By Vernon Clark
The Philadelphia Inquirer
PHILADELPHIA — Declaring a new day in the struggle to reduce crime and violence in the black communities of Philadelphia, civic, community, government and religious leaders yesterday urged thousands of black men to step forward to help patrol streets.
At an event billed as "A Call to Action: 10,000 Men" at the Liacouras Center in North Philadelphia, nearly 10,000 men — most of them dressed in black — gathered to volunteer to be "peacekeepers" in their communities. Many were lined up at tables with sign-up forms. A number already had registered online, organizers said.
Looking out at the large audience, Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson, a strong supporter of the effort, said, "We can make a major difference.
"We have to learn how to live together and work together. We are all in this together," he said.
Johnson was among about a dozen speakers who addressed the gathering. On the stage, about 50 leaders, many of them elected officials, sat facing a sea of black men.
Organizers did not give an exact count of those who showed up yesterday. The Liacouras Center has a capacity of 10,200 and it appeared that nearly all seats were taken. Details about the effort, including how it would be organized and controlled, have not been made public.
The organizing effort began this year after Philadelphia's rising number of homicides appeared to be on track to surpass last year's total.
The city has been getting national attention as a murder capital, even though the homicide rate - the number of killings per 100,000 residents - is below those of some other major cities and the homicide count has recently dipped below last year's. As of midnight Thursday, 321 homicides had been reported this year, compared with 323 last year.
Robert Massey, 30, of Germantown, who brought his 9-year-old son, Rahim, said: "This is the only place I had to be today. I want my son to hear all of this. I want him to know his father cares about his neighborhood."
Mayor Street praised the crowd for coming out in support of their communities.
"This day is a launching day. This is the day when we are going to do something different in this city," Street said. "Every one of us is going to make a personal commitment today that ... 'I'm going to do the work to make this a better community.' It's a new day."
State Secretary of Health Calvin Johnson said violence on the streets of Philadelphia was a public-health problem.
"And when we have a disease outbreak and infection like MRSA or E. coli infecting us, we identify it, we stop it and we prevent it. This is no different. This is a new day."
Music producer and entrepreneur Kenny Gamble told the audience, "We are about one thing: stopping the killing."
Gamble said, "Destiny brought us together today. For me, today is a business meeting." He added that it was the business of black men to help make their communities safer.
"We need a code of conduct, a standard of behavior," Gamble said. "And we as black men need to be able to enforce it.
"In a war, you have to identify who your enemy is. In the war we are in, ignorance is the enemy."
Charles "Charlie Mack" Alston, a music and movie producer who was instrumental in organizing the project, told the men, "We have an obligation ... to protect our women, our children and our seniors."
Alston, who lost two brothers to violence in Philadelphia, urged "everyone to get involved in some capacity. The worst thing we can do is do nothing."
Toward the end of the program, Joe Certaine, director of operations for the project, called on the men in the audience to attend orientation sessions throughout the city over the next two weeks:
Men from West Philadelphia were told to go to West Philadelphia High School on Tuesday at 6 p.m.
Men from North Central Philadelphia were asked to go to Dobbins High School on Wednesday at 6 p.m.
In South Philadelphia, volunteers were asked to go to South Philadelphia High School on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.
Certaine said detailed information on all of the orientation sessions would be posted on the Internet at www.10000menphilly.com.
"Our first activity is to make the streets safer ... so we need all able-bodied men," Certaine said.
He added that some people would be needed to volunteer at recreation centers and safe-corridor programs at schools throughout the city. He gave few other details and urged men to get information at the Web site or call 215-731-0541.
Molefi K. Asante, head of Temple University's African American Studies Department, reflected on black history.
"We are at an historic moment," Asante said. "You as volunteers represent the self-determination of African people. We have never faced a crisis we could not solve."
Focusing on the economics behind crime, businessman A. Bruce Crawley said, "There is a connection between poverty, unemployment and crime."
Crawley said the city government and the business community had not done enough to help empower blacks economically. "We're standing on the sidelines. Shopping at stores we don't own and living
Copyright 2007 Philadelphia Inquirer
Thousands of Phila. men pledge to patrol for peace