Group launches anti-violence initiative with ‘hospitality street patrols’
CHICAGO—The street patrol started by Minister Rahim Aton, of the Temple of Mercy Association, is the antithesis of neighborhood crime prevention groups—those loosely formed band of residents walking their communities at night reporting suspicious activity.
Mr. Aton’s patrol is different. His group of mostly young Black men clad in black suits, black ties, black shoes and white shirts, plan to do more than just walk the blocks. They aim to engage, inform and become a resource for residents to foster a culture of peace in Chicago’s streets that recently has seen a spike in violence.
“This is a different approach,” said Mr. Aton of his street patrol called “Original Men In Black,” named because of their attire and not to be confused with a popular Will Smith movie of a similar name. Original Men In Black predates that blockbuster hit. Mr. Aton added the word “original” to the name to differentiate the two.
“Our thing is called hospitality patrol,” he explained. “…We are not coming to be an aggressive group arresting [people]. We are going in speaking, asking, talking, and listening trying to see what it is our people need, what they’re dealing with or what’s their greatest challenge.”
Mr. Aton relaunched Original Men in Black, the neighborhood street patrol he started in 1990 to reduce gun and gang violence. The all-volunteer group disbanded years ago when members got jobs or grew older. The group’s reemergence comes on the heels of a rash of shootings that claimed the lives of six children ranging in age from 20 months to 14 years old since June. For Mr. Aton the violence mirrors that of the 1990s where children are often caught in the cross fire. That year, Chicago saw 851 murders.
“We see something that is reoccurring over and over and over again,” said Mr. Aton who founded Original Men in Black as an arm of Temple of Mercy Association, a Black consciousness group dedicated to empowering and uplifting Black Americans.
Original Men in Black’s mission is the same, but Mr. Aton joined forces with ABJ Community Services, Inc., a youth and family-oriented culture and arts center, to launch what they call “hospitality street patrols.” The goal is to strengthen community relationships by patrolling neighborhood streets in a positive way, not as an occupying force. Original Men in Black will patrol parts of Chicago’s South Side and hopes to expand to more communities. The patrols kicked off in early July in the Chicago’s South Shore community.
The patrols will include edutainment programming, like street performances and spoken word. Surveys will be conducted to gage residents’ issues and concerns. Information gleaned from these interactions will be the basis for a forthcoming townhall meeting.
“When they see us every day, hopefully, they can trust us enough to talk to us, let their guards down to share with us who the shooters are, share with us who are taking our women. That way, we serve as a buffer between the police and the streets. We will do what they [police] can’t do,” said Mr. Aton who’s best known as the inspirational saxophonist, “Sax Preacher.”
He stressed that his street patrol is not working with the Chicago Police Department. The police, he said, is not the enemy but “they can make us an enemy of our own people” if there’s an appearance of cooperation.
Since most of the gun violence reportedly occurs among Millennials and younger, Original Men in Black has partnered with ABJ’s Millennial Tribe, a collective of young professionals committed to community service. Mr. Aton noted it’s important to involve young adults. Millennials, he added is the group that can bring about change in the Black community.
Isaiah “Adverb” James agreed. The 27-year-old South Shore resident signed up for the hospitality patrol because he believes he can build peace in the neighborhood. He said a lot of young men don’t believe “there could be peace between streets … because they’ve been taught to hate each other for so long even If [they] weren’t part of that generation that started that beef.”
“I am hoping that the OMIB can come to these bothers and say, ‘If this is really your block, your neighborhood, let’s get together and have you protect it, help you buy it, restore it and build it,’” Mr. James said. “We just have to pull that out of people and let them know that there is a bigger enemy than the man across the street, than the gang across the street … than the police department.”
Gun violence hits home for Bronzeville resident Antonio Monix, 27, also an Original Men in Black hospitality patrol member. Beefs between rival gangs is an intertribal conflict that doesn’t need to be, he said.
“I am hoping to inspire others to see that we are into it with our brothers,” Mr. Monix said. “We get into it block for block and it doesn’t make sense. Hopefully we can put that thought into people’s minds—why are we into it with each other.”
Mr. Monix hopes seeing people his age proactive in the streets shows the younger generation that interpersonal violence is not the answer. “This is just the proclamation for the reclamation.”
The hospitality patrols are an extension of ABJ’s ongoing public safety and peace-building initiatives. ABJ’s President and CEO Pastor Victoria C. Brady said they are about reclaiming the village, showing young people there’s something different from what’s out on the streets and engaging them in a way that humanizes them.
“We cannot allow our babies to just keep getting gunned down. They are being murdered. We have to try something,” Ms. Brady said. “[But] we need to stop being so quiet about who’s shooting. There’s this thing about snitching and we have to get away from that. I’m not pro-police and I’m definitely not for locking up our children, but we’ve got to get a handle on this violence.”
Ms. Brady was also critical of the Black community’s silence in addressing the killings. She noted the Black community came out in droves when George Floyd died while in the custody of Minneapolis police, but barely said a word when gun violence killed these children.
“If we are going to check someone else, we have to check ourselves also,” Ms. Brady said.
Mr. Aton was more pragmatic. The Black community he said, is responding but not at the levels people think they should. Critics, Mr. Aton added, want the Black community to respond to police brutality and Black on Black crime with the same intensity. But Original Men in Black tackles both, he noted.
“They are intricately connected,” Mr. Aton said. “How we treat our people is the picture painted for those White officers who never been in our community. When those officers come into our community, they come in with preconceived notions. So, we have to clean that image up.”