It actually began with 8,000 men.
They were outside Temple's Liacouras Center in mid-October, wrapped around the block, cheering, chanting and praying.
No one had ever seen such a like-minded group in the same place before. Some came as seasoned activists, some came out of guilt, and some came to show their sons: This is what an alternative to violence looks like.
Inside the center, throngs of men called out: "It's a new day!" It took longer than expected, but community and political leaders took to the stage with dramatic speeches.
"Up, you mighty men. We can accomplish what we must!" yelled Temple professor Molefi Kete Asante. The men roared approvingly.
In the days that followed, what became known as the 10,000 Men movement won the hearts of Philadelphia residents. The majority of media reports about the project — from the Daily News (Headline: "A Legion Responds") to the Baltimore Sun to PBS' News Hour with Jim Lehrer — were ultra-positive. Record producer Kenny Gamble provided the requisite local celebrity appeal. And the second major event, an orientation session two days after the rally, attracted 350 men to West Philadelphia High School.
The 10,000 Men sounded invincible. Philly, at long last, seemed like it was doing something good, and doing it right. Gamble said it would be the first program of its kind in the country. "The whole nation is watching," said then-Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson.
Mark Ensley was there when it began. The 35-year-old stood in the line and listened to the rallying cries. He thought back to his childhood, to a time when he was in the same situation that has led many of the troubled youth and twentysomethings in this city to commit hundreds of gun crimes each year.
When he was growing up in the mid-1970s, Ensley watched his father, drunk on whiskey, shoot a bullet through his mother's right hand. The argument was over what Ensley, then 5, and his siblings ate for dinner. Dad went to jail for six years.
Michael M. Koehler
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About a decade later, Ensley watched as his mother succumbed to the crack cocaine epidemic. He and his mother's boyfriend at the time would search for her when she went missing for days. "She was lending her car to crack dealers for rocks," Ensley said. So Ensley would find the car and steal it back — it was the only way his mother was guaranteed to come home — right under the nose of a corner full of dealers, armed to the hilt, rolling dice and blasting NWA.
Ensley didn't get by on his own. He needed help, and it came in the form of Mr. Wayne, the father of Ensley's best elementary school friend. "He was always telling me these things I'd never heard before, like how I have potential," Ensley said. Mr. Wayne saw what was going on in Ensley's life, and made sure he always stayed close with his teachers and coaches. He even helped Ensley get a free ride to college. "If it weren't for him, man, I could have ended up in a bad spot," he said. "I never wanted to let him down." In 2006, Ensley landed a job at the Philly-based Institute for the Development of African-American Youth (IDAAY).
In September, a month before the Liacouras rally, Johnson said he needed 10,000 black men to patrol the streets, mentor the children, and reclaim the neighborhoods from the ruling influence of violence. The 10,000 Men movement could be a way to finally give back, Ensley thought. To help the kids turn out like him, and not end up, for the rest of their life, on the corner, in jail, or worse. Ensley could become someone else's Mr. Wayne.
A week after the rally, on Oct. 30, Ensley's spirits were still high. He was making a daily check of his e-mail inbox. There was a message from 10,000 Men: Call to Action: "We are setting up infrastructure for our field organization. If you are healthy and between 20 and 40 years old, with a strong leadership presence, we need you," it read. Come to a training session Oct. 31.
"Tomorrow?" Ensley said. "I work, like almost everyone else who showed up that day. Could we get some notice?"
I'll just go to the next training, he thought. A month passed without any new messages. "If you haven't heard from us, please be patient," the Web site read. It hasn't changed in weeks.
He asked several friends who were at the Liacouras Center if they were contacted. They weren't.
Ensley called the main number dozens of times and got the same message: "Orientation for all areas will resume shortly," a female voice said. "Long live the spirit of the Million Man March." Beep.
More than five months after Johnson's announcement, why can't Mark Ensley find the 10,000 Men? Simple: The movement has been marred by declining momentum, poor communication and shoddy organization. It's not that they've given up; they haven't. But the difference between the movement at the Liacouras Center and the movement today is drastic. As Ensley said, "This is too important not to do right."
The 10,000 Men movement emerged out of a political and moral quandary. The rallying call came during the height of criticism for the way Johnson and the Street administration handled the homicide epidemic. Johnson said several times that police "can't arrest our way out of this problem," a statement that wasn't received well. Many residents told Johnson at community meetings that they wanted to see cops taken out of special units and placed on the street, walking beats. Instead, Johnson said, there needed to be a focus on root causes like joblessness, broken families and the willingness to use illegal guns.
This was Johnson's answer. At the beginning, the movement's most noteworthy idea was flooding the most dangerous sections of the city with black men for about three hours a day — not to intervene in crimes, but to be the police's eyes and ears. Once established in hostile areas, they would begin to raise awareness about social-service and mentoring programs. It was the ultimate idea of community policing from a man who considered himself to be a community police commissioner. Johnson invented Town Watch on steroids.
The project's organizers were so hyped about this idea that in the month after the Liacouras rally, they wouldn't tolerate basic questions of logistics. Consider what happened a week after the Daily News ran the mid-October editorial "Nine Concerns We Have About 10,000 Men." It began by saying, "Of course we hope it works," and raised a few good points, like No. 4: "Encouraging unarmed men to intervene in conflicts between people with guns is not only naive, but dangerous." About a dozen representatives from the movement — including Gamble, radio executive E. Steven Collins and spokesman Norm Bond — walked in to the Daily News offices and accused its staff, in a roundabout way, of being "an enemy of the African-American community," as columnist Stu Bykofsky put it. "It seemed to me almost as if we didn't have a right to ask questions," Byko later said.
But there are questions that need to be asked. First and foremost: How many men are in the 10,000 Men movement?
"We're at about 5,000 signed up and verified right now," said Joe Certaine, the movement's operations chief and former city managing director. "It's taking a bit longer than we expected to get names and addresses into the database, then verifying those people are who they say they are, and then organizing communication with them."
This doesn't surprise some. "The star power, to be candid, doesn't do much to keep this going," said Archye Leacock, executive director of IDAAY. "They wanted 10,000 that day, and I don't know how many showed up, but there certainly aren't 10,000 men in the initiative today. The star power did what? It goes away, it blows away. Young men will come for two hours, see it, and then it disappears in two hours."
Instead of trying to sustain such a large group, Leacock said, it's best to localize it. "People will remain much more interested when their smaller neighborhood, even their own block, get organized," he said. "That way, they're reminded of it every day."
A second question is how to recruit younger men into the movement — even the organizers say this is crucial to keeping the project alive.
Elijah Anderson, a sociology professor at Yale who studied issues of race and poverty in Philadelphia for years, said the movement understands that it can't just be focused on crime suppression: that the issue of fleeting jobs and poverty also have to be addressed.
But that won't happen, Anderson said, unless the movement gets younger men in their 20s into its ranks — something that has proven difficult. "You have this concern being expressed by older established people," Anderson said. "The question is how to pass it on to younger men. It's always a question. They're much more invested in their turf. And if they do get these younger men, they need to avoid taking the law into their own hands."
And of course, the all-important third question: What, exactly, are the men supposed to be doing? Patrols? Community service? Intervention?
This has become a concern because only a small percentage of the 5,000 verified men are even being used. The movement's elite group, the "vanguard," has hit the streets only twice so far. The unit consists of men with proven leadership skills, who have experience as security guards, union organizers, soldiers or in religious groups.
They leafleted two communities in South Philly and Germantown, each on a weekend morning, leaving door hangers that read, "Your neighborhood has been visited by the 10,000 Men: Call to Action" and asked residents to pressure politicians to "support a plan for more comprehensive job training and employment opportunities." The vanguard then patrolled the area for a few hours one evening that following week. That was in November and December.
In the absence of any clear street presence, the movement's leaders were able to frame a recent Inquirer article explaining this change in direction. "10,000 Men Project Shifts Focus to Training," read a late January headline. Asked in an interview to explain, spokesman Bond said, "We plan on picking up the patrols in the spring, when it gets warmer and more people are inclined to take to the streets."
The movement is not beyond hope. Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said in an interview, "I don't want to see anyone in harm's way, but until people in community, especially men, step up, the situation will not get any better. My hat is off to them." Ramsey added that he would consider training the men with department personnel once he finds out from the movement's leaders "what their needs are." Bond said he hopes the 10,000 Men movement will host a mentorship fair in March or April, followed by an economic conference, possibly slated for May. "This is more than just the patrolling aspect," he said.
If the new focus is mentoring, Frederick L. Whiten is waiting. The 61-year-old, who has dedicated most of his working life to mentoring urban youth, has seen great ideas succumb to poor organization before. He's a behavioral specialist consultant for WES Health Centers, and has spent a lifetime "trying to show young guys how to make a straight line out of a crooked line," he said. He signed up for the movement not to patrol the streets, but to reach out to the kids.
Whiten said he was impressed with the positive response at the Liacouras Center, and thinks the 10,000 Men idea is "exactly what the community needs." But, he says, "The same thing is happening here that happened after the Million Man March" — which Whiten attended in 1995. "It's fading away. Things like this need continual resurgence."
Whiten thinks his successful program, Because Mentoring Works, could help many of the youth he meets on the streets. "I think there are young men out there who want to come out of the desert," he says. "And I feel like I've got a 90 gallon tank of water. But it's not happening."
Like Ensley, Whiten said he's just a phone call or e-mail away. "Tell me when the next meeting is," he said. "I'm waiting."
Michael M. Koehler
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The face of the 10,000 Men movement looks oddly like your local store owner. Or construction laborer. Or Marine veteran. If a stranger climbed the two flights of linoleum stairs to the Vare Recreation Center's auditorium two Saturdays ago, at first glance he could easily mistake the group of 31 men as a bunch of normal, middle-aged guys just hanging out.
This was the final training session for the vanguard group. It's here, on the 2600 block of Morris Street, where they learn to lead the rest of their patrol units while out on the streets. Seventeen red-green-and-black African-American flags hung around the room. A set of djembe drums were set up in the corner. Coffee was served.
Gamble waited in the back of the room, not far from the last row of men. He looked intense. The drummers began playing a rhythmic beat, and Gamble dramatically stalked about 30 feet onto the stage, standing next to Certaine.
"Attention!" Certaine yelled. The vanguard members rose, some slowly. He explained that it was time for the black men to defend their neighborhoods, and that it was up to the men in the room to recruit other vanguard members.
Gamble began his speech: "We have to stand up as men, black men, African men, to take control of our community. We have become an economic revenue stream for other people. When you go to the store to buy a loaf of bread, we are not even buying it from our own kind."
Halfway through, Johnson, dressed in jeans and bright white sneakers, entered the room. He was invited onstage. Gamble finished his speech. It was now time, he said, to set up the "leadership council."
"Brother Ismael?" Gamble called out.
A lean man stood up. "Yes?"
"Will you take the position of watch officer of the vanguard group? Your duties and other information will be given to you later. Do you accept?"
"Yes," said Brother Ismael.
There was applause, and the rhythmic beating of drums. Brother Ismael went up to the stage; Gamble handed him an armband and adjustable-size hat depicting a symbolic tribal shield with two crossed spears. He also received a "certificate of completion for vanguard training."
About eight more people went through this ceremony. Titles like "commander" and "drill instructor" were bestowed, drums played after each. The certificates ran out. "I know some of you are asking, 'What about me?'" said Anthony Murphy, a movement organizer and executive director of Town Watch Integrated Services. "Well, we didn't have the specific spellings of your name, so we will print up your certificates soon."
A slide show presentation began, explaining the importance of having a map while patrolling a community. Gamble and Johnson promptly departed. On the way down the stairs, Johnson acknowledged that the larger movement isn't ready to take action yet, "but this has to be done right," he said. "We want to make sure people are going to be prepared to go out on the streets." He mentioned a general meeting that will tentatively be held Wednesday, Feb. 13, at 15th and Christian streets, a property that Gamble wants to become the 10,000 Men headquarters.
This is what the 10,000 Men movement looks like today. It's not that the men of the vanguard aren't dedicated. ("I'm ready to adhere to whatever time line the leadership needs," said Basym Hasan, a 50-year-old Grays Ferry resident. "When they say we're ready to advance, that's when we're ready.") But it's not exactly organized, either.
People outside of Philly are noticing this, too. In mid-January, Certaine was invited to Chester, where the community is talking about starting a similar 1,000-man movement to help curb violence. "I've been getting calls from cities like Newark to spread the word," Certaine said.
About 50 people gathered at a community center on Penn Street in Chester to hear Certaine explain how Philly's street patrols operate. He ran through an elaborate hierarchy, involving squads of 10 men, and platoons of four to five squads, and how some high-crime areas need three to four platoons to establish a presence. There are men, he said, who wait back at a home base, like a recreation center, in case the cops need to be called.
Most men nodded their heads. A few, like Walter Tomlinson, president of community group Black Men in Motion, seemed confused. It became obvious that Certaine was talking about what Philly hoped to do, but not what's being done. Tomlinson stood up. "I thought you were going to come here and tell us what's worked in Philly, what you guys have done that has worked in the community?"
Certaine hedged. Every community is different, he said, and Chester's men would have to figure out their own way to flood the streets with men. Tomlinson pushed. What have the 10,000 Men done so far?
"Look," Certaine said, "I tell my men that we're building this airplane as we're flying it. We don't have all the answers."
That was clear at the Vare Recreation Center's auditorium.
Once the PowerPoint slides finished, Anwar Abdul-Qawai, a small but powerfully built man who is past middle age, asked the men to break down the tables and line up in three rows. Abdul-Qawai served in the Marine Corps from 1969 to 1971. It was time for drill.
About 10 men said they had other obligations, and left. "Nobody should be smiling," Abdul-Qawai said as the remaining men formed straight lines. "Remember, we're serious. We're trying to act as one."
Abdul-Qawai began explaining basic military marches to the men, like right face, falling in and being at ease. His motions were quick and crisp. The men's were not.
"You have to snap your hand down to your pants seam," he said. "Your thumb should be in line with the rest of your fingers. I don't want to see your thumb!"
One younger man in a white, long-sleeved T-shirt took leave from the line and sat in a chair. He'd had enough.
"Right face," Abdul-Qawai yelled. The men faced right with a movement of their feet. "Left face." Pause. "Fall in." The men shuffled closer together, a bent elbow's length apart. It was too slow for the drill instructor's liking. They practiced falling in again. And again.
"We're doing this in case you have to close ranks in the streets," Abdul-Qawai said.
Robert Coley, who works for the Water Department's security team, headed for the door. "I've got to get to work," he said. Nineteen of the 31 men remained.
The men then marched around the room. At first they responded to basic "forward march" commands. They then responded to left and right march commands.
Another man, in a dark blue hat, left the line. "I've got to pick my kid up," he said in the stairwell. "He's taking the SATs today."
After the march, about 10 men remained. They start assembling the tables and chairs in the auditorium again.
Saleem Abdullah, a 54-year-old construction laborer, said he didn't think the militaristic maneuvers were for the street. "No, that would give off the wrong idea," he said. "I think we're trying to be peacemakers, we're trying to be unobtrusive, but still command a presence."
Abdul-Qawai thought otherwise. The formations "may be used in the street," he said. Asked when these men, along with the thousands waiting at home, will finally make regular patrols, Abdul-Qawai paused, thought, and invoked a quote from Gamble's earlier speech: "This is not a game," he said. "This is very serious."