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Rochester and murder: content to contain it? 

Urban journal

We're putting more cops on the street, extending the curfew, holding workshops and forums, having ministers ride in cop cars. All of this to try to stop the killings taking place in Rochester's inner city.

And Bob Lonsberry (who last week was blaming both the clergy and "apparently incompetent" police --- his words --- for not preventing the violence) wants to bring in the National Guard.

It's worth noting that the number of homicides in Rochester this year is about what it's been for at least the last decade (51, if you count some that were committed in self-defense). That said, this community has a violence problem of crisis proportions.

But if we really want it to stop, the entire community will have to get far more serious about violence and its causes.

We talk a good game: we shed tears over the homicides, we expect the cops to do something, we expect the mayor to do something. But most of us don't think that we ourselves bear any responsibility, or share any complicity.

In an interview last spring, Klofas told this newspaper that Rochester's history contains the ideal conditions for a high murder rate. We had an influx of unskilled African-Americans from the South --- and few jobs available for them. Many of the wealthy and the middle class moved to the suburbs. And poverty grew and became concentrated in the city.

You can see the increase in violence starting back in the 1970's, Klofas said.

Last week, as City Council prepared to extend the curfew and the ministers prepared to ride with the cops, I asked Klofas what we should have done in the 70's that we didn't do.

"To have that time back would be magical," he said. "To rethink the concentration of subsidized housing, to rethink the way the schools escaped from any kind of integration, to do things that continued to bring everybody into the mainstream, employment-wise, education-wise, housing-wise.... To not let this community become a bifurcated city-suburban community.... Those were the significant policy choices that this community just walked away from."

"The violence we see is the result of a segment of a community that is completely isolated from the mainstream," Klofas said.

Certainly it is the young thugs who are doing the killing. But we permitted the conditions that bred this violence.

When we saw the poverty concentration building and did nothing, when we saw the jobs fleeing from the inner city, when we saw the disparity between black and white students' achievement growing and did nothing, we set ourselves up for what we're experiencing today.

And now, "you've got at least three generations that have gotten away from you on this," Klofas said. The young black men shooting other young black men are, in effect, hardwired for murder. "They've been exposed to so much violence, violence has been incorporated into so many aspects of their lives," that it's a significant part of their own culture, Klofas said.

Cops and courts can have an impact, Klofas insists. "You can't just walk away from it." And so putting more cops on the street, insuring that the criminal-justice system delivers sure and swift justice: all this can help control the violence among the current generation of young, poor, black males.

And sending preachers out in cop cars?

It's not a bad idea for civilians to take some responsibility, said Klofas. "We have isolated ourselves from this group of young men, that nobody likes, everybody's afraid of, everybody wants to see off the corner and in jail. So to humanize them, to treat them like they're human: there is a role for a whole bunch of civilians."

Klofas points to the experience of Boston, where, some years back, ministers were involved in outreach efforts, in getting to know inner-city youths, in talking with gang members. "It was very effective in reducing youth homicides," Klofas said. (Rochester had similar outreach efforts in the 1960's.)

And what about public policy: the significant decisions that we ought to be making now? "It would take a real deliberate set of solutions," said Klofas. "We'd have to do something about the population drain in this community, become a more appealing place" for people to move to. "We'd have a lot to offer," he said, "if this community were growing."

But, he said, we're going to have to work on education, housing, employment.

Klofas mentioned School Superintendent Manny Rivera's proposed Children's Zone, modeled after a program in Harlem. Rivera's Children's Zone would put intensive housing, educational efforts, and health and social services into the northeast area of the city. Despite being proposed well over a year ago, the Children's Zone is still in a quiet, planning stage. And at least publicly, much of the community seems to be giving it a pass.

"Manny rattles a lot of people's chains" about the Children's Zone "and then goes off to Boston," said Klofas. "And no one has picked up the ball."

Rivera won't be leaving Rochester until summer, of course. And no superintendent will stay forever. Still, it's hard to shake off the sense of abandonment. Rivera has seemed absolutely the right person to galvanize this community to meet the needs of its poorest children.

"The thing about Geoffrey Canada" --- creator of the Harlem program --- "is that he is a charismatic guy," said Klofas. And Rochester has had Manny Rivera. But come summer, we won't.

"And nobody picks up the leadership," said Klofas. "In many ways, you're seeing the weaknesses in this community: the lack of broad leadership, the sense of contentment."

No one, of course, is "content" with the violence. But the efforts to address it are coming primarily from within the city: from City Hall, the police department, city ministers. Some metropolitan churches are becoming involved, but there is no widespread community involvement on the scale Klofas is talking about. No insistence that the Children's Zone must be adequately funded and supported, no county leadership, no buy-in from suburban school districts and their taxpayers, no willingness to help educate the Rochester students who are trapped in segregated, high-poverty schools.

As a metropolitan community, we are "content with containment," said Klofas, content to contain the violence and the poverty within the City of Rochester --- and within certain parts of the city.

"There's a lot of evidence that this is a crisis," said Klofas. "But does the community as a whole define it as a crisis?"

Not yet, I think. Not yet.

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