to Qayyum that Democrats were the conductors when the train wreck of black-on-black homicides occurred in places like Philadelphia, Baltimore, Detroit and other cities.

And make no mistake about it, that's what we have here: a train wreck. And it's one we should have seen coming and could have avoided. What else is going to happen when you have a critical mass of young black men who read only at the third-grade level and who've dropped out of high school?

That may be why Gamble - one half of the songwriting team of Gamble and (Leon) Huff who wrote love songs so exquisitely divine they made even those horrible-singing Intruders sound good - stressed education when he spoke. Whereas Street used the P-word in his comments, Gamble dredged up a C-word that's really anathema to Democrats: charter schools.

Gamble has used his music-mogul fortune to redevelop the South Philly ghetto where he was raised. One of the first things he did in the revitalized neighborhood was start a charter school.

"When you know better, you do better," Gamble said about what he feels is the best way to fight crime. "It all boils down to education."

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