Hands Without Guns Aims to Boston Youth

Ken Cummins
March 1, 1996

Hands Without Guns director Michael MacDonald had just left his downtown office one evening last fall when he encountered three teenagers cursing and spitting on a cowering homeless man.

It was the kind of urban scene that most people would hurry past, pretending not to see, for fear that the young toughs might suddenly turn on them. But MacDonald is on a mission to curb the violent and destructive behavior, all too prevalent among urban youth, and he approached the scene deliberately.

“Why are you doing this to him?” MacDonald called out to the three early adolescent boys. “You can’t possibly drag him down anymore than he already is. All you can do is bring yourselves down.”

The three youths immediately turned their attention from the hapless homeless man to the vocal intruder. They approached MacDonald in a threatening manner, one boy posturing as though he had a gun concealed beneath his clothing. MacDonald promptly produced a Hands Without Guns brochure, which the youths recognized from the television ads of the six-month-old organization. Soon, they also recalled the much publicized stories of his family’s battles with the law after Boston police wrongfully charged his younger brother with murdering a friend.

“I got them to stop and focus on me,” recalls MacDonald, who, despite turning 29 years old in March, possesses a remarkable ability to relate to inner city teens. “They still had to show that they were tough or something, but we broke that down, too. They just became people, and I became a person, and we went our separate ways.

“What it is, is a lack of fear,” he adds. “It’s just all about looking people in the eye, and seeing [them as] people.”

Off to Fast Start

In existence less than a year, Hands Without Guns was created by the Washington, D.C.-based Educational Fund to End Handgun Violence. The organization was launched last May in Boston in collaboration with the grass-roots coalition, Citizens for Safety, the New England Medical Center and the Harvard School of Public Health. And, it appears that its arrival could not have been more timely. A newly completed survey by David Hemenway of the Harvard School of Public Health found that nearly one in four Boston city seventh grade busy, and one in 12 seventh grade girls, admitted to recently carrying a concealed gun for self-defense.

While Boston seems to brim with youth violence prevention efforts (those involved in them speculate that the city has the highest number of violence prevention programs, per capita, of any city in the country), Hands Without Guns distinguishes its effort from others. Boosters attribute a successful beginning to several factors:

  • Unlike other programs, Hands Without Guns appeals to youth because it gives them an “authentic voice” in running the program, deciding its mission and creating public service spots. Those ads feature unrehearsed Boston teens (not celebrity rappers or athletes) talking freely about the problems of guns in their communities and offering possible solutions.
  • The youth service program bring together teens from vial neighborhoods and public housing projects in art, music, cultural and recreational projects that have an anti-violence component.
  • Hands Without Guns works closely with existing groups to communicate its message. Some of these groups now refer to the program as their “youth outreach” arm.
  • And, it has a credible, charismatic spokesman in Michael MacDonald, a product of South Boston’s housing project.

“He brings everything to the program,” says Robert Sege, a pediatrician at the New England Medical Center and a Hands Without Guns board member. “I think Michael knows everything that teenagers do in the entire city. I’m not sure how he does it, but he’s really plugged in.

“Hands Without Guns’ very success is in bringing together kids from different neighborhoods and just showing them what the other kids are doing,” Sege continues. “What Hands Without Guns adds that’s wonderful, actually, is it’s very positive effort. All the images are of kids doing very positive things.”

Indeed, in its first nine months, Hands Without Guns claims to have involved over 1,000 youth in anti-violence activities that have spanned such tough and diverse neighborhoods as Roxbury, Chelsea and Charlestown, where teens don’t often interact peacefully, if at all.

One of those efforts is aimed at eigh-to-10 year old children from Franklin Hill and Franklin Fields, neighboring South Boston housing projects where rivalry has led to deadly gang warfare. This program uses recreational activities to forge friendships and convey anti-violence messages. Run by students from the Hands Without Guns chapter at nearby Dorchester High School, it operates out of the Boys and Girls Club on Blue Hill Avenue, the dividing line between the two housing developments.

Teaching Media Skills

Hands Without Guns also is organizing an after-school music program in Chelsea to teach area kids to play the piano, the violin or the saxophone, and to organize and run anti-violence work shops, and work with the media on issues of youth and violence. Media access is an important part of Hands Without Guns leadership training.

“That's always the number one issue in communities," reports MacDonald, a dropout from Boston Latin High School who later completed his GED. "People just moan and groan and blame everything on the media without learning how to work with the media.

"The media, in general, is pretty easy to work with," he adds, "You can always take the blood and gore, which there is plenty of, and [work to] showcase the positive stuff that's going on."

Immigrant-rich Chelsea, currently under court-ordered receivership, is among the poorest cities in the nation. The idea for the music school came out of a neighborhood survey that found that parents and teens wanted more after-school activities. The music school is being set up with the help of two Vista volunteers and a $25,000 federal grant from Weed and Seed, a Justice Department program that assists youth anti-drug and anti-violence efforts nationally.

Hands Without Guns, along with its umbrella organization, Citizens for Safety, also launched the "Steamroller Project" in November 1995 to train young people in visual arts. Fifteen youth from Boston and Chelsea are being paid five dollars an hour to learn printmaking. Their final project will involve large, anti-violence posters that will be printed by running a steamroller over inked plywood blocks. This printing will take place in a public exhibition in May during Boston's annual "Increase the Peace" week of anti-violence activities.

Despite his past differences with the police, MacDonald and Hands Without Guns also worked closely with Boston Police Commissioner Paul Evans on an October 1995 gun buyback to get guns off the street. The buyback used money from private donors, among them The Boston Globe Corporation, The Boston Foundation and First Data Corporation, to purchase 406 weapons, mostly handguns.

Hands Without Guns is the brainchild of Josh Horwitz, executive director of The Educational Fund to End Handgun Violence, and Jim Wine of2PM Multimedia, who produces their public service spots, and came up with the name, Hands Without Guns. Horwitz said he and Wine were filming young people around the country in 1992 with the hope of making a documentary about handgun violence for the Fund, a spin-off of Mike Beard's Coalition to Ban Handguns. The Coalition, founded in 1975, is considered more militant on gun-control issues than the better-financed Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, best known for its successful lobbying for the Brady Bill requiring criminal background checks for potential handgun buyers. But something totally unexpected emerged from the interviews.

"The message was becoming much more uplifting, much more youth-oriented," Horwitz recalls. "That's when I started realizing — Wow! Young people have something really great to say! We should make the young people the heroes instead of the message.

"I'm not sure exactly what we envisioned at the beginning, but it evolved into working with young people, not about how bad gun violence is, but about how we can stop gun violence," Horwitz says. "We realized that if we just emphasized the positive, we'd have a whole campaign not based on fear but based on inclusiveness."

Excited about the prospects of a positive campaign that would spring from the ideas and experiences of youth, and would carry their message against a deadly problem, Horwitz traveled to Detroit to push his proposal. But he was turned down cold by Henry Ford Hospital, so he headed to Boston.

There, the reception was much warmer, especially from Citizens for Safety, a grass-roots coalition formed in 1990 in response to Boston's soaring murder rate. But it still took Horwitz another two-and-a-half years to develop the Boston program. He initially had hoped to raise a half million dollars for the Boston effort, but ended up with only about $90,000. Most of that money came from a $75,000 grant from the risk taking D.C.-based Public Welfare Foundation. The Educational Fund's annual report filed with the IRS for 1994 showed total revenues of only $214,582 and expenditures of $199,061 for that year for its entire activities.

But Hands Without Guns managed to make up some of that shortfall last year, Horwitz notes, by convincing Boston radio and TV stations to donate more than $100,000 in free air time for public service announcements.

Spurred by the initial successes in Boston, Horwitz launched a second Hands Without Guns program in the nation's capital in November, with strong backing from Washington, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry. Horwitz hopes to raise $250,000 for the program this year from D.C. businesses, foundations and George Washington University Medical Center. Barry, himself shot by Hanafi Muslim zealots in a 1977 takeover of D.C.'s city hall, has persuaded local TV and radio stations to donate airtime.

Horwitz plans to expand the program to Milwaukee, Chicago and Los Angeles in the near future.

“The point is, we really work with young people," he says, emphasizing the difference between Hands Without Guns and similar programs. "I get out from behind my desk and really try to work with young people, try to understand where they're coming from."

But Horwitz, like all national operatives who attempt to replicate programs, will be hard-pressed to repeat the immediate success of the Boston program, unless he can recruit youth workers of Michael MacDonald's caliber to run his programs elsewhere. MacDonald's ability to connect with youth the program seeks to reach comes from his experiences growing up in a housing project in South Boston, which has the country's highest concentration of urban white poverty.

In Boston, the scenes on the nightly news are no different from those of any major urban area, except here, the gun victims usually are poor and Irish Catholic — "white project rats," as they are referred to by the police. The numbers are also not as dramatic as elsewhere.

In 1990, Boston's murders peaked at 150, about one-third the murder rate that year in Washington, D.C., a city of comparable size. By 1994, Boston had slashed its murder rate nearly in half, to 84; a success story rarely seen elsewhere. But it climbed again last year, while murders nationally continued to decline.

“They are in denial that they are poor," MacDonald says of his South Boston neighbors. (He moved back to the old neighborhood in 1993.)” They collect welfare, and at the same time talk about those bums on welfare.

“This disconnection is partly their being afraid of outsiders," he says, "but it is also the lack of acceptance on the part of liberal agencies that there are poor white people that need to be included."

While growing up fatherless, in a family of 11 kids, MacDonald witnessed the death and violence prevalent in South Boston projects. One brother, Frank, wounded in an armored car robbery, was strangled by his accomplices during flight to prevent him from being captured alive by police. Another brother, Kevin, was murdered on the street; a sister was paralyzed after being thrown off a roof; and yet another brother committed suicide by jumping off a building in the projects.

But the experience that led MacDonald to his current devotion occurred in 1990. That year, his younger brother, then 13, was jailed and accused of murdering his best friend. The friend accidentally shot himself in the MacDonald's apartment while playing with a gun that belonged to MacDonald's older brother, a Navy seal. The family has withheld his name as he is now a college student in Colorado.

It took MacDonald and his mother nearly two years to prove police detectives had falsely presented evidence to obtain his brother's conviction. Two of those detectives, Peter O'Malley and homicide chief Edward McNelly, also were involved in the arrest of a black man in the notorious 1989 Charles Stuart case, in which Stuart murdered his pregnant wife and then blamed black muggers.

Last year, McNelly sat in the front row when MacDonald spoke to a group in Charlestown, another Irish Catholic enclave that has the highest rate of unsolved murders in the region. MacDonald spoke to mothers who had begun speaking out, in hopes of convincing residents to break "the code of silence" surrounding murders in Charlestown. Afterwards, McNelly approached him, but MacDonald immediately moved away. "I can't even be near him," he relates.

His mother gave up on Boston after that painful experience and now lives in Golden. Col, Although it took him time to get over his hatred of the police, MacDonald stayed and. while a staff member of Citizens for Safety, helped to organize the city's first gun buyback in 1993.

His perseverance on the gun violence issue is beginning to attract attention. In January, MacDonald, who earns less than $25.000 per year as a youth worker, was selected to receive a $20,000 Neighborhood Fellows Award, Boston's version of the anonymous MacArthur grant that is administered by the Philanthropic Initiative for an anonymous donor.


Hands Without Guns

Contact: Michael MacDonald, Director

294 Washington St., Ste. 749

Boston, MA 02108-4608

(617) 542-HAND

The Educational Fund to End Handgun Violence

Contact: Joshua Horwitz, Executive Director

100 Maryland Ave., NE, Ste 402

Washington, DC 20002

(202) 544-7214

Citizens for Safety

Contact: Harlan Jones, Executive Director

294 Washlngton St., Ste. 749

Boston, MA 02108-4608

(617) 542-7712

Floating Hospital for Children

New England Medical Center

Contact: Dr. Robert Sege, Pediatrician

NEMC Box351

750 Washington St.

Boston, MA 02111

(617) 636-5241

Harvard School of Public Health

Contact: David Hemenway, Deputy Director of Harvard Injury Control Center

Harvard School of Public Health

677 Huntington Ave.

Boston, MA 02115

(617) 432-4493

2PM Multimedia

Contact: Jim Wine

P.O. Box 2

Linden, VA 22642

(540) 636-4142

Cummins, Ken. "Hands Without Guns Aims to Boston Youth."Youth Today, March/April 1996, p. 32-34.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.