LAST WEDNESDAY, Mayor Tom Menino and his police commissioner, Paul Evans, gathered together African-American religious leaders, members of the downtown business community, and community activists at Ramsey Park in Roxbury. "Just over a week ago, a bullet took the life of a 10-year-old girl," said Menino, referring to the murder of Trina Persad, who was struck by the crossfire of a gang shootout. "This tragic loss affected all of us. It made us sad. It made us angry. And most of all, it made us take action." Menino then declared the next couple of months the "Summer of Responsibility."
Left unmentioned by Menino was the widespread disappointment felt by the mayor and other city authorities in the wake of Persadís murder on Saturday, July 29. Roughly 60 people were in Jermaine Goffigan Park that night, and not one called police to report what he or she had seen. "What bothered me is that we werenít getting any leads, and the one lead we did get was bad," says Menino, in an interview with the Phoenix. "Thatís very unusual."
The killing prompted Menino to do something he had been reluctant to do: make a high-profile public statement about the worsening violence in the city. As he did so, the mayor also managed to deliver some good news, announcing that he had procured aid for the cityís young people in the form of 100 new jobs, wrestled from Bostonís business community earlier that day. But the message for community leaders was clear: Menino was doing what he could, and they needed to do more as well. He urged members of the community to work with law-enforcement authorities to help keep the city safe.
But most of all, the speech represented an attempt by Menino to get in front of a political problem on which heís been lagging behind. Less than a year ago, Menino appeared on Channel 56 with mayoral challenger Peggy Davis-Mullen and insisted that an uptick in the cityís murder rate was no cause for alarm because the killings were all taking place "in buildings." His point was that the bulk of these murders were domestic disputes ó killings against which traditional law-enforcement techniques have little effect. But things have changed. With the string of recent murders in Roxbury and Dorchester, the mayor can no longer explain away the violence with such simplicity. Not only was the Persad shooting the most dramatic of these murders, but it closely mirrored the shooting of 11-year-old Tiffany Moore, whose death in 1988 ó she too was gunned down in gang crossfire ó symbolized a city besieged by inner-city gangland violence. And the Persad shooting was by no means the most recent. Just last Thursday, only a day after Menino made his plea in Roxbury, Mattapan was the scene of yet another fatal shooting when somebody sprayed an SUV with bullets, killing the driver.
With 25 murders in Boston during the first half of 2002 ó only six fewer than the total number for all of 1999 ó the carnage in the neighborhoods, while still less than in other American cities of comparable size, has begun to take its toll on City Hall. Less than one year into his most recent term, the mayor has confronted more challenges than he faced in his entire first term; and third terms are not known as periods when sitting mayors have the most energy to tackle local problems. Beyond that, city coffers are tighter than they were during Meninoís first eight years of rule: with a Republican now in the White House, less federal aid is available for cities. Of the federal money that is filtering down to the city level, much is directed toward homeland security; the war against terrorism has shifted needed resources away from neighborhood safety. Should the wave of murders in Boston worsen, Menino could lose what to date has been the foundation of his administration: being mayor for the neighborhoods.
Until now, Menino and his fans have been content to let opinion leaders and pundits snipe about the mayorís lack of vision, so long as he is given credit for the achievements of which he is most proud ó cleaning up all the neighborhoods and reigning over Boston during a period when crime dropped to levels not seen here since the 1960s. But now Menino (and every Bostonian) faces real peril: if the Wild West scenario currently rocking areas of Mattapan, Dorchester, and Roxbury spreads to recently gentrified parts of the city, such as the South End and Jamaica Plain, much of the progress made by the city since the early 1990s will be stopped in its tracks. After all, two previous mayors, Ray Flynn and Kevin White, saw their dreams of higher office dashed in part because of violence in Boston.
"Itís a real test for him," says one Menino observer. "If you go back and look at Ray Flynn when he was thinking of running for governor, Menino could find himself in a similar spot. Itís a very hard thing to have thrust upon you in your third term. You donít have the energy for it. You wear it more."
"I think he deserves credit for helping to bring the crime rate down," says Jack Levin, the director of Northeastern Universityís Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict. "Heíll have to be blamed if the crime rate goes up. Heís the leader of the city. It seems to me that mandate has to come from the very top."