It was 2008 when I first wrote about Roderick Parker, a self-confessed former gangbanger who was trying to redeem himself and his violence-torn side of town by organizing a block party near his home on Smith Street.
Four years earlier I had profiled Bob Gaul, who bought a small house on South Monroe Street in 1998 then watch in horror, outrage and disbelief as his southeast-side neighborhood descended into barbarism.
Other than geography and gender, the two men would seem to have little in common. Parker is 42, black, been arrested four times and risks returning to prison if he violates probation by getting too close to drugs or guns. Gaul is 18 years Parker's senior, white, never been busted and makes no secret of the fact that he owns weapons to protect himself from the young thugs who picked up where Parker left off.
But now, in vastly different ways, the two men are united in a common cause: to eradicate the violence and underlying causes that have turned parts of the city into virtual war zones without resorting to the kind of mindless kum ba yah mush that too often masquerades as a solution.
“The same things were said in the late '90s, early 2000s, 2004, 2008 . . .” said Gaul, who for the past several years has used his internet blog (check it out at http://the-pa-in-connection.blogspot.com/) to rail against all sorts of modern maladies, including the two he blames most for the murder and mayhem that has too often dominated the headlines. He hopes the blog has motivated police and encouraged neighbors who still care, but even if it hasn't, it's made him feel better.
“There's just a lack of civility and morality in America today. People are less self-righteous and more self-indulgent,” said Gaul, thought he had found an oasis of tranquility after moving to Fort Wayne from Philadelphia. But when his home-owning neighbors began to be replaced by renters, he correctly predicted that the so-called “broken-window” syndrome would follow: Lack of attention to relatively small problems such as property maintenance, noise and litter gave way to far more serious – and too often deadly – pathologies.
As for Parker, he will headline one of those civic rituals Gaul dismisses as hopeless: the Urban League's latest anti-violence forum scheduled for 6 p.m. Friday at the Prime Time Center, 3701 S. Calhoun St. And while past meetings have indeed proved futile, Parker's presence will give this one added credibility because he was where too many of today's kids are – and has not only survived but apparently escaped.
He almost didn't make it. After attracting about 300 people to what he hoped would become an annual “”It's All Good in the Hood” block party, Parker lapsed back into the bad habits that had already caused him to be knifed and arrested for burglary, domestic battery and violation of parole. Convicted of dealing cocaine, he did three years in prison before being released last year – years in which he may have discovered the wisdom that eluded him for so long.
Lured by the offer of a six-month sentence reduction, Parker enrolled in a “cognitive thinking” class how to think before acting and to replace his previous desire for instant gratification with long-term plans and goals. After nearly getting kicked out of the class, Parker has been clean and sober for five years and has started his own business (Rite-Way Clean), providing the confidence to offer himself to Urban League President Jonathan Ray as someone whose mistakes might show others how to succeed.
Although some have blamed dysfunctional and broken families or the lack of jobs for the southeast side's woes, Parker insists it's not that simple. He had a loving mother and stepfather and suspects most teens could find jobs if they really want one. Although children do need structure and discipline from family and police alike, Parker suspects the thing that snared him years ago has only grown worse: the media-fueled pressure to look tough and take orders from no one. Parker's trying to bring his four daughters up right, but knows other children aren't as blessed.
“I'm not saying I've got everything figured out. I'm not perfect, but I want better for me and my community,” he said.
So does Gaul, which is why he stays despite having a gun pointed at him and seeing the value of his home eroded by the nonsense going on around him.
“When did the bandits ever chase the sheriff out?” he asked. “I'm one of the good guys. I shouldn't have to leave.”
He's right, of course, just as no one should have to live with what too many people have had to endure. So Parker and Gaul stay and fight the good fight, each in his own way. For that they deserve thanks, help – and maybe a combat medal