The increasing level of violence currently in society, and its roots historically with respect to the black community, was the focus of a forum last Saturday on the West Side attended by citizens, activists and educators.

The National Alliance Against Racist & Political Repression hosted the panel discussion at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, 5710 W. Midway Park. The Alliance was founded in Chicago in the early 1970s and has since branched out nationally. An audience and panel discussion followed the opening remarks by invited panelists.

The panelists were: Robert “Bob” Starks, professor at Northeastern University and columnist for N’Digo; Camille Williams of Southwest Youth Collaborative; and Mel Rotenberg, professor at University of Chicago.

Rotenberg, a Civil Rights activist beginning in the 1960s in Berkeley, Cal., talked about violence throughout black history.

“I walked picket lines to protest racist practices at Woolworth’s where African-American students almost got lynched trying to desegregate the lunch counters. I learned from my first political experiences, before learning through study, that racist practices and institutions from slavery through modern discrimination and segregation have always been founded through violence-deliberate and massive,” he said. “Today, the prison system – the epitome of socially-organized violence – is a fundamental mechanism for the perpetuation of a racially-repressive and stratified society.”

After covering a vast area of topics, Rotenberg ended his presentation by noting that there is both a “pessimistic and optimistic” side to his diagnosis. 

“The pessimistic side is that violence within the poor African-American community is rooted in the deep foundation of U.S. history and society. It is perpetuated by the violence directed at this community and justified by the racist myths of black inferiority and savagery,” he said. “It cannot be eliminated by moral uplift, appeals for good parenting, or the production of role models. It can only be eliminated by providing a decent, stable, and secure livelihood to those now excluded, which would involve a major social/economic transformation. 

“The optimistic side is that: given the world economic crises the conditions for unity across racial lines and across borders for mobilization to effect major social/economic change have improved,” he added. “The key to advancing this unity in the U.S. is to effectively combat the racist myths of black inferiority and savagery.”

Camille Williamson, a youth counselor who works with kids in the Chicago area, began her remarks by stressing to not be afraid of youth. 

“Young people are at the forefront as to where we decide to go,” she said. “Getting to know young people; it is important to have frank conversations with them. Young people can think of different ways to express themselves. They have interests; they have positive ways at looking at things, even when things look very grim. What is most important, in terms of nurturing them, is being positive; recognizing their assets and recognizing that they actually like discipline.”

Williamson stressed that kids actually like for people to have high expectations of them, “because they believe someone cares.” 

“But the problem that we have now is that we don’t have enough individuals, enough organizations, enough institutions that are vested in young people and especially young people of color,” she added. “When a young person comes to you and says something crazy, it is important to stop what you are doing and have a conversation as to where that is coming from.”

In his remarks, Starks gave an overview of the history of American, from the slave trade to present day. He noted that the pervasiveness of violence throughout American history is not lost on the black community, since much of that violence has been directed toward them.

“At the end of the slave regime even more organized violence was perpetrated on African Americans through groups like the KKK and other thugs; but not only in the south but also northern and western communities when African Americans began to move to urban areas. And, of course, much of that violence was protected by, and joined by, local sentries who excused it away as protecting their communities from African Americans. This kind of violence was precipitated by the competition for jobs and housing. And if you look at the history of Chicago you can see that is extremely clear.”

Starks then pointed out how the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War were filled with violence. 

“I am convinced – and this is my own personal belief – that when you look at the end of the ’70s and beginning of the ’80s, some element within the U.S. government or establishment actually flooded African American communities, inner city communities with drugs and guns. Since that time, black communities have been utter chaos,” Starks said. “Our school has become war zones that are hazardous to our children. The elderly senior citizens feel unsafe even in their own houses. Meanwhile, the federal government withdrew from public housing, [and] demolished public housing across the city.”