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The Boston Miracle — A senseless death

7/9/2008, 5:30 a.m.

The Boston Miracle — A senseless death

"They didn’t know how to keep it alive."

The precipitous drop in youth homicides in Boston in the 1990s attracted national attention and was called the “Boston Miracle.” After reaching a peak of 152 murders in 1990, with 73 victims aged 24 or younger, the youth homicide rate dropped to an average of less than 45 between 1991 and 1995, plummeting to 18 in 1996. There has been considerable concern as the youth murder rate climbed back up to 40 by 2006. Just as troubling is the increase in the total number of shootings from 154 in 1999 to 377 in 2006.

As might be expected, the expansive publicity over the Boston Miracle induced many people to step forward to bask in the limelight. The saying goes, “Success has a thousand fathers, but failure is an orphan.” At the time, it seemed as though the problem was solved. There was little interest in careful analysis of how this change occurred.

A recent report by researchers at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government entitled “Losing Faith? Police, Black Churches, and the Resurgence of Youth Violence in Boston” attempts to determine what went wrong. While the report is a useful compendium of data on the problem, analysts cannot be expected to do more without an intimate understanding of the sociology of Boston’s African American community.

An important point in the report is that 67.1 percent of youth homicide victims and 86.8 percent of the killers had criminal records. This is an important fact because of the indiscriminate use of the term “at-risk youth.” Most Christian churches are not able to cope with a number of youth who have already crossed to the dark side of the law, especially if they are already gang members.

However, churches can be very effective in rehabilitating young men who have strayed from the straight and narrow and need guidance. These are the “at-risk youth.” The only religious organization in the black community with extensive experience in working with ex-offenders is the Nation of Islam.

Another important point in the report is that Boston does not have structured gangs like Chicago and Los Angeles. According to the report, in 2006 there were 65 gangs, which are essentially street associations, and only about 1.3 percent of Boston youth between the ages of 15 and 24 belonged to them. There was no mention of the fact that the Nation of Islam closed down the New York drug gang operations in Grove Hall in 1981. In 1990, U.S. Attorney Wayne Budd closed down the organized operation of Darryl Whiting, who operated out of Orchard Park.

Members of the Nation of Islam worked the streets to prevent youth from taking over the crime structure vacated when 30 or more members of Whiting’s crew were arrested. This effort contributed substantially to the Boston Miracle. The good relationships that Minister Don Muhammad established with former police commissioners Mickey Roache and Paul Evans facilitated improved police-community relations. This enabled Georgette Watson and the Rev. Bruce Wall to provide the police with critical community information through their Drop-A-Dime program.

The police have a more limited role in crime control than is often understood. They cannot legally act until a crime has been committed. However, citizens are more concerned with crime prevention. In the area of gang conflicts, the police have used their criminal intelligence operation to keep the Nation of Islam informed of impending trouble. Negotiation by the Nation has defused many conflicts in the past.

The Boston Miracle has vanished. It is time for a carefully conceived strategy to reduce the rising youth homicide rate.