Hooping for hope

PHILADELPHIA — Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Mo. Tamir Rice in Cleveland. Eric Garner in New York City. Victor Ortega in San Diego. Dillon Taylor in Salt Lake City. Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina. Brandon Tate-Brown in Philadelphia. Now, most recently, Freddie Gray in Baltimore.

Incidents of officer-involved shootings — particularly those resulting in the deaths of men of color — have drawn headlines and further frayed relations with many of the communities they are sworn to protect and serve. In some cases, retaliatory violence has erupted, leaving everyone from students to lawmakers on edge. That has been true in Philadelphia as well, where Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey requested a federal review a spate of officer-involved shootings, to help separate fact from fiction and push for more transparency.

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Deputy Commissioner Kevin J. Bethel leans into a conversation with young people at the Wright Rec Center in West Philadelphia.

Bridging the chasms caused by these realities has even greater importance — which is why PCHR has been front and center in crafting new partnerships to help create new narratives and outcomes. Veteran PCHR community relations representative Patricia Coyne took an active role in the diverse coalition that’s charting a new way for Philadelphia.

And the coalition chose a familiar entry point for the stakeholders involved — a neighborhood basketball game.

Some 150 people poured into Mantua’s James Wright Recreation Center on May 4 to inaugurate this police-community youth basketball conversation series — Speak Up, Lace ‘Em Up.

An assembled team of players from the ranks of the Philadelphia Police Department and Drexel University’s police department played with an assembly of neighborhood players for good-natured fun. But instead of just a late afternoon of hooping and snacking, the assortment of young men, police, community members and volunteers also came together for facilitated discussions about what is happening in the streets and how that plays out in their lives — among their peers, family and each other. They swapped stories of growing up, of understanding the roles of police in community and responded frank questions from one another.

Tierra Thompson and Ezekiel Mathur, PCHR community relations team members, along with Commissioner Saadiq Jabbar Garner, also were on hand.

The talks, like checking out each other’s sweet moves, began the process of transformation, from wary strangers to interested partners. The goal: to help diffuse simmering antagonism by showing people on each side their common humanity.

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(l.-r.) Event organizers Patricia Coyne, John Leatherberry, chair, 16th Police District Advisory Council, 16th District Capt. Altovise Love-Craighead, and Deputy Commissioner Kevin J. Bethel.

“There are police-community/youth, top down, institutionally-controlled stuff happening these days, but this is not that,” Coyne said. “This is a bottom-up, grassroots effort that engages communities on their terms, on their turf.”

The lead engineers that constructed the framework for these interactions included Weekend of PeaceNewCORE, the Philadelphia Youth Commission, the Philadelphia Youth Network, the Philadelphia Police Department and the Philadelphia Police Advisory Commission. They combined NewCORE’s conversation model and adapted elements of the Weekend of Peace’s successful efforts.

For a dozen years, the Weekend of Peace — free July games and entertainment spearheaded by Malik and Calvin Johnson and organized by community volunteers — has promoted a violence-free zone for children and families, presented via participating recreation centers across the city. Last year, that included 22 rec centers, and this year that number is expected to rise. Coyne said these newly debuted civic conversations both will provide a bridge for greater participation in the Weekend of Peace and bolster relations among parties that are too often unfamiliar with each other.

Lt. Kenora Scott looks over the action as Rev. George Clark, a referee, chats with 16th District Capt. Altovise Love-Craighead. In addition to offering those services, Clark also seeks to train young people to be referees.

Lt. Kenora Scott looks over the action as Rev. George Clark, a referee, chats with 16th District Capt. Altovise Love-Craighead. In addition to offering those services, Clark also seeks to train young people to be referees.

The series, in essence, is a continuation of the theme of instituting harmony that’s integral to PCHR’s mission.

“This is the vehicle to get the people most directly affected to not only interact in a positive way, but to also reveal points of view and experiences they otherwise might be reluctant to do in any other type of forum,” PCHR Commissioner Marshall E. Freeman.

These conversation will help provide a way for residents who don’t always have a seat at the table to help shape ideas, recommendations and local actions expected from two seminal reports focusing on improved policing in Philadelphia, that of the U.S. Department of Justice on officer-involved shootings and findings from President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Claiming a stake in the eventual outcomes in Philadelphia is essential for the city to fully move forward, Freeman said.

“The commission is the linchpin in that, to help protect people’s rights and be proactive to do all that we can to mitigate situations like ones we’ve seen across the country,” he added.

There is no quick fix for improving the relationship between law enforcement and the neighborhoods usually most in need of its service, the ones most often beset by poverty and crime. But there certainly are many hands on deck to work toward solutions.

Officer Lamar Wilkerson exchanges ideas with a youthful player at the Wright Rec Center.

Officer Lamar Wilkerson exchanges ideas with a youthful player at the Wright Rec Center.

The U.S. Justice Department now is investigating how to swiftly implement reform efforts nationwide that may save lives as well as bring back balance to a relationship that has been stressed by the burden of history, bias, poverty and crime. Commissioner Ramsey has pledged to implement recommendations offered in the report by the national task force, which he co-chaired.

Rebuilding trust takes time. It’s a process underway, starting one hoop at a time, in places such as Wright Rec, in cities such as Philadelphia, with guidance from entities such as PCHR.

“Our communities are full of tremendous resources that can be overlooked, and too often are,” Coyne said. “There are big iniatives that come up from upon high, but sometimes those are unsustainable at the community-level. That’s the point of this. What can we do at the community level to engage with the police in a mutually positive, productive, and lasting manner and strengthen our community partnerships?  We’re addressing just this.”

PCHR Commissioner Marshall E. Freeman proves he still has a few moves.

PCHR Commissioner Marshall E. Freeman proves he still has a few moves.

One tangible takeaway for which this coalition is aiming to insert more youthful voices in existing avenues where law enforcement and community interactions, such as the city’s police district advisory councils (PDACs) and the youth aid panels powered by the Philadelphia district attorney’s office. By expanding and using these exchange opportunities, there’s a better chance to create more consistent and effective communications where it matters most, and increasing understanding and reducing mistrust in the process.

Additional planning for the series is under way. Interested in getting involved or learning more? Click here to get started.

Click here to watch a related report on CBS3.

PCHR urges introspection and action following racially-charged responses to officer-involved deaths

The Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations issued the following statement responding to the ongoing discord following grand jury decisions in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y.

Officer-involved slayings of civilians should always provoke alarm, introspection and considered action, because if mishandled, the repercussions and damage to public credibility stand to be great. Likewise, the great American right to peaceably assemble and petition grievances is a sacred one that should be respected.

In recent weeks, two highly publicized cases involving police and the deaths of young, unarmed African-American men concluded with results that have threatened the sense of fairness and harmony among many, locally and nationally. Equally troubling is the twinned and expressed level of indifference and sometimes hostility toward those upset by these decisions. Together, they dampen the feel of racial progress and justice, even 50 years after major civil rights battles were waged and won.

In order for true progress to continue, we must recognize and work to correct conditions that undercut our long held values such as equal protection under the law. Ignoring or dismissing these concerns does little but to foment resentment and frustration, which often devolves into violent outbursts, advancing little. This is the time that we need to come together, to both actively listen and collectively work on solutions.

Everyone has a role to play, be it in confronting our own biases, speaking out with respectful defense of others or pushing to change institutional policies and practices that perpetuate inequality – ranging from lopsided resources for public schools to using criminal records or credit scores as barriers to jobs or housing. We cannot truly thrive until every aspect of our society is afforded equal opportunity – and that includes treatment by public safety officers and our criminal justice system. That is work to which this commission is committed.

We must show the people of this city, of this nation – particularly young people – that their lives matter, that all lives matter. Our actions must reflect a belief that there is hope for the future. Because there is.

Established in 1951, PCHR enforces civil rights laws and helps to diffuse inter-group conflict within the city.

Taney Dragons: Providing welcome relief for a city in need, at 70 m.p.h.

The Little Team that Could. Real-Life Rockies. Philly’s Best.

The monikers for the Taney Dragons and their star pitcher, Mo’ne Davis, continue to mount along with the spotlight at the 2014 Little League World Series.

After all, they are making history as the first team from Philadelphia ever to compete in the Little League World Series, featuring the first female pitcher to deliver a shutout game – able to sling balls at 70 mph.

This assortment of students, coming from all walks of life and from across the city, has gifted Philadelphia with more than thrilling baseball games. That can be seen in the attendees at the City Hall pep rallies hosted by Mayor Nutter, in the banter at SEPTA stops, in bars, in barbershops and nail salons.

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Fans in this pop-up “Dragons’ Lair” in City Hall are as reflective of the city as the team they cheer.

With every pitch and every hit, the city’s new favorite franchise has helped bring this town together. And Philly has returned the favor, wrapping its arms around these kids, and squeezing tightly.

Flag Lady to Dragon Lady

Brenda Exton — aka the Partners for Civic Pride’s “Philly Pride Lady” — is among the many on the “Dragon Wagon.”

“We’re talking about an inter-gender, interracial, inter-class team. They come from South Philly, Mount Airy, West Philly, all over, all kinds of backgrounds. It’s a real Philadelphia team,” said PCHR Commissioner Rebecca T. Alpert.  A Temple University professor and a rabbi, Alpert also is the author of Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball and a longtime fan of the sport.

“We have such deep, painful divides in Philadelphia. But watching these kids really gives you hope for the future. It gives you a sense that everything isn’t horrible,” she said. “They have brought us some relief, because it’s been a tough summer.”

There was the July 4th holiday inferno in Southwest Philadelphia that stole four Liberian-American babies and ushered in days of grief-stricken unrest.

Then there were the FBI arrests of members of Philadelphia Police Department’s elite narcotics squad on corruption charges. And the shooting death of a 3-year-old girl while she sat on a neighbor’s porch getting her hair braided in South Philly.

Plus, the ever-present cloud that has been the day-to-day drama of the School District of Philadelphia’s fate and fall opening has kept emotions topsy-turvy, students through principals.

And that’s just locally.

The slaying of unarmed teen Michael Brown in Missouri and the chokehold-induced death of unarmed Eric Garner in New York City also have helped heighten anxieties and darken moods this summer as some have come to question the application of law, let alone finding justice within it.

Enter the purity of amateur sport. Enter Little League.

It long has been symbolic of Americana, of community and possibility. Still, Little League imagery tends to conjure small towns, not bustling cities with all the deep and systemic problems found within them. But with their camaraderie, sportsmanship, determination and demeanor, the Taney Dragons have breathed more than fire on the baseball diamond. They have breathed renewed hope into a city wracked by weeks of devastating news.

Despite an early decisive win in the series, the Dragons dropped a game Wednesday night, leaving them less in control of their future. Now it’s play-or-go home as they gear up for their next game, facing another inspiring team, the all-African-American squad from Chicago – the Jackie Robinson West team.

The Dragons and Robinson West will meet on the baseball diamond in a double-elimination game Thursday night.  The winner advances to the U.S. championship game. The loser gets to cheer from the stands.

Mo'me Davis, star pitcher for the Taney Dragons, has inspired girls, boys, and adults alike with her talent and poise.

Mo’me Davis, star pitcher for the Taney Dragons, has inspired girls, boys, and adults alike with her talent and poise.

Whenever, wherever the ride ends, the journey this summer has been pure, unifying magic at a time and space when it sorely has been needed.

This Crayola assortment of students has offered a meaningful distraction, a chance to re-imagine what life could be like if everyone strove to live up to those Little League ideals of respect and fair play.

It is a team that has arisen from a city history forged as much by the scrappy Anderson Monarchs as by the dazzling Philadelphia Stars and the full scope of the Philadelphia Phillies, from the one of the last team in the majors to integrate to the rainbow squad that captured the 2008 World Series.

If anything, the Taney Dragons reflect the best of all of that, and some, Alpert said.

“They really seem like nice kids, and then they have this girl, who’s incredible,” she said. “They are really living out what I wish Philadelphia were like. Watching people watch them, how they’re interacting with each other, this is totally about human relations, how we treat one another.”

That makes this latest round of Philly sports fever that much more special, that much sweeter.