Rather than posting my usual rambling confessional to serve as a recap of the Byrd Park neighborhood meeting against violence, why don’t I just paraphrase NBC12’s “news” coverage: About 50 people came out on Saturday morning to find out how to curb violence in Byrd Park thanks to the outreach efforts of a Richmond City Police Department flyering campaign.
Okay, that wasn’t accurate at all. Back to plan A. Personally, I’m really glad that the issue got some press, because it may help to create a buzz that something new is happening and send a message that Byrd Park is not going to stand for shootings, drug trafficking, and violence. However, it’s awfully predictable that our local media would get the story wrong, because they cannot fathom grassroots mobilizations where citizens assert their power and organize themselves.
In the days leading up to the neighborhood anti-violence meeting, my wife designed an outreach flyer and I took it door to door in the 2000 and 2100 blocks of Idlewood, Rosewood, and Maplewood Avenues. As the gateway to Byrd Park from Meadow, these residents have the most at stake and the most responsibility in taking a stand against destructive behavior in our midst (I live in the area in question). Although crime is significantly lower in Byrd Park compared to ten years ago, there has been a resurgence in recent months, particularly in this area (clearly not just a summer flare up).
On the morning of the meeting, over 60 people showed up at the Roundhouse in Byrd Park where we sat outside on folding chairs. When asked for a show of hands for people who live between Meadow and Shields, over half of the audience raised their hands. This was really gratifying. I had dropped flyers with the Byrd Park Civic League “block captains” throughout the neighborhood, but chose to make the eastern most region my personal mission. So, chalk one up for one-on-one conversations as a neighborhood organizing tool. In those conversations, I implored people to take an active role and to nurture whatever hope they have for a peaceful Byrd Park.
The meeting featured a pragmatic and manageable agenda that was set by the Byrd Park Civic League officers (text taken from the distributed agenda):
-Introduction and Civic League President’s Comments (5 mins)
-Updates on Recent Events, Arrests and Warrants by Police (5 mins)
-What the Police Want – An Open Forum for any RPD officers or CAPS officer/inspector to speak (10 mins)
-Neighborhood Watch – Why it is SO IMPORTANT (15 mins)
-What the Neighborhood Wants – Each person will be allowed to speak about 2 issues, properties, corners or areas of concern, 2 minutes per person. (30 min)
-Next Step(s) – Join the Neighborhood Watch, the Civic League and its Crime committee, or just have an evening meeting with your neighbors around your home. (15 min)
Now, I want to steer clear of saying anything too controversial about the proceedings, because we’ve all got to work together and live together, and this meeting will hopefully serve as a turning point for a safer neighborhood. However, I do think that there was consensus that the meeting became a free-for-all as soon as the police paused in their brief presentation. My neighbors peppered the police with questions about everything from litter in the alleys, to feral cat-feeding policies, rolling stops at intersections, open alcohol containers, etc. In some cases, they were speaking truth to power and in others just venting frustration. So, we spent too much time following long tangential stories.
There were questions about the two August shootings, but that was quickly swept aside in favor of a laundry list of everyone’s pet peeves including some alarming anecdotes of irresponsible and disrespectful police. Although all of these issues are connected, playing roles in chain reactions that lead to dangerous situations, I was hoping for a more specific focus on shootings, robberies, and other violent crimes. I was also left wondering why we have to pull together a meeting like this and invite police reps in order to find out the status of investigations of murders, drive by shootings, etc. So much misinformation has been circulating and now things are only slightly clearer. The Aug 1st shooting, car chase, car wreck, and more shooting WAS related to Byrd Park residents and was over a bicycle. Also, Joseph Wynn’s murder DOES NOT appear to have been a “domestic affair,” and is currently considered a botched robbery. Numerous people in Byrd Park had been dismissing both incidents on the grounds that the car chase just happened to pass through Byrd Park and that a man killed on his porch was not a neighborhood concern. Personally, I don’t like being placated or lied to when my personal safety is at stake. Strike one for jumping to conclusions. At the meeting, police circulated a picture of two “persons of interest,” but no arrests have been made.
The thrust of the meeting seemed to be that anyone with concerns about bad behavior and violence should refer all comments to the police and/or the Civic League president. My neighbors with past experience with these kinds of meetings in Byrd Park said that this has been the mantra for years and that they tend to feature residents venting about their neighbors whom they’d never imagine talking to directly. I think this is probably pretty common that neighborhood groups turn gossipy and passive aggressive. Nonetheless, some neighbors truly cannot be reasoned with. They use intimidation to strike fear into their block, and do need to be dealt with. It really seems to me that we’ve got to start thinking outside the box if we’re going to make headway in this area. Just as you would hear from any politician who says s/he doesn’t know how to vote unless you light up their switchboards, police representatives said that if we don’t tell them which houses have guns/drugs going in and out all day, then we shouldn’t assume that they know. Most people found this idea ridiculous.
It’s time to figure out how to show community power, without always abdicating responsibility to the criminal justice system (which does not work!). Suggestions on this are appreciated. Last week, I took it upon myself to contact a public safety liaison (resident, not police) from Ginter Park, where they’ve had some success with a similar initiative and hope to turn up some good ideas from that meeting next week.
Here’s an email quote from a Byrd Park neighbor who I agreed with, “I think there are different ways to approach community issues like crime & public safety, most of which have their place. I am drawn to the approach of first building relationships & then collaborative action (the conventional approach seems to be the opposite and I would argue that’s a big reason why initiative “fizzle” (as noted yesterday). I am also drawn to the preventative side of the issue. As a means of better understanding the culture and issues of many who have been isolated / disenfranchised in the city…” and then they let me know about this interesting event.
So, now I’ve got to plan my next steps. My wife was buoyed by the news that the “no dogs allowed” law will soon be lifted for the actual parks in Byrd Park. But, we’ve still got work to do to make the neighborhood safer and more family friendly. Many people that I talked to after the meeting felt that there were few if any next steps offered at the meeting. It was clear to me that the only option that was promoted was to join the Civic League and restart their defunct anti-crime committee. Their next meeting is Saturday October 13th at 10am at the Roundhouse. Many people took note of this fact.
For me, joining the Civic League may be the best option. However, I really want to focus on my end of the neighborhood, sponsor community dialogues, bring in non-profit groups to facilitate issue focused events, develop block phone trees (a la Neighborhood Watch), and hold block-specific social gatherings to develop relationships and understanding. I’m not sure if these things are on the agenda of the Civic League or even if they should be (especially since my focus is only on six-square blocks). Neighbors should be able to organize themselves and in the past two weeks, we did just that.
(I hope that readers – especially Byrd Parkers – will chime in with constructive comments. Obviously, this is a personal perspective and I know there are more out there.)