To stem youth violence, city mulls 1970-style gathering

Community activists say much of the violence is rooted in gangs and drug trade

By Sean Philip Cotter
York Dispatch

YORK, Pa. (AP) — The issue is youth violence.

One way York City residents and officials alike suggest to address it is to hold meetings in the style of the 1970 York Charrette, a nine-day summit intended to address a range of issues that had led to race riots the year before.

Police say the city saw 17 shootings in December 2015, a higher total than most months. And many of the incidents involved young people like 19-year-old DaKeem Dennison, who was shot to death Dec. 18 in what police say was a targeted, multi-person home invasion likely seeking drugs and money.

Over the past few months, a group called Stop the Violence has formed, holding increasingly well-attended rallies in an effort to bring the community together against that kind of violence.

At last week’s York City Council meeting, Olga Berrios, speaking for the organization, brought up the idea of having a charrette-style meeting, a suggestion city council members say could be a good idea.

York City Council Vice President Michael Helfrich said it’s important everyone with a stake in the future of York City — community activists, city officials, teachers, parents, kids — come to the meeting, which would likely be a large, town hall-type event meant to encourage dialogue and produce concrete results.

Council President Carol Hill-Evans said she envisions the meeting attended mostly by average citizens, with city officials in a supporting role. She said if no one else takes the lead on organizing a new charrette, she just might do it herself.

In addition to average citizens, a new charrette would have to include the people who are committing the crimes, Helfrich said, adding, “They have to be at the table, see the alternative.”

Louis Woodyard Jr., who’s active in the community and works part time at the Voni Grimes Gym on East College Avenue, agreed.

“A charrette will be no good without the active participation of the youth that’s committing these crimes,” he said.

Woodyard said many of the problems in the city stem from the drug trade, which intertwines with the territoriality that causes problems among people living on the various sides of town. Parkway, Southside, the westside 600s — gangs and the people who to various levels identify themselves with them are often at odds with each other for no reasons than the fact they live in a different section of the city, Woodyard and Helfrich said.

Woodyard said he had just “de-escalated” a situation the night before where a couple of kids from opposing sides of town had been having words.

“These guys, they need to see there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “Most of them don’t think they’re gonna live to be 22.”

He said there isn’t enough opportunity for young people — especially young people of color — in the city. That’s why kids turn to selling drugs, he said.

And the reason selling drugs is profitable is because of the increasing number of addicts both in the city and more rural areas. Any solutions that might come out of meeting would have to address the root causes of the violence in order to have any real lasting effect, Woodyard said

York City Police Chief Wes Kahley said much the same.

“The violence is a symptom of other things,” he said. “The solution isn’t us arresting everybody.”

In September 2014, a similar spate of violence saw, among other shootings, Na’Gus Griggs, an 18-year-old high school basketball player from the city’s west end, shot to death in the southside area. In the days after his death, residents held a meeting at Helen Thackston Charter School to discuss what to do about it. Helfrich said 400 people turned out, about 1 percent of the city’s 43,000-plus population.

That may not sound like a staggering amount, the councilman said, but keep in mind there was no free food, no entertainment — nothing to attract all of those people other than the fact they were concerned about their community.

“It was almost an impromptu charrette,” Helfrich said, adding he thinks it’s something York City can build upon.

Police weren’t invited to the Helen Thackston meeting; the media were also kept out. The idea, Kahley said he recalls being told, was to make sure the exchange of ideas was as free as possible among residents.

“I can appreciate that,” he said, noting if the residents need to get together themselves first and then want police input later, that’s fine by him. He said his department would participate in the process in whatever way people want.

Kahley said he’d “definitely” come to a charrette-type meeting if he’s invited.

“Without getting bogged down in what the (1970) charrette was and what it wasn’t, any time when there’s an open conversation in the community, that’s a good thing,” Kahley said.

York City Mayor Kim Bracey didn’t respond to a message seeking comment.

The issues York City faces are complex. Community activist Wayne Scott says meetings such as this are “a good idea.” But they are not a panacea for all the city’s problems, and shouldn’t be treated as such.
But if they can lead to real, tangible change — a step beyond talking, and then a step beyond that — this could be good for the city, he said.

“It needs to be a chain reaction,” he said

Scott himself has spent time in jail; he also was shot in 2013 at age 29 outside of a now-closed North York nightclub. After he finished his stint behind bars, he organized rallies against street violence.

“I’ve lost too many people myself due to that,” he said.

Scott said he’s heard about the more recent rallies, but hasn’t participated in them. He said it’s too soon for him, since street violence recently claimed one of his family members.

He still mourns his nephew, DaKeem Dennison, who was gunned down last month.

What was the original York Charrette?

Forty-six years ago, York City was reeling from escalating racial tensions that had come to a head the previous July, when days of rioting that included two murders caused the governor to send in the National Guard.

In response, many in the community coalesced around an ambitious idea. In April 1970, hours of meetings were held over nine days, attracting experts, city officials and many York residents. They came to call it the York Charrette, a name that’s been kicked around in the opening weeks of 2016, as city residents grapple with what they see as escalating youth violence and the issues behind it — issues, some locals say, which are merely modern iterations of those discussed 46 years ago.

A couple of participants of the original charrette later published an account of it in a behavioral science paper for the state Department of Health. Ira E. Harrison, a public health behavioral scientist, and Norma Broward, a registered nurse and state public health educator, were new to the York area when they took part in the meetings.

First they explained the “the Charrette Idea.” They described it as “a process of presenting community problems, then reaching solutions through ... problem-solving sessions involving people of every economic, social and racial element within a community.”

In York City, the focus ended up on housing, health, employment, annexation of surrounding municipalities and, as much conversation is about today, youth.

The authors said a primary concern was whether people of all walks of life would actually show up. This ended up not being an issue, they wrote, noting a range of people voiced their opinions. That didn’t mean folks always understood where others were coming from or what they wanted. That actually ended up being one of the biggest obstacles to getting anything done — but everyone was there, and they were talking.

“At first it was chaotic, then people calmed down,” said former York-area activist Bobby Brunner. Now 53 and living in Atlanta, Brunner was a child when the York Charrette took place.

Louis Woodyard Jr., who now works with youth at the Voni Grimes Gym in York City, was a senior at William Penn Senior High School. “I was involved with a group of civic-minded young men” who participated in the charrette, he said.

They were among quite a few young people who showed up.

Daily charrette attendance peaked at over 600 people, according to typed recordings of the proceedings.

The summit started out on a Sunday and Monday — April 19 and 20, 1970 — in the Bond building on East King Street, with big “arena” meetings during which anyone was invited to get up and “gripe,” according to Harrison and Broward. They could address whatever and whomever they wished.

“Blacks spoke out against whites, ‘new’ Yorkers spoke out against ‘old’ Yorkers,” and vice versa, the authors wrote. Common concerns quickly became apparent: discrimination, unequal justice and educational systems and the then-recent use of police K-9 units against black people.

The authors focused largely on the health parts of the charrette, as those were the ones they were involved with.

The health meetings were held at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Tuesday to Friday of that first week, with a couple later ones on Tuesday. On that Friday, the day with the best average attendance, 20 and 27 people showed up at the morning and afternoon health meetings, respectively, while better-attended meetings on other subjects happened elsewhere.

The authors describe the process as moving slowly at first. The group was scattered, and everyone had different and sometimes opposing complaints. But over the course of several days’ meetings, they whittled the health issues down to a few things, including lack of coordination between existing services, drug abuse and treatment, lack of preventative health measures for the poor and a lack of resources for Spanish-speaking people.

They put together a group meant to move on these problems — the “We” group. The primary solution they came up with was the creation of a community health center. And, after another small “health charrette” the next year, The York Health Corp. formed. It remains alive today, now called Family First Health, a community health organization with several offices around the region. The charrette also spawned the York Area Development Corp. and Housing Council, which were also aimed at ensuring low-income and minority residents had access to resources.

Current York City Council Vice President Michael Helfrich said the charrette defused some of what had been mounting pressure in the city.

“All the parties walked away feeling that they were heard, and that it made some real progress,” he said.


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