Dousing fires of black discontent in US
Dozens of times each summer day in urban neighborhoods across the country, in the cooler shadows of ramshackle tenements or on blazing rubble-strewn vacant lots, minority community leaders go into battle.
But they don't make the headlines.
Their weapons are often soft-spoken words aimed at smoothing over trouble between residents and police authorities before communications crumble like hot street asphalt and large-scale violence occurs.
In fact, two black community leaders had to rush prematurely out of the Urban Crisis Conference here this week to calm tempers between police and ghetto residents after a white policeman, attempting to turn off an open fire hydrant, was jeered and in turn jailed an innocent black bystander.
With equal swiftness, the recommendations from the conference here, which for the first time brought members from the National Black Police Association (NBPA) together with grass-roots minority leaders, are being taken to the three major presidential candidates.
But even before the candidates got the chance to respond to the detailed resolutions on ways to curb urban violence, a response emerged to Ronald Reagan's candidacy.
On one hand, the attitude of some who attended the conference was summed up by Patricia Fountain, who heads Youth In Action in Chester, Pa.: "Whatever President Carter does [for minorities] will not be any worse than he has already done. Reagan is basically for those who have."m
But an informal poll of many other participants, who certainly couldn't be counted as part of "those who have" in the sense of having money or power, revealed a deep-seated belief that Ronald Reagan would help blacks more than Mr. Carter has attempted to do.
Their sentiments are summed up by this comment by one conference participant: "Reagan has this [bad] reputation, but Carter didn't do anything for us."
David Fattah, who with his wife Falaka runs the House of Umoja, one of the most highly regarded minority community youth programs in Philadelphia, says, "If Reagan does what he says he will do [in terms of jobs], it will help us. I wouldn't be surprised if Carter was met with a punitive vote among blacks and whites."
John Cousar, another black community leader from New York City, said, "Carter hasn't been able to do what he could or should. So Reagan . . . maybe."
While neither Mr. Fattah of Mr. Cousar are big names in the national civil-rights movement, their thinking may be closer to a lot of the grass-roots sentiment among black voters than some of the well-known leaders. Of this latter group, only Jesse Jackson, the director of the Chicago-based group called Operation Push, has indicated that he could support the Republican presidential ticket.
But Joseph Holmes, a spokesman for the Reagan campaign in Washington, said recently that he's seen "a movement among black voters that they are looking for an alternative to what has been a dismal situation for them for the last four years." Among the chief recommendations, which focused largely on police matters as well as the need for more jobs:
* White officers should not be sent to black communities to turn off open fire hydrants because this tends to enflame emotions.
* More of the community's thinking should be incorporated into new police and city strategies on how best to combat crime.
* More blacks need to be hired by police departments, despite widespread fiscal restraints. It was pointed out that in 1958, the Miami police department had 85 blacks while in 1980 there are just over 60.
On the economic front, the recommendations include:
* Vastly more youth jobs to reduce unemployment, which is still running at 80 percent in Harlem and other poorer areas.
* More opportunities for youths to "rebuild their communities" with their own hands, putting them to work as carpenters and masons in abandoned and delapidated housing.
* Less government regulation of business -- which participants said hurts people on the lower end of the nation's economic scale as well as the more well-to-do. It is this recommendation which many grass-roots leaders say Mr. Reagan may be best able to put into practice.