Stay Alive in 2006

A local couple employs methods used to quell gang wars in the '70s to fight youth violence today.

By Kia Gregory
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jan. 11, 2006

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Dressed not to kill: A crowd gathered for an antiviolence rally on New Year's Day.

Last year Philadelphia police recorded 380 homicides, the highest number in eight years.

Eighty percent of those murdered died from gunshot wounds.

Eighty percent of those murdered were black men.

Forty percent of those murdered were younger than 23.

In response to the body count, David and Falaka Fattah started the new year with a bold resolution: End youth violence in 2006.

On Jan. 1 about 125 people gathered at Wynne-field's Pinn Memorial Church for an antiviolence youth rally, under the banner: "2006 Stay Alive Imani." Imani, which means faith, is the last Kwanzaa principle.

More than 30 years ago the Fattahs, founders of the House of Umoja, the city's boys town for troubled teens, used a social pact built around the slogan "No Gang War in '74" to end the city's raging gang violence. More than 100 gangs signed their peace contract, called the Imani Pact, and the Fattahs plan to use the same model to quell violence in 2006.

"The key is prevention," says Falaka Fattah. "That's why a preemptive strike is to have students agree to a peaceful course of action or behavior."

If there's a single moment that sparked Umoja's 2006 initiative, Fattah says it was Oct. 28, 2005. At around 8 a.m. that morning Marquis Reed, 17, an Overbrook High School senior and popular football player, was walking to school with a group of friends when another teen shot him with a 9 mm. Fattah says the fact that the shooter woke up with that intention is unconscionable.

"We have the problem, but we also have the solution," says Fattah. "We have to deal with self-love, self-discipline, self-respect and empowerment. All of these things come into play, and it starts with the community."

Living will: The Fattahs fight to keep young Philadelphians from dying on the streets.
Falaka Fattah started the House of Umoja out of her West Philadelphia row house in 1968. When the widow with six boys learned that one of her sons had joined a gang, she asked her husband David if 15 of the boy's fellow gang members could move into their crowded two-bedroom house. The aim was to reduce violence and abusive behavior. Since then more than 3,000 boys have passed through the home, where Fattah says sworn enemies became brothers.

Thirty years ago violence could be easily traced to gangs, but today Fattah says the problem is more insidious. The gangs used to exemplify more of a herd mentality. Fattah recalls that when one gang leader decided to go to college, seven other members followed him.

But today Fattah says the problem is more individualized and complex, as are the socioeconomic factors that plague black communities. Of course these factors are exacerbated by the easy accessibility to handguns.

There have been calls to limit handgun purchases to one per month, more police officers on the street and more social programs, but at the recent conference David Fattah issued the bottom line: "If the black male would stop killing the black male, there'd be peace in the valley again."

The four-hour antiviolence youth conference was filled with African drumbeats, spoken word, dance, hip-hop, song and talk.

During the peace negotiation, the group sat in a circle and talked about the roots of violence-namely a lack of self-love and respect, along with the proliferation of guns and drugs on the street. Some wore green ribbons as a symbol of their commitment to finding a solution.

"When we leave this room, we're going to give death a holiday," David Fattah told the group.

The House of Umoja is recruiting community members for its Safe Corridors program to provide students safe passage to and from school. And throughout the year PW will follow the organization as it conducts conflict resolution meetings, establishes neighborhood mediation centers, and works to increase opportunities for youth in the areas of employment, education and recreation.

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