At Baltimore's third annual 300 Men March, July 10.PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST/GETTY IMAGES
“We have one message,” Brandon Scott tells me. “We must stop killing each other. We’re not focused on any other issue.”
Mr. Scott is a city councilman in Baltimore, where jury selection began Monday in the trial of the first of six police officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray in April. The deaths of Gray and other young black men who encountered police have prompted nationwide protests and ample media coverage over the past year. But Mr. Scott says that “it is unhelpful to only talk about the police behavior. For the most part in Baltimore, the violence is citizen-on-citizen.”
To that end, Mr. Scott and Munir Bahar, a community activist, co-founded 300 Men March, a volunteer organization that trains young men to patrol tough neighborhoods, urges kids to reject gang culture, and calls attention to the far more common inner-city violence that doesn’t involve police. The group, started in 2013, holds a yearly march in honor of the hundreds of annual victims of gun violence perpetrated mostly by gangs and drug crews in the city. Members sport T-shirts emblazoned with the simple message: We Must Stop Killing Each Other.
Mr. Scott stresses that reaching the men in these neighborhoods is key. “For far too long in Baltimore and many cities across the country, overwhelmingly the work at the community level has been done by women,” he says. “This is about getting men involved. When men are consistently engaged in a community and are present, a lot of the nonsense doesn’t take place.”
This message of personal responsibility has to a large extent been drowned out by left-wing activists who want to make police officers the face of ghetto mayhem. Nevertheless, it resonates with many community leaders who reject the Black Lives Matter narrative that highlights black deaths involving law enforcement and downplays those that don’t.
Earlier this year, the “We Must Stop Killing Each Other” slogan also began appearing on thousands of yard signs in St. Louis, where homicides have risen by 49% since 2013. The signs were the handiwork of James Clark, an army veteran who handles outreach programs for a faith-based organization called Better Family Life.
“Black Lives Matter is a good campaign,” Mr. Clark told the Guardian newspaper in April. “It raises public awareness of the biased-ness that exists in America, the inherent racism that discounts black lives. But as an African-American, I think that black lives have to matter first in the black community.”
In other places, activists are working with police instead of antagonizing them. In Portland, Ore., the community group Enough Is Enough is urging witnesses of violent crimes to cooperate with detectives and report what they know. Perhaps the only thing more tragic than the more than 6,000 black homicides that occur annually is the fact that so many are not solved because people who can identify the perpetrator are too fearful to do so. In 2012, just 26% of Chicago’s 512 murders were solved, according to a 2013 Chicago Magazine report.
In the Motor City, the Detroit 300—which like the Baltimore version derives its name from “300,” the 2007 hit movie about Spartan warriors—formed in response to the rape and subsequent death of a 90-year-old woman in 2010. Today the group has more than 1,500 members guarding businesses, patrolling city streets, making citizens arrests and working with police to solve crimes.
Historically, such efforts are nothing new. After crime began spiking in the 1960s and ’70s, black neighborhood activists responded similarly. Billboards appeared throughout Harlem warning “dope peddlers and gangsters” to “get out” and vowing “to return Harlem back into the hands of decent people” with the help of “federal troops, state and local law enforcement.”
Black newspapers and periodicals emphasized personal responsibility. Typical was a 1972 editorial on rising crime in the Washington Afro American. “The exceedingly high incidence of housebreakings, pocketbook snatchings, robberies, shoplifting cases and shootings are not simply the outgrowth of bad social conditions,” the editors wrote. “It is also time that we stop blaming everybody else for the criminal acts which occur in our neighborhoods.” The editors noted that “the victims of most of these criminal acts are black” and that “the vast majority of these are caused by blacks, and in the end the whole city . . . suffers.”
Mr. Scott tells me that he’d like to see more community leaders focus on “building or rebuilding” relationships with police, something that is more difficult to do when the media implies that law enforcement is the main problem. “Don’t ignore police brutality,” he says, “but we also have a problem in America specifically around young black men that we haven’t addressed and that people don’t like to talk about.”
Mr. Riley, a Manhattan Institute senior fellow and Journal contributor, is the author of “Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed” (Encounter Books, 2014).