Editor's Note: This article is part of a larger series of articles published in the Dec. 16 Dorchester Reporter.
Reverend Eugene Rivers earned a name for himself in Boston 18 years ago when he became one of the architects of the “Boston Miracle,” a plan to attack the city’s historic homicide rate, which peaked in 1990 at 152. Twenty years later, the streets of Boston are safer but the sudden spike in gun violence and homicides has Rivers believing that more than a miracle is needed now. Now Boston needs “realists,” he says.
Rivers, himself a former youth-gang member in Philadelphia and the most publicly visible member of Boston’s TenPoint Coalition of ministers, holds a weekly no-frills meeting between clergy, street workers and representatives from Boston Police Department at the Ella J. Baker House on Washington Street. The goal of these meetings is to stay abreast of gang-related violence as it unfolds - known players are called out by name and rumors picked up on the street pass around the table...
These meetings are a necessity in the fight against gang culture, Rivers says, because in Boston’s fluid criminal landscape, violence can strike even the quietest residential streets.
“We go totally off the record [during meetings,] which means we get right down to business,” Rivers said. “There’s no time to play games with each other, we know the realities of what we face and what needs to be done.”
By pinpointing the neighborhoods experiencing the brunt of gang violence, Rivers can tap into his political and personal capital, directing street workers and non-profits to try and diffuse tensions where their services are needed most. The goal is not to act as spotters for police, he said, but to ensure that at-risk neighborhoods receive the attention they need to diffuse building tensions before blood is spilled.
“It’s not about nightsticks and tasers, this isn’t an enforcement issue but a cultural one,” Rivers said. “The people of these communities have to take a long look at themselves and say that they have had enough.”
This is where his call for realists stems.
Rivers believes that the battle against tolerance of gang activity starts within every community, however he believes outside help from police, state and city organizations must complement this renewed mindset and provide these often overlooked neighborhoods with the tools and manpower to effect lasting change.
Until the citizens of Boston who live in relative safety see gang violence for the destabilizing force it truly is, Rivers said he expects little change.
“If you’ve got well-meaning people willing to come in and do good work for the community, that’s wonderful,” Rivers said. “But frankly, you need white people interested just to make gangs a real issue for the city.”
Rivers said the challenge comes not from public indifference, but the dearth of academically-produced information he can use to make his case. Because studies can take more than a decade to research produce and critique, Rivers believes officials are forced to rely on outdated information when making policy decisions that can make or break communities. For example, he complains that current anti-gang programs focus their efforts on those between 14 and 25, which he believes is too late in life to prevent gang acceptance from ingraining itself in young minds.
Despite the disheartening news shared at the Baker House every week, Rivers remains confident that a unified, citywide effort from the highest offices of Beacon Hill to the kitchen tables of Dorchester and Mattapan can make gang activity a thing of the past in Boston. One day the lessons learned there will make Boston a model for other cities struggling against gang violence.
“What we do here is real,” Rivers said. “If we can do this kind of work here and have this kind of real conversation, there’s no reason neighborhoods around the country cannot accomplish the same.”