Syracuse’s War on Black Youth

by Steven Muhammad

According to the US Attorney’s Office, the issue of youth, guns and gang violence is second, in terms of its priorities, only to the fight against terrorism. Although both are important, the methods by which each are being pursued are both terrifying and criminal. The labeling of certain youth as thugs and gang members (in some research papers they are called “super predators”) is like labeling Muslims or so-called ‘militant’ Muslims as terrorists. In the case of youth violence, the government continues to ignore the totality of individual circumstances. It also ignores alternatives to incarceration that are more effective and low cost.

Rico: The New Weapon against Black Youth

Under the guise of reducing guns and gang violence, the City of Syracuse has planned a war against Black youth. The Northern District of New York Office of the US Attorney, based in Syracuse, has indicted 24 young Black men under the Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organization (RICO) Act since last summer. The defendants are accused of using violence to protect their territory and the drug trade revenues they had supposedly acquired since 1995.

There are a total of 42 indictments, or what are referred to as “overt acts,” allegedly committed by the defendants on behalf of the “Boot Camp” gang since 1995. Some defendants have not engaged in criminal activities for over two and half years and were gainfully employed. Some had already been convicted on the indictment and completed their sentences when they were charged under RICO for the same act. Despite that, youth who resided around the corner of Midland Ave and W. Colvin St (on Syracuse’s Southside) were targeted by the US Attorney’s application of RICO.

Youth who have not been recently involved in criminal activity but were still charged under the RICO Act are considered collateral damage. They are being used to send a harsh message to other youth in the area. The problem is that law enforcement is sending the wrong message. When it comes to Black youth or youth living in economically depressed neighborhoods, billboards of youth being arrested and strict law enforcement methods are used. But in other communities, more positive incentives are used, for example, building a skateboard rink for recreational activities.

Syracuse as a Test Market?

This is the first time the RICO Act has been applied based on geography. The City of Syracuse is a test market for goods and services. A widely read list of test markets compiled by Dancer, Fitzgerald and Sample lists the top eight markets most similar to the average US national demographics. Syracuse is among them.

Rita J. Runyon, President of TRC Consultants, Inc., states, “the beauty of the ‘Test Market’ is that it allows marketers the opportunity to test all the variables in a real marketing environment where real people are buying real products, in a smaller, less expensive experiment” (emphasis added). These products are not limited to store products sold at Wal-Mart but include governmental policies and programs, particularly those involving youth violence.

For example, the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention funded four US cities to develop a local “Partnership to Reduce Juvenile Gun Violence.” Programs were given millions of dollars in seed money to develop comprehensive strategies that encompassed prevention, intervention and suppression methods to reduce youth access to and use of illegal guns. The four selected cities were to create partnerships between local law enforcement agencies, school districts, community and faith-based organizations and other community stakeholders. Syracuse was one of the cities to receive such funding although there were areas in the US with a greater need.

Although the US Attorney is justified in making youth violence a priority, the long-term ramifications of this case and the precedent it sets threaten the constitutional rights of everyone in neighborhoods that the government targets. The government could target any neighborhood based on a theoretical pattern of criminal activity or past indictments. Any name could be assigned to the area. Any resident with a criminal background could then be prosecuted under this interpretation of RICO.

Ridwan’s Story

Ridwan Othman was born in Syracuse and has lived here all his life. Teachers describe him as a good student and an outstanding football player. Mr. Othman received letters from colleges for possible scholarships but was disqualified when he was expelled from school. Like many young men, he embraced the streets and peer pressure that undermined his focus. Although never convicted of a crime, he engaged in anti-social activities until he was arrested on a sealed indictment (selling drugs to an undercover police officer) in 2000. Mr. Othman pled guilty to a felony and was sentenced to probation.

At that point Mr. Othman attempted to separate himself from his past. He stopped hanging out; he focused on successfully completing probation and actively searched for employment. Mr. Othman applied to CNY Works in hopes of securing his GED and participated in Career Path to Success at Onondaga Community College. Mr. Othman then participated in the American Friends Service Committee’s Help Increase the Peace Program (HIPP) where he was trained in conflict resolution.

In attempts to give back to the community and to share his story with others, Mr. Othman participated in an interview with local Channel 5 along side his case manager. Mr. Othman played a large role in organizing and facilitating a successful meeting at the Forum West to address issues of gun violence and positive alternatives for youth from different sides of the city. He was an example of what hard work, commitment, and determination together with community resources and support could do to change the lives of at risk youth in the Syracuse community. In March of 2001 he became a peer counselor with the Boys and Girls Club in the same neighborhood where he grew up.

Mr. Othman worked for two and half years before he was indicted under RICO for the same charges for which he had already served probation. In his two and a half years of employment at the Boys and Girls Club, he had not been arrested, had no police contacts and was even released early from probation. He had no new charges or pending charges. Mr. Othman was indicted for racketeering for no reason other than that he had pled guilty to a charge three years ago and the US Attorney needed his indictment to strengthen the Government’s case. A police officer acknowledged, “Ridwan is just a pawn in this.”

How far is this government willing to go to get its way?

Why do local law enforcement officials assume programs geared towards intervening in and preventing youth violence among Black youth are less effective than just “locking them up?”

Although Black youth make up less than 15% of the county population, thus far they are 100% of those who have been indicted under RICO.

When will it stop? What will you do to make it stop?

There is a list circulating throughout the community of over 500 Black males who are being targeted next for RICO. Are your family members on the list? There will be rallies and meetings on this issue in the next few weeks. Please contact Steven Muhammad for specific times and days at 472-9744.