Now more than 10 years old, the New Orleans Chapter of The PeaceKeepers continues its work to stem the tide of violence
by Kelly Brooks
The PeaceKeepers Global Initiative is a community action plan whose goal is to maintain peace in neighborhoods where gun violence is high.
“We needed to start patrolling our neighborhoods and be present for peace,” Dr. Dennis Muhammad, founder of the The Peace Keepers, told The New Orleans Tribune. “We needed something to unite people that transcended religion, race, gender, social status, and politics. Peace is the common denominator that brings us together.”
There are now 23 PeaceKeeper chapters worldwide and the organization has the support heavy weights like rap music mogul Russell Simmons. The PeaceKeepers chapter in New Orleans started in 2004 after Walter Umrani invited Muhammad here to speak against the violence in the community.
At a local “Keep the Peace Rally” this past July, the New Orleans chapter debuted the mantra “Squash the Beef Before the Grief.” They also held a community leadership session, during which they selected the St. Roch neighborhood as Ground Zero for Peace.
“Ground Zero is where everything is happening, the center of activity for the PeaceKeepers,” says Umrani, program coordinator for the PeaceKeepers New Orleans chapter.
More recently, the organization held a Labor Day march and rally for peace that attracted scores of participants from across the city.
The PeaceKeepers encourage people to walk and police their own neighborhoods, even as they provide mediation services to help stem the tide of violence. Chief among their guiding principles are the notions that the men of a community are responsible for making it safe and that changing one’s behavior can change one’s condition. And while the social problems that contribute to high crime rates—unemployment, lack of educational opportunities, poverty—are real and entrenched, PeaceKeepers do not allow the formidable challenges to deter their mission.
“The men responsible for our community should find a way to understand we are the source—not the police or someone outside of our community—for the proliferation of violence overwhelming our Black community,” says Brother Umrani. “Black men have to step up to reduce that violence. No one is going to come into the community and clean it up better than people who live there.”
PeaceKeepers are everyday people. They are not police; and they do not involve the police when they are contacted to mediate. They are not worried about whether pants are sagging or if someone is carrying illegal drugs. They focus on treating people with respect and giving them a way to stop fighting.
“With love and kindness you can draw people to a better way of life,” says Muhammad. “In more than nine years, in every city, we have not had one incident (where a PeaceKeeper was injured). You have to train people to make them feel comfortable to go into a bad neighborhood and not fear for their lives.”
The PeaceKeepers offer a four-week training program that includes CPR and self-defense training. They don’t try to be a force of authority, but a deterrent to violence. They believe that respect, kindness, and good people skills persuade people to listen.
Every Tuesday and Saturday at 6 p.m. like clockwork you will find New Orleans PeaceKeepers at their Ground Zero for Peace location—the St. Roch Park/Sampson Playground—meeting local residents and spreading the word about their about their efforts, providing a way for those in crisis to address issues before turning to violence and sharing useful information.
At the PeaceKeepers’ community meeting held in August, Umrani shared information about training programs at Delgado and Associated Builders and Contractors, Inc. (ABC) New Orleans/Bayou Chapter.
“Right now even if you are in high school you can start this program in the evenings. All the students have to do is pay for the application. They come out certified in welding or carpentry. And not only for the home but there are classes where they do industrial training. That’s where the big bucks come in,” says Umrani. “And one of the Peacekeeper’s, Pastor Charlie West, specializes in showing young men and women how to purchase their own home. He’s going to setup a workshop for us.”
Providing information about economic development, job training programs and homeownership is as crucial to their mission as mediating volatile disputes before they erupt into violence, he says.
“When you see a high incidence of murder, violence, high dropout rate, and high incarceration rates, it is a sign of social needs that are not met,” Umrani says. “So we can’t come into a community and say stop the violence without offering them a way to affect the cause.”
The PeaceKeepers’ task will not end with St. Roch. They will maintain a presence in the St. Roch neighborhood for several months in order to get the community involved in policing their own neighborhoods and then move to another neighborhood.
“I am extremely grateful for what the PeaceKeepers are doing and for all of you who are interested in what’s going on in this community,” says Pastor J. B. Watkins of St. Roch Community Church. “A lot of people don’t realize how many resources are available to them. There’s much more that needs to happen, more that needs to be brought in. But there are some things out there that people do not realize what is available.”
As the national founder of the organization, Muhammad says he is proud of the work being done in New Orleans.
“New Orleans has been our flagship chapter,” he says. “This is where we started the PeaceKeepers and the Squash the Beef Before the Grief hotline. Through the hotline they currently have 25 on-going mediations, which could have been 25 killings.”
But the effectiveness of the organization goes beyond the number of hotline calls because getting people active in their community takes them out of hopelessness, according to its leaders.
“When you can tell me how to measure hope, then you can measure the success of the PeaceKeepers,” says Dr. Muhammad. “In hope, you see light. I see it in people taking responsibility for their community.”
The PeaceKeepers Hotline can be reach at (504) 500-1706. For more information about the organization, visit www.thepeacekeepers.org.