Forty years ago this week, National Guard tanks rumbled onto the streets of Youngstown to quell rioting fueled by rage over the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Angry loose-knit gangs of young people set buildings afire, turned over cars, fought and fired indiscriminately at law enforcers.
Some recall that rage as the pinnacle of violence in Youngstown’s violent history and a turning point in the city’s decline. But despite the tensions, Guard presence and dusk-to-dawn curfews, no one was seriously injured or killed in the April 1968 disturbances.
Impassioned perceptions aside, 1968 proved to be a relatively safe year in the storied history of the city once dubbed “Murder Town USA.” By year’s end, 12 people in a city of 160,000 people had been murdered.
Today, Youngstown, with a population of 80,000, has endured 10 homicides in the first quarter of the year alone. In 2007, the city logged nearly three times more murders than in 1968.
Clearly the nature, scope and causes of lawlessness have changed over four decades, but city leaders must marshal all available resources with the same resolve that leaders did in 1968 to staunch the violence, increase public safety and work to cleanse the soiled national image of Youngstown.
And while no quadrant of the city today lacks tension, turmoil and violence, law enforcers can start by focusing heavily on the East Side where nine of the city’s 10 homicides have unfolded this year. It was there that three bodies were found in a roadway, driveway and ditch in separate crimes in recent weeks. And it was there that the worst mass murder in the city’s history played out when an arsonist snuffed out the lives of six people, including four young children, in January.
Second, a renewed zero-tolerance policy to be enforced throughout the city must have muscle and longevity. In past campaigns, such efforts have made a difference. Guns and drugs — the stuff of which violent crime is made in 2008 — have been confiscated, disarming would-be criminals. Violent crime, most notably homicide, has fallen during such offensives. That’s why we are pleased that aggressive saturation patrols are set to begin anew this month in the city.
But the initiative must not be permitted to end when the latest round of grant funding dries up. The key to meaningful success lies in ensuring that saturation patrols and zero tolerance are no fly-by-night initiatives. Too often in Youngstown’s past, on-again, off-again aggressive tactics have brought only short-term cease-fires in our urban killing fields.
A new tool in the city’s crime-fighting arsenal — Operation Ceasefire — should be tested fully for its potential value as well. That program would offer intervention to Youngstown gang members via a network of social service programs. Members would be offered job training, education or rehabilitation programs, but those offers would be tied to promises to end hooliganism or risk prosecution.
These and other tools must have community support to succeed. Such an ongoing multi-front assault can at least give Youngstown a fighting chance to rid itself of its lingering but deserved reputation as a hotbed of violent crime.