by Christopher Nalls
Every Saturday morning for the past several weeks, a group of men has gathered in a cramped classroom at United Methodist Church in Lincoln Park. It is an accomplished group of individuals-most are business owners, ministers or community leaders, and some are all three. Between them, they have successfully built businesses, congregations and community-service groups. Since the beginning of this year, they have come together as 100 Black Men United, an organization with one main goal: to stop the violence in Southeast San Diego.
“It all kind of started from the Million Man March,” explained Rickey Laster, one of the group's founders. Laster is pastor of Blessed Church Baptist Church and president and CEO of the Multi-Cultural Contractors Group, an organization that advocates for minority contractors. He pointed out that many of the men who now make up 100 Black Men United (which does not, in fact, put a number on its membership) attended the 1995 Million Man March rally in Washington, D.C., and came home ready to rededicate themselves to their families and their community. It was an inspiring time for the participants, but Laster admits that after several years, the impulse “kind of faded out a little bit.”
But that changed this New Year's Day, when gang members sprayed a crowd of people outside Dr. J's Liquor on Logan Avenue with bullets. Two women were murdered-they had just come from church services-and two other people were injured. “It kind of struck a chord that ran through everybody,” said Laster. “It could have been my mother, it could have been your mother-it could have been anybody's mother.” And so Laster, together with a group of other ministers and community leaders, formed 100 Black Men United as their answer to the violence. “There was really no organized effort,” he said; “we just mobilized and got together to stop the violence that was happening in our community.”
An upsurge of gang-related violence has claimed the lives of eight Southeast San Diegans since November. “I've got a mother,” said Abdur-Rahim Hameed, a member of the group's executive committee and one of its founders. “I've got daughters, I've got sons. And I'll be damned if I allow them to live in a community where they feel unsafe.” Hameed is president of the Black Contractors Association, which contributed $1,000 toward a reward 100 Black Men United is offering for information leading to the shooters in the New Year's Day killings.
The members of 100 Black Men United reflect the general feeling among area residents that the San Diego Police Department has not done enough to solve the recent killings and prevent further violence. There is an equally strong feeling that local media outlets have not given the violence the attention it deserves. At last Saturday's meeting, several men mentioned the case of Danielle van Dam, the Sabre Springs second-grader murdered a year ago. Her killer has been caught and convicted. No one has been arrested for the shootings at Dr. J's Liquor.
“It doesn't seem like we get the full participation in trying to solve these crimes,” said Laster. “If this happened in La Jolla or Rancho Bernardo or somewhere else like that, this would be front-page news. If this was in Sabre Springs, this would be front-page news.... We are asking for the same kind of response.”
The frustration was evident at last Saturday's meeting of 100 Black Men United. “Either we've got the worst undercover police situation in the nation, or somebody doesn't care that much about us,” Laster told the group. “Because nobody gets caught. Nobody gets caught. When is somebody going to get caught for some of these murders? Because the murders keep going. We should be able to find these people.”
In part because of the many clergymen involved with the group, and in part because religion is a main source of social connection in the area, 100 Black Men United is using churches to spread their message. “We are telling our congregations that we are united together, and [churches] are putting the effort forth as well, to just get the message out that we are not going to be a part of this,” Laster said.
But the group realizes that hopeful words alone won't work. “We just can't come in and say, ‘Stop this and stop that,' and we don't have an alternative lifestyle for them,” Laster acknowledged. “We want to show them, as we've done before in the past, that there are other ways to live this life. We are going to have mentoring relationships with these kids. We are going to have social programs.”
And in what may be the most practical solution, the group is working to get inner-city youths jobs. “There are no jobs for them; there is no opportunity,” said Jim Ward, one of 100 Black Men United's members. Ward is president of Inner City Youth, a group that fosters collaboration between various community organizations, and he has seen gang members turn their lives around when given a chance to work. “The people here are infested in crime, violence, drugs,” he said, “so we need to take that cavity and empty it out and fill it with good things like job placement, job training, educational programs.”
100 Black Men United is working with several local contractors willing to give jobs to young people that might otherwise end up in gangs. Ward also hopes to coordinate existing social programs, community groups and churches to direct help to where it is most needed. He says that because so many groups are under-funded, they often don't have the resources to help each other out and concentrate their efforts.
Laster explains that the group's name should not be construed as an attempt to exclude anyone. “It wasn't because we wanted to make this a racial issue at all, because it's not,” he said. The group needs all the help it can get, he says, from men and women of all colors. But he admits that black men may have to play a special role in stopping gang violence.
“I think that we have to take a piece of the blame,” he said, noting the high number of fatherless households in the community. “We have to be the spiritual head of our families [and] the spiritual head of our churches and get back to where God has rightfully put us to be, in the rightful order of men.” He wants children to have multiple father figures in their lives-coaches, ministers, uncles, brothers-and hopes 100 Black Men United will encourage men to participate in the life and welfare of their neighborhoods.
Community groups with the mission of stopping crime are nothing new in Southeast San Diego. Several exist at any one time, and many spring up after a particularly shocking episode of violence. Some groups stick around; some fade away quickly. The men who make up 100 Black Men United seem to be wary of this trap. Even though the group formed in response to a specific event, it puts a strong emphasis on staying around through the bad times and the good.
“We are action-oriented,” said Laster. After every Saturday meeting, the members head out to the streets, passing out flyers and talking to community members. There are several events planned, including a town-hall meeting. They have collected enough small donations to offer a reward of almost $12,000 for the arrest of the New Year's Day killers.
The members of 100 Black Men United are intelligent, organized and motivated but still face a daunting task. They know that gang violence will not go away overnight. Says Hameed, “The bottom line is that if we can get to them before they get to the guns and start pulling the trigger, then I think we can turn some things around.”