Several veteran Boston crime fighters are among the nucleus of a newly formed branch of a Washington, D.C. non-profit organization which hopes to enlist Congress in a renewed war on gun violence in America. The New England chapter of Reaching Out to Others Together (ROOT) was unveiled at a press conference on Tuesday morning at the Columbia Road headquarters of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers (MAMLEO).
The Boston chapter of ROOT is led by former Boston Police Superintendent William "Billy" Celester, who pledged Tuesday that the Boston board would seek to bring other anti-violence organizations together and galvanize Boston area support for ROOT's national efforts. Other people who have joined the board of directors for the local chapter include Nation of Islam Minister Don Muhammad, former state Senator Bill Owens, and James Dilday, the past president of the New England Bar Association.
Kenneth E. Barnes, who started the Washington D.C.-based organization after his own son was gunned down in the in 2001, was on hand for the announcement. The organization's chief mission presently is to advocate for legislation - dubbed the Community in Action Self-Help Initiative of 2008 - which Barnes said will be filed later this month by Maryland Congressman Albert Wynn. The legislation, Barnes said, would pump new monies into anti-violence programs in American cities.
"We have an epidemic in America today. And that epidemic is death by gun violence. It is the number one killer of African American males in America today. It is the number two killer of young people in America today. And even when somebody isn't killed, because only five percent of actual incidents of gun violence end up in a homicide, the 95 percent that don't cause an average of $150,000 for every individual to be treated," Barnes said. "The costs are staggering and enormous. For every victim like myself who's lost a son to violence, there's a ripple effect that takes place."
Barnes said that he and others across the United States still regard Boston's dramatic crime reductions of the 1990s - dubbed the "Boston Miracle" by some - as a model that can be replicated here and in other U.S. cities.
Leonard Lee, the former executive director of the ABCD's Dorchester Neighborhood Service Center, is among the local activists who have been drawn to the new ROOT chapter. Lee's own nephew, Warren Daniel Hairston, was found murdered last January on Dewey St. in a case that remains unsolved.
"I've been a community activist all my life. I buried about 34 kids in about three-and-a-half years that came through my program. One day last year I got a call about 12 o'clock at night. My nephew was found murdered with a bullet in his head," said Lee.
"When I heard about the initiatives of ROOT, it talks about real work, not about agendas," said Lee.
Celester, 65, is a former Boston Police official who headed Newark, New Jersey's police force until he was jailed after a corruption scandal rocked that city in the late 1990s. More recently, Celester lost a campaign held in 2006 to replace longtime lawmaker Shirley Owens-Hicks in the Sixth Suffolk district.
On Tuesday, Celester volunteered that it was no accident that all of the New England ROOT board members, so far, are men.
"You're going to see a lot of women part of ROOT, but the men have to stand up," Celester said during remarks at the press conference. "And the men have to lead the way. I'm so sick of seeing our women lead the way. The men have to lead the way and this is the beginning of it."
Celester said that young people- another demographic not represented at Tuesday's press conference - would also be recruited to help the organization engage at-risk youth. He described the older men who make up the core of the emerging Boston chapter as "pioneers and architects" of Boston's successful crime strategies of earlier eras.
"I look at TV every day and I see the mayor trying to do the best he can, different community groups trying to do the best they can," Celester said. "But I see splintering. I see everybody with their own agenda. One thing ROOT is going to do in Boston is try to bring those people together as one voice and look at the programs that have worked, not the programs that have failed."
Asked if he was worried about duplicating the work of existing organizations, Celester said he felt that there could "never be too many" groups attempting to confront urban violence.
"I think each organization is unique. We have to set aside some of the groups that their programs have not worked and get them involved in programs that are working.
"We cannot just say it's a religious issue and just talk to the ministers," Celester told the Reporter. "The Boston Miracle was possible because you had everybody involved, not just ministers. And this is not casting aspersions on ministers, but I think everybody has to come to the table together."
The New England chapter of the organization, Celester said, would be based from a second-floor office inside MAMLEO's headquarters at 61 Columbia Road.