Kerner Wisdom: Communication Between Local Government and Neighborhoods

KernerNote: This is the first of several excerpts from the Kerner Commission, which President Johnson established in 1967 to examine the riots that occurred that summer. The Commission’s report was issued in 1968, making 2018 the 50th anniversary of the work. In short, the Commission found that unresolved grievances helped trigger the unrest and violence. It wrote: “Virtually every major episode of urban violence was foreshadowed by an accumulation of unresolved grievances against local authorities (often, but not always, the police.)

Improving communication between local government and neighborhoods with low-income minority residents was one of the key recommendations offered to local government officials by the Kerner Commission’s 1967 report.

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The Kerner Commission, formally called the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, directed one of its chapters to local government officials. The Commission identify first- and second-phase actions. In the first phase, the Commission recommended establishing joint government-community Neighborhood Action Task Forces in each city neighborhood with a high proportion of low-income residents of color.

The Commission said the neighborhood action task forces could serve several purposes, including direct communication about problems with city hall officials, assist with the development and sponsorship of youth activities and help to prevent civil disorders within the community. Such a task force could “connect the real needs and priorities of low-income residents with the energies and resources of both city government and the private sector” as well as improve the quality and timeliness of services in these neighborhoods. If successful, the task force could generate a new sense of community, the Commission wrote.

The excerpt, featured below, captures the exact language of the time:

While the exact form of these groups will depend on the size and needs of each municipality, the following basic features should be incorporated:
Composition. Each task force should include a key official in the mayor’s office with direct and immediate access to the mayor, ranking city officials from the operating agencies servicing the ghetto community, elected leaders, representatives from the local business, labor, professional, and church communities, and neighborhood leaders, including representatives of community organizations of all orientations, as well as youth leaders. Each task force would be headed by the mayor’s representative. In larger cities, each of these chairmen would sit as a member of a city-wide Task Force.

Functions. The Neighborhood Action Task Forces should meet on a regular basis at a location accessible to ghetto residents. These meetings will afford an opportunity for ghetto leaders to communicate directly with the municipal administrators for their area to discuss problems and programs which affect the community. In effect, this device furnishes an interagency coordinating mechanism on the one-hand and a “community cabinet” on the other.

Ghetto residents should be able to rely on the capacity of the task force to cut through the maze of red tape and to overcome bureaucratic barriers in order to make things – collection of garbage, removal of abandoned cars, installation of lights in the park, establishment of playstreets – happen. To accomplish this purpose, the participating city officials should have operational decision-making authority. Lower-level staff or public relations personnel will be unable to provide the confrontation and intersection with the community representatives which is essential to the effective functioning of the task force. Moreover, there is grave danger that opening channels of communication without providing opportunities for obtaining relief will further estrange ghetto residents. If this is not to happen, the task force should have a meaningful and realistic capacity for securing redress of grievances. For the same reason, it is essential that the task force have the full and energetic support of the mayor and the city council.

The potential for responding effectively to community needs is not limited to available public resources. Acting through business, labor, and church members, and the local Urban Coalitions which have already been formed, the task force will have a capacity to involve the resources of the private sector in meeting needs within the ghetto. Possibilities range from support of special summer youth programs (weekend trips, recreation events, camping programs) to provision of cultural and employment opportunities on a year-round basis.

The Neighborhood Action Task Force can play a significant role with respect to youth activities. One approach which has worked in several cities involves the establishment of youth councils to employ young street leaders (regardless of previous police records) to develop community programs for other alienated youth. These activities might include organizing and operating libraries, neighborhood cleanup campaigns, police-community dialogues, and sports competitions in their own neighborhoods.

Finally, such an organization can make a major contribution to the prevention of civil disorders. If the task force has been successful in achieving the objectives stressed above, its members will have gained the confidence of a wide spectrum of ghetto residents. This will enable them to identify potentially explosive conditions and, working with police, to defuse them.

Similarly, the task force could have considerable effectiveness in handling threatening incidents identified by the police. To accomplish this objective, an early warning system could be instituted during the critical summer months. Operating on a 24-hour basis, such a system should have the capacity to receive and evaluate police reports of potentially serious incidents and to initiate an appropriate nonpolice response, utilizing community contacts and task force personnel. Any such operation must have the cooperation of the police, who will be in control of the overall disorder response. To avoid confusion and duplication of effort, the task force should have responsibility for coordinating the efforts of all agency, other than police and fire, once a disturbance has occurred. An example will serve to illustrate how the system might operate.

Following the slaying last summer of a Negro teenager by a Negro detective in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, N.Y., a rumor that the youth had been shot by a white policeman and that the police were trying to suppress this information began to circulate through an already tense neighborhood. The situation became threatening. Yet, within an hour, three white members of the mayor’s summer task force group were able to convince a group of black militants that the police version was true. Walking the streets that night and the next two evenings, they worked to dispel the rumor and to restore community stability.

In the larger cities, the city-wide task force could have responsibility for coordinating the programs of various municipal agencies, concentrating their impact on poverty areas, and planning for the more effective implementation of existing public efforts.

The Commission believes that the task force approach can do precisely what other forms of neighborhood organizations have not been able to do. It can connect the real needs and priorities of low-income residents with the energies and resources of both city government and the private sector. It can substantially improve the quality and timeliness of city services to these areas. It will fail unless all of the groups involved are prepared to deal fairly and openly with the problems of the community. But if it succeeds, it will not only produce improved services; it will go far to generate a new sense of community.

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