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Rod Watson: Ending 'black wall of silence' that lets crime flourish

Call it the ultimate good versus evil showdown: The Gospel and the Koran versus the code of the streets.

When the Rev. Darius Pridgen went public with photos of two men who broke into his church and appealed to "someone who cares enough about their community and these young men" to identify the burglars, it marked another call from the pulpit to reject the code of silence that allows crime to flourish in African-American neighborhoods.

Earlier this year, Minister Dahveed Muhammad of Muhammad’s Mosque 23 publicly deplored the "no snitching" credo, pointing out that it silences good people while gangsters regularly ignore it, rolling over on one another to get a deal from prosecutors.

Pridgen, too, asked the community to speak up to find the burglars whose images were captured on surveillance cameras in his True Bethel Baptist Church. After giving the young men a chance to turn themselves in – which they declined – he put the images on the Buffalo Police Department’s Facebook page in hopes the community would respond.

It was a tough ask – even though it shouldn’t have been.

But the back-to-back appeals from ministers raises a question: Can the black church, which led the effort to free African-Americans from the overt tyranny of racism, reprise the same role when the attacker looks just like the victims? Continued racist incidents notwithstanding, can the church play the same galvanizing role it played in the civil rights era now that the problem is lurking right next door and dressed not in white sheets, but in the same skin color?

Pridgen thinks it will take a lot more than one institution because this is an era in which there is very little trust of "anyone in leadership," including ministers.

"For things to turn around, we need organization and attention to marry one another," he said, explaining that "activists" know how to get attention but there is little trust in organizations like the church, government or community groups to advance a cause, as there was during the civil rights era.

The result is that "we’re dying in silence, but we’re living in fear" he said, adding that everyone is going to have to play a part.

Muhammad, too, has talked about a "black wall of silence" that allows crime to flourish. He’s still trying to pull together a town hall meeting to break down that wall and agrees that religious institutions – like others – have taken a hit. But that just makes it more difficult, not impossible, for faith leaders to spearhead such an effort.

"Absolutely, that’s where our main work is. We speak truth to power, but we also try to elevate the condition of our people," he said, though ministers have to work to gain credibility "by showing integrity and consistency and by doing what we say we’re going to do."

And, he said, they can’t be bought off by funding sources, long a sore point in the African-American community.

While Pridgen is right about institutions’ declining influence, I think he underestimates how much leadership can still matter. Those who flock to his and other churches and mosques wouldn’t be doing that if it didn’t.

That is something to build on if blacks want to treat neighborhood safety as the new civil rights issue.

After all, the right to be free from racial discrimination is a hollow victory if your children can’t even play in the front yard for fear of a stray bullet.

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