Tampa Experiment : Black Crime: Taking a Look Inward

Times Staff Writer

The scene had the lazy, easy mood of a Norman Rockwell painting: A 9-year-old, hooky-playing black boy climbing noiselessly in a tree in the early afternoon of a glaring, baked day in Tampa.

But down below, the mood was deadly serious for 42-year-old Wali Shabazz. When the boy dropped to the ground, Shabazz approached him. “Why aren’t you in school?” he asked.

The boy gazed downward. “I don’t want to go to school,” he replied. “I don’t like school.”


The answer worried Shabazz. Tall, slim, sporting a trim mustache, Shabazz heads the crime prevention program of the Tampa Urban League. He believes fervently that black crime will be quashed only when the black community takes on the burden of dealing with the problem and tries to restore the sense of identity and system of values that have been ripped from its people.

Problem Not Discussed

Black crime is one of the most volatile and least openly discussed phenomena in America. But Shabazz, unlike many others, does not shy away from facing up to it. He staged a well-publicized long-distance run through the impoverished neighborhoods of Tampa a couple of years ago under the slogan, “Run crime out of the black communities.”

While Shabazz is hailed on all sides for acknowledging the existence of the problem, there are doubts in academic circles that his program of forging self-esteem and encouraging community self-reliance is extensive and effective enough to cope with the enormity of the problem. A rigorous evaluation of his results is only just about to start.

But there are few doubts in Tampa, where Shabazz is a hero these days. The white-run police force heaps praise upon his work. Marina B. Pilcher, the black chief of the county’s juvenile probation program, calls him “a saint, even though you can’t see his halo.”

He is a saint with a prison record.

Felt Rage at the System

“My rage at the system and at whites was so great that I fell apart,” he says, describing his life in New York in the 1970s. “I started robbing banks.”

Now, Shabazz stood with the boy only three blocks from one of the high-crime public housing projects of Tampa, the site only four months ago of anti-police rioting. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Shabazz asked the boy.

“A fireman.”

This evoked stern tones from Shabazz. “How are you going to be a fireman if you don’t go to school?” he said. “A fireman has to use his brain.”

The boy looked crestfallen as Shabazz lectured him. The child picked up his head, tears bursting from wide eyes. “I am going to get into trouble,” he said.

All the sternness of Shabazz vanished in the tears. He leaned down to hug the boy. “You’re not going to get into trouble,” Shabazz said, “but you have to go to school.”

As the boy ran home, Shabazz said: “You see. No one tells them what to do.”

It may seem like overblowing wisps of evidence to link this brief encounter to the dispiriting and intractable problem of crime in the United States. Yet, in some ways, the story of the little boy in the tree touches the heart of what Shabazz is trying to do.

At a time when most Americans feel at a loss about how to end the rampage of crime in every city in the country, Shabazz’s complex and subtle program is attracting a good deal of attention.

“The people who say there is no hope say that because they haven’t a clue,” he insists. “I have a plan.”

Try to Build Self-Esteem

Shabazz’s plan is to forge identity and self-esteem in young blacks while persuading older blacks to accept responsibility for the acts of the young. In a bygone age, he says, many black adults would have stopped to find out why a child like the young boy in the tree was not at school. They would have set limits for youngsters in the community. Few bother these days.

Community self-reliance is a keystone of his scheme. “The Jews in New York never begged Mayor (Robert F.) Wagner and Mayor (John V.) Lindsay to make Jewish holidays a city holiday,” he said. “They just took the days off. Why did we have to beg that they make Martin Luther King’s birthday a holiday? We should have just taken the day off.”

No one knows for sure if Shabazz’s crime prevention plan will work, even in Tampa, even with the leadership of someone as committed and intense as Shabazz. But nothing else has worked so far.

Poverty Not Fully to Blame

There is little doubt that there is a special phenomenon--some sociologists call it a “pathology” or disease--of black crime in the United States. Blacks commit crimes far out of proportion to their numbers. Poverty alone is not responsible. Blacks commit crimes out of proportion to their poverty.

In 1987, blacks, who made up 12% of the population of the United States and 28% of all Americans below the poverty level, made up 52% of all those arrested for murder and manslaughter, 48% of all those arrested for rape, 63% of all those arrested for aggravated assault and 32% of all those arrested for property crimes. There is a possibility, as some researchers insist, that racial discrimination by white police accounts for some of the disproportionate numbers of blacks arrested. But it could hardly account for most.

Although white fears of black crime are whipped up by sensational, senseless cases like that of the wild band of teen-agers who raped and battered a white jogger into a coma in New York’s Central Park in April, most of the victims of black crime are black themselves. In 1987, for example, in cases where the murderers were known, 94% of the victims of black murderers in the United States were black as well. Homicide is now the leading cause of death among black males between the ages of 15 and 24.

Subject Is Taboo

These kinds of statistics have persisted for decades, yet the subject of black crime has usually been treated as taboo. Influential whites, perhaps feeling that they had created the conditions that spawned such mayhem, did not want to exacerbate racial tensions. Influential blacks, resentful that blame would be heaped upon them unfairly, did not want to feed false, racist stereotypes about savage and violent blacks. “Don’t blame the victim,” blacks would say.

Although more blacks are trying to wrestle with the problem of black crime, it is still a delicate matter. Garry A. Mendez Jr., a 52-year-old former New York youth worker who inspired the program in Tampa, said: “Not a single African-American leader has yet spoken out on this issue.”

Mendez, when director of criminal justice for the National Urban League, spoke out often. He started anti-crime campaigns in San Francisco and six Florida towns, including Tampa, without trying to hide the nature of the problem. His posters in black neighborhoods proclaimed “Crime Is Not Part of Our Black Heritage” and delivered such startling messages as “Blacks Killing Blacks Is the Leading Cause of Death Among Our Young People.”

Mendez, who left the Urban League a few months ago to administer these anti-crime programs full time with grants from the U.S. National Institute of Justice and the Kellogg Foundation, believes that acknowledging black crime is the first step toward erasing it.

“We don’t know yet how effective the crime-is-not-part-of-our-black-heritage program is,” Mendez said in a recent interview in Washington. “But I tell everyone it doesn’t matter. We have to make a statement. Take Nancy Reagan and her ‘Just say no’ program. I don’t like Nancy Reagan. I don’t like her program. But she made a statement.”

Many Factors Blamed

For many years, sociologists and criminologists have been trying to uncover the underlying reasons for black crime. They have blamed a host of factors: the extraordinary gap between the very rich, mostly white and the extremely poor, mostly black; persistent racial discrimination; the despair of the unskilled who try to seek work in a high-tech economy; the acceptance of violence in a community brutalized for decades; the breakup of families in migration from the farms to the towns; the departure of successful and well-educated blacks from the ghetto and the failure of government to supply many impoverished blacks with preschool programs and decent homes and health care and jobs.

Both Mendez and Shabazz, his most effective disciple, regard such explanations as irrelevant diversions. What matters, they insist, is that whites--whether through slavery, discrimination or economic deprivation--crippled blacks over the centuries by taking away their identity and values, their heritage and culture.

The problem of black crime will be solved, they say, only when blacks, on their own, fill in the gaps. “When you lose your sense of self, you’re dead,” said Shabazz.

Prosperous Area Drew Blacks

Tampa, somewhat larger than its neighbor St. Petersburg across the bay, is a prosperous port on the Gulf of Mexico that was once the cigar capital of the United States. Much of the Cuban flavor of the city dissipated with the collapse of its cigar industry in the 1930s, leaving behind the beautiful though somnolent neighborhood known as Ybor City with lovely tiled Spanish restaurants and dying shops. The economy of Tampa is now based heavily on high-tech manufacturing and tourism.

The new prosperity has attracted many blacks from rural Florida, and Tampa’s population of 285,000 is now 24% black. The unemployment rate for the city of Tampa is 6.1%, about the same as the country as a whole. Black unemployment in the Tampa metropolitan area is 8.5%, much better than in the rest of the country but still almost double the white rate.

To make matters worse, Florida ranks near the bottom of all states in its spending on children and family services. There is a stark contrast between the gleaming, glass skyscrapers of downtown Tampa and the tattered blocks of public housing apartments.

High Crime Rate

Tampa’s crime index--3,122 cases of violent crime for every 100,000 population--was higher than those of Atlanta, Detroit and New York in 1987. But its murder rate--61 homicides in 1987, 21 for every 100,000 population--was much lower. In 1988, the number of homicides jumped to 74.

In 1987, almost half of all those arrested for any type of crime were black. In a drive against crack cocaine in March and April earlier this year, Tampa police arrested 450 people--414 were black.

Racial tensions erupted in the College Hill housing project in February when a 296-pound black suspected drug dealer died after struggling with police trying to arrest him. Shabazz said he tried in vain to calm the anger.

“I don’t care about supporting black against white,” he said. “I care about supporting right against wrong. . . . I told them: ‘Why are you getting upset? Don’t you want the police to get rid of the drug pushers?’ ”

Although Shabazz’s struggle against black crime has several fronts, most of his work consists mainly of persuasive talk. For the past six years, he has run evening workshops for about 2,800 people a year, half of them youths, most sent there by the courts as part of their probation. He tries to deal with such issues as the rebelliousness of youth, moral strength in the face of negative pressure from other youth, the need for self-respect and glorious eras in African history. All this is covered more intensely in a summer school run for Shabazz by police youth worker Loujean Williams.

The main goal of all these sessions is to raise self-esteem. Shabazz says “it’s a struggle” trying to fight the prevalent feeling in the inner city that blacks don’t count. “How can we expect anyone to respect us when we don’t respect each other?”

Uses Role Models

For role models, Shabazz brings successful blacks like former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Theo Bell and University of South Florida students to the sessions. This serves Shabazz’s second goal of strengthening community feeling. He fervently believes that successful blacks must take responsibility for the problem of crime and for the future of young blacks in trouble.

In this regard, Shabazz has been helping Public Safety Administrator Robert L. Smith recruit blacks to take on the duty of notifying a special policeman whenever they see a drug sale in their neighborhood. Elsewhere, police departments often complain that blacks, either out of fear or racial loyalty, refuse to inform on other blacks in the drug trade. But Smith said that, with the help of Shabazz, he already has enlisted 70 blacks in the Tampa program.

Intense Program

Under a three-year, $1.2-million grant from the Kellogg Foundation, Shabazz will intensify his program next year, enrolling 200 to 500 young men in three-month courses. Although he will reach fewer young people, Shabazz believes the intensity of the program will make him more effective.

While still trying to build self-esteem and community responsibility, the program, as part of a plan by Mendez to treat all factors that threaten “the survival of African-American men,” will also focus on the health problems of young blacks: heart disease, drug abuse, alcoholism and, of course, homicide. Black doctors and nurses have volunteered to take part, symbolizing community participation and serving as role models at the same time.

It may take many months before it is known how well the ideas of Mendez and Shabazz work. Under a grant from the National Institute of Justice, Mendez will start to evaluate the programs in Tampa and San Francisco soon, trying to determine if, in fact, they have prevented crime. Shabazz estimates that, in the last six years, 35% of the youths on probation have remained out of trouble with the law after taking his workshops, a relatively high success rate. Yet long-range crime prevention is hard to measure. And with crime still on the rise, it is hard to look on Tampa as a grand success.

The crack cocaine epidemic bedevils everyone. At her small office in the Robles Park housing development, Loujean Williams, the police social worker, cannot hide her anger and despair as she describes gold-chained youths cajoling young boys into trying drugs, as she bemoans children selling crack for rent money while their mothers smoke away their own earnings.

“If I had the health to do it,” she said, “I would spend every waking hour here stopping them from taking our kids. They must not take any more. They’ve taken enough.”

Although the evaluations will not be completed for a while, one element of the Tampa program excites outsiders already. All the talk of Shabazz and Mendez about enlisting the community in the battle against crime parallels a growing belief among some police officials throughout the country that they cannot diminish crime without the full cooperation of the black community. In some police circles, “community” has become a buzzword for innovative thinking.

Yet there are problems with community involvement. “You can talk about community involvement until the cows come home,” said sociologist Elliott Currie of the University of California’s Institute for the Study of Social Change in Berkeley, “but when you try to mobilize the residents of a high-crime, high-poverty community, you find that they don’t have the time.” Currie, one of the country’s foremost authorities on the problem of crime, said that the task of working to keep above poverty drains the energy and time of most.

“There is a lot of community and family restructuring that needs to be done . . . ,” he went on. “But I wouldn’t want the communities to do it on their own. They need resources.”

Community Needs Resources

This raises a second issue. The idea of blacks solving their own problems may comfort whites too easily. Shabazz’s philosophy could encourage whites to wash their hands of the disturbing problem. “It can even be used to justify cutting back resources,” said Currie. Shabazz acknowledges that blacks cannot end black crime without any help at all. “You have to give me the resources to do the job,” he says. But he does not seem to expect very much.

Currie insists that the black communities, aside from morale-boosting and heritage-boosting programs, need a good deal of money for schools, health care, prenatal care, drug treatment and jobs. Currie has long argued that the social and economic inequalities in American society were at the root of crime.

Can even someone as dynamic as Shabazz restore self-esteem and community spirit in young blacks without tearing out the inequalities that nourish the problem?

It is a question that does not seem to trouble Shabazz at all. “We can’t say, ‘It’s your fault, so do this for me,’ ” he insists. “We have to do it ourselves.”