South Side activists denounced “cul-de-sac” critics Monday and called for more cash — not less — for anti-violence programs such as Gov. Pat Quinn’s troubled Neighborhood Recovery Initiative.
The Rev. Michael Pfleger and former state Sen. Alice Palmer were among those who appeared at a news conference at The Ark of St. Sabina in the Gresham neighborhood to support the now disbanded program that was assailed in a blistering audit last month and is now facing a steady drumbeat of negative headlines.
Palmer, who helped manage the project in the South Shore neighborhood, defended the hiring of two gang members through the program there — only to have one wind up accused of the other’s murder.
That scandal among others has Republican lawmakers blasting the program as a “political slush fund” and calling for a federal investigation.
“It angers me when people from Lemont and Palatine and Springfield, and suburbs all around Illinois, love to launch their attack on programs that seek to reach the most at-risk youth in our city,” Pfleger said. “It also bothers me that they never come to the South Side or to the West Side to say, ‘What can we do? How can we help? How can we stop this carnage of blood in our streets?’”
Pfleger and others shared troubling statistics — 216 school-age children killed in Chicago in 2010, 92 percent of black male teens unemployed in 2012 — and said success stories within the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative are being ignored, including “thousands of lives that were saved.”
Palmer oversaw the program in the South Shore neighborhood where Jermalle Brown and Douglas Bufford were hired for $8.50 an hour to hand out anti-violence pamphlets. But while they were on the payroll, then 19-year-old Brown and 16-year-old Bufford allegedly broke into a Grand Crossing home in July 2012 with one other man and announced a robbery. Bufford was fatally shot in the back of the head with a shotgun, and Brown and an associate now face murder charges tied to the shooting.
Palmer said Bufford only worked for the program for two days. She said she didn’t know how long Brown worked there, nor was she sure how much either was paid. But she said both had to go through an orientation and commit to doing the work.
“I told them from the beginning, ‘Call me Donald Trump, because I will fire you,’” Palmer said.
She also said Bufford’s killing does not amount to a failure of the entire program.
“If this is the measure of what a failure is, then it is mind-boggling to me the hypocrisy,” Palmer said.
But in another revelation pounced on by critics, the Sun-Times reported Monday that state records show almost 7 percent of the $2.1 million the program spent in West Garfield Park in 2011 and 2012 went into the pockets of the husband of Cook County Circuit Clerk Dorothy Brown.
Pfleger didn’t deny isolated problems in the management of the program. He also acknowledged Saint St. Sabina received $200,000 to help employ young people. Khaleelah Muhammad, the project manager there, said $1.2 million in all was spent in the Auburn-Gresham community for programs like such as school-based counseling and conflict-management training.
Auditor General William Holland slammed the program in a report last month, calling it “hastily implemented” and beset by “pervasive deficiencies in … planning, implementation and management.”
Contributing: Dave McKinney