The Only Way: Why Plainfield Will Always Be Violent

Aerial view of Plainfield, NJ attribution

I can not tell the future. But, it doesn’t take powers of precognition to predict that the next town council meeting will see an unusually high turnout. Angry residents will look to the new police chief, council, and administration for answers. Then a number of the well-known Plainfield bloggers and city officials will hold a forum, and surely, there will be a march down Park or Leland Avenue. The NAACP will hold a rally. There will be a spike in “awareness”. An organization may come out of it, but, they will lose funding within a few years.

The Mayor will release a statement about his steps to making the city safer, including an increase in patrols, and he will call for the council to supply more funds for law enforcement — which they will most likely approve. Eventually, warm homes in Sleepy Hallow will leave behind the sadness of a terrible tragedy and fill with the luminescence of the holidays. Townspeople will continue to shake their heads until the Cardinals start scoring buckets in the High School stadium. Candidates to-be will use mention of gun violence as a jousting pole as Plainfield returns to politics as usual.

You may wonder how it is that I know that all of this will happen. Well, year after year, history repeats itself in our little town. Gun crimes scar our city and take lives way too early.

I was in high school in 2010 when it looked as if no one was safe. We seemed to have had enough. Out of tragedy, organizations like Young Men of Resilience and Plainfield Y.O.U. were founded to take the violence head on and address the underlying issues that cause it. No one in town back then would have thought Plainfield would be back in the grips of violent crime, but 2011, 2012 and 2013 saw much of the same. Granted, the administration and journalists will readily cite a decrease in 2014.

I returned to the city after graduating college to find nothing had changed. Last Friday, in broad daylight, another shooting took a life and injured a woman and a six-year-old girl. It seems the assailant hadn’t heard of our decreasing crime statistics. As we count down the months until the new year, January 1st can’t come fast enough for the statisticians and incumbents alike, hoping the crime can hold off until then. If you’ve lived in Plainfield long enough, this won’t be very surprising. And many ask, Why? Why the “We shall overcome…” hymn and throwing police at the problem doesn’t work — why have institutions, built to protect its people, failed them? Why hasn’t the community come together to truly end the reoccurring violence? The answer is in the question. There is no community, and Plainfield’s citizens suffer as a result.

Plainfield’s story is a tale of two Democratic parties, two youth baseball leagues, two cities who’s structures were born out of demarcations left behind by the riots of the 60’s. The town is fractured at every level from education to civil society to public officials. The divisions are so vivid a passerby can see them: the quintessentially Plainfield bungalows, the tree lined streets with Queen Anne Mansions, hobbit-like dwellings and the historic district remind you of the most stately infra mason dixie habitations while a quarter-mile in the wrong direction gangs are are more known than the forgotten streets they namesake.

Once a communal effort, our little league baseball has split into two leagues due to pride and the joylessness of adults. Our politics is striated with half of our council, a couple school board members and the mayor aligning with the New Democrats and everyone else is an old Democrat cog in a New Jersey political machine called Jerry Green. Plainfield is sheer proof that Hamilton’s Federalist num. 10 is accurate when you have a mayor sending police to shut down a fall festival, a council suing a mayor over an appointment he made, miscommunication canceling a Youth Summit, a firing here and there. It goes on and on. This incessant brand of small town politics instills a sense of separation that allows violence to be normal, and as long as it sustains nothing will change.

That is to say, the violence can end. If Rio de Janeiro can curtail massive homicide rates, why can’t Plainfield become a beacon of hope? Across the country, we see New York and Chicago taking measures to stunt crime. If we can take their examples and tailor them to Plainfield, crime in this city could be eradicated. So what has been effective? In Brazil it’s called, Pronasci. The program similar to what has been done in D.C. and New Orleans calls for a collaborative approach to stopping crime. On the law enforcement side, “Hot Spots” are critical. Hot spots are areas which crime occurs in statistically significant numbers. In 2010, the Campbell collaborative at George Mason University analyzed more than 40 crime prevention programs, and “hotspot policing” was shown to be more effective than any other programs.

The major contention is that law enforcement must identify hotspots. This is where a necessity for deep analysis must meet community organizing. Data means nothing without neighborhood input, and data on crime patterns and analytics can uncover aspects of crime that otherwise go unknown. For example, in New Orleans — once the murder capital of the US — crime was rampant and there was a consensus that they didn’t have significant gangs. Deep data analysis by a Bloomberg-backed statistics team discovered the city had a gang problem and when and where the gang violence was most likely to happen.

But, the violence can never be solved with just repressive law enforcement or what’s called in mano dura tactics in South America. Heavy-handedness from police can be counter-productive if there is no focus on skills, education, communal services, and addressing socio-economic inequality. Enrique Roig, director of citizens security at Creative Associates in D.C. says that the focus must be on the group at risk for the crimes; that means the support of males between the ages of 10–29. This is where Plainfield falters the most.

There is no collective effort at mentorship and youth empowerment programs. Unless it’s campaign season, you rarely hear the word “youth” on the tongues of officials. The administration spends most of it’s time readying for the next P.I.L.O.T. development instead of investing in young people. This is the part where I’m supposed to tie everything up with some plea or message of hope, but this feels more like an epithet. Honestly, my ask is simple. To the public office holders, call up a community leader. Meet with a few of them. Hear out their ideas. And if the loss of lives means anything, get past your fictitious political differences and let young people in this town know they are your constituents. Get out there in the community. We need leadership that motivates and builds continuity whether it comes from state or non-state actors. A stroll down Front should be just as safe as a walk down Crabapple in Sleepy Hollow. One half of South Ave. shouldn’t be dilapidated while another has a cobblestone trail. This Plainfield will always be violent.