They're still waiting for the call

Times Staff Writer

Wazier El remembers the excitement that day in October, when nearly 10,000 men gathered in a stadium to send a message to drug dealers, gang members and gun-toting criminals: The violence must stop.

In a matter of days, the men vowed, they would patrol the streets of this city, where the homicide rate is among the highest in the nation.

But seven months later, many volunteers who once felt so full of hope have given up. The movement -- "Call to Action: 10,000 Men -- It's a New Day in Philadelphia" -- has faced organizational and financial struggles. Frustrated with leadership, some volunteers have had second thoughts.

In the meantime, things in Philadelphia are not much better.

This month, police Sgt. Stephen Liczbinski was killed during a bank robbery -- the third cop killing in two years. Two days later, a news helicopter captured more than a dozen white police officers kicking and using batons to hit three black shooting suspects. Parts of the footage aired on television stations nationwide and reached audiences across the world through the Internet. The Rev. Al Sharpton called the beating "worse than Rodney King."

The latest incidents of violence have exposed a split in Philadelphia.

In one letter to the editor, a newspaper reader wrote: "It seems that the Police Department has declared it's hunting season on young black men." Another, however, expressed this point of view: "Here we go again. Punks are shooting up Philly as though it's the Wild West. And who gets the heat? The cops who catch up with some of these cowards."

Following the beating incident, Mayor Michael Nutter said there was no indication that it was racially motivated. But he did not excuse the officers involved.

"We are deeply disappointed in the actions that we witnessed on the videotape," Nutter said in a recent interview, adding that 19 officers identified in connection with the beating were put on desk duty. (Some have since returned to patrol.) The internal affairs department and Philadelphia district attorney's office are investigating.

For El, a 58-year-old carpenter who lost a son to Philadelphia's street violence two years ago, the mayor's expressions of concern are not enough. The city could have prevented such problems from escalating, he said, if it had worked closely with the 10,000 men who wanted to help.

Groups of volunteers had gone through safety training. El, who received a certification of completion on Jan 26, was appointed as a squad leader. Then he heard from some men who had not been contacted by organizers. When El brought the issue up, those in charge blamed technical problems. So he pressed on, knocking on doors with about 30 other volunteers, handing out fliers asking others to join. Cold weather cut down patrols. Once-eager volunteers drifted away.

This month, El told organizers he too was quitting.

"People don't want to see progress," El said. "I am fed up. . . . I see people dying in the community."

Tyrone Johnson, 53, who attended the 10,000 men orientation last year, said of Liczbinski's death: "We knew something like this could have been prevented. Maybe one of those guys who did the shooting could have been one of the guys we talked out of crime."

Johnson, a chef, remembered the excitement he felt at the time, the hope that maybe his city would finally shed its nickname: "Killadelphia."

But after the first meeting, he didn't hear anything again.

"I know I'm not the only guy who went there and is still scratching their head like, 'What happened?' "

The Call to Action headquarters is on the corner of Christian Street, three miles from City Hall. It sat empty one recent Friday, screensavers displayed on computers, message buttons flashing on phones, paper cups stacked amid clutter. Purple fliers, left over from promotions for the October gathering, papered the windows. No one picked up calls to the main phone line throughout the week.

Local newspapers have poked fun at the initiative. A headline on a Philadelphia Inquirer column read: "10,000 men -- where are they?" A weekly paper featured a cover illustration based on "Where's Waldo," depicting dozens of colorful figures spray-painting graffiti on buildings, holding sticks and robbing people with guns. The headline read: "Can You Find the 10,000 Men?"

But leaders say the nonprofit program is moving forward.

Several hundred men began patrolling the streets in April after a winter hiatus, organizer Norm Bond said. The group also held a community action fair in April to connect men with more than 40 organizations in which they could serve as coaches or mentors or get involved in neighborhood watch programs.

"People are saying, 'Well, guys, I don't see you on my block,' " Bond said. "Certainly we're not perfect, and we would like to get some staff, full-time staff, and raise the funds. It's a tremendous amount of work."

Bond added: "We haven't received a lot of assistance from the city. We need support."

Nutter, who was elected last fall on a crime-fighting platform, said that despite supporting the 10,000 men project, he had reservations about sending citizens out on the streets to combat crime.

"We have to be very careful as a city government to encourage people to get involved in public safety and law enforcement matters because, unfortunately, sometimes there's a fair amount of danger," he said.

After his January inauguration, Nutter bumped up the number of officers on patrol by about 250, called for more aggressive "stop and frisk" tactics by police and instituted a program calling on clergy to help persuade fugitives to surrender.

There have been 113 homicides this year as of mid-May, compared with 147 about the same time last year.

Some attribute the drop to the initial momentum behind the 10,000 men. But everyone, including the mayor, is bracing for the summer -- traditionally the most violent time of the year.

While adding patrol officers is a start, Johnson said, more needs to be done to build the relationship between the police and community. The taped police beating, he said, reinforced a feeling of resentment.

"Everyone in my neighborhood believes it was racially motivated," Johnson said. "It leads to a lot of mistrust. If you're going to have any kind of change, you have to have a coming together of police and community."

The organization, Bond said, is still recruiting and patrolling, despite waning volunteers.

"When you're dealing with 10,000 people, you're going to have some -- even if it's 1% -- who don't get contacted. We're continuing to build our database. This is a long-term effort."

The program has reached out through mailings, e-mail blasts and radio shows, he said, but community members must try too.

Meanwhile, Johnson waits.

He hopes the community will become motivated again in time for summer. He hopes to receive a call about the next 10,000 men meeting. Otherwise, he said, once crime picks up, "it's every man for himself."

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erika.hayasaki@latimes.com

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