On a recent night, Fred Phillips stood on a historically violent street corner in his childhood neighborhood in Hartford and greeted dozens of people as they passed by him.
He talked with a woman carrying an enormous bottle of gin and found out her best friend had been killed. He comforted her. He met a man who had been shot several months ago and was out to find the one who did it.
“Listen, you can’t live for revenge,” Phillips, 66, counseled him. The man broke into tears.
Phillips and members of his group, Men Standing Up Against Violence, go out into what he called the North End’s “hotspots of crime” about 40 times a year, especially on holidays and during city events when they tend to see more activity and violence on the streets.
They aim to have conversations with youths, mediate conflicts and deter crime. The 40 active members, most of them retired and volunteering full-time with the group, know these spots and these people well. They grew up here.
“It’s our duty as people who grew up in the community to protect and serve,” said Phillips, retired from a long career in teaching, youth services and government work.
It’s our duty as people who grew up in the community to protect and serve.”
At a time when the role of police is being reevaluated, especially in Black communities, the group’s work — which extends beyond crime mitigation to holistically care for the needs of their own community — shows the effectiveness of hyperlocal, grassroots groups not just for community self-policing, but also for improving community wellbeing more broadly.
It’s a blueprint that’s spreading throughout the state – Phillips said that in addition to Hartford, there are growing chapters in New Britain, New London, Waterbury and Bridgeport. And there’s a chapter in the works in Phoenix, Arizona.
Bosco James Miller recently started the New London chapter by gathering old friends and church members in the area.
“We want to be a bright light in the community,” he said, explaining that he’s in the thick of organizing their first action — hosting a voter registration drive for his community that will also pass out food and COVID-19 supplies.
It’s in keeping with Phillips’s vision. He founded the group five years ago to “fill in the gaps” for the community’s needs. Last Tuesday, the Hartford branch hosted a COVID-19 supplies giveaway at Phillips Metropolitan C.M.E. Church on Main Street, which Phillips and several other members of the group attend. They handed out more than 200 meals and 2,000 face masks to members of the community. Half the supplies had been donated by local pharmacies and catering companies, Phillips said. The other half was paid for out-of-pocket by members of the group.
Phillips said that other COVID-19 supply giveaways have been hosted in locations that are hard for community members to reach.
“We tried to fill that void by bringing the stuff directly to the people, so it’d be within hands’ reach,” he said.
They volunteer to assist individuals familiar with their work in the neighborhood too. If an elderly person needs someone to help mow their lawn, they’ll call someone from Men Standing Up. Last week, Phillips cut up and removed a tree that had become buried in a man’s backyard.
When people offer them money, they refuse it.
“We just say, ‘It’s a pleasure for us to be of service to you,’” Phillips said.
They also focus on youth mentorship, beginning with looking out for children’s safety. Members of Men Standing Up have stationed themselves along streets with drug activity to make sure children got to and from school safely.
Steve Harris, a former city councilman, retired firefighter and key North End figure and advocate, said that he watched Phillips and the other men in the group grow up. Now, they’re widely known and trusted in the community.
“In my community, you gotta have cred — street cred,” he said. “A lot of their success comes from the fact [that] these are homies. These guys grew up in this neighborhood.”
Men Standing Up members say that they deter violence just by being a visible presence on their neighborhood’s streets, an action that is often more effective than policing but can put them into potentially dangerous situations.
“At any point, our lives are in jeopardy,” Phillips said. “The police have guns, and we have each other.”
Both Phillips and Harris attributed the group’s success to its reputation in the neighborhood, and the trust members have cultivated with community members. It’s something that Hartford Police Chief Jason Thody said is an essential complement to policing in the city’s higher-crime areas.
“They’re doing work that, frankly, I don’t think we can do,” he said. “These guys are old school, they’ve been around a long time, they’ve got credibility with people.”
Occasionally, Thody said, he reaches out to the group to help address a “particular pocket of violence” by “walk(ing) through those streets and have(ing) conversations with people.” The police department also asks them to be out on North End streets during events with a “potential for violence,” such as Hartford’s Riverfest, to intervene in conflicts and deter violence.
The group’s relationship with the police didn’t start out this friendly. Two years ago, Phillips and three other members were standing on the corner of Barbour Street, monitoring the kids in the area to make sure they were safe, when several police officers confronted them and said they had to move.
“We explained to them who we are and what we were doing,” Phillips said. “And when we did that, he said, ‘Well, we got a complaint that you guys are loitering, and you can’t stand here in front of this store.’”
They complied, he said, but “no sooner than we crossed the street, the dealers were back on that corner.” Fuming, Phillips called then-police chief David Rosado, he said, and they met the next morning. He recalled telling the chief, “It’s so strange that we get put off the corner by your officer only to get replaced by people who were up to no good.”
They’re doing work that, frankly, I don’t think we can do. These guys are old school, they’ve been around a long time, they’ve got credibility with people.”
After that, he said, they established a relationship with the department, and the officer who confronted them two years ago even came to assist with the mask giveaway last Tuesday. Phillips said that the group has had an “ongoing positive relationship” with the police department. “We have similar objectives,” he said. “We just go about doing our thing differently.”
Growing up, Phillips said, police brutality was commonplace.
“When we saw the police, we just took off running, whether we did anything or not,” he said. The first of several times he remembers being mistreated by law enforcement, he was 16. “I was picked up for something I didn’t do, and beat up by the police. It was traumatic.” As a result, he said, there was a deep fear and distrust of the police within his community that persists to this day.
“I’ve lived on this street for 70 years, and I don’t know if I’ve ever seen my community service officer,” he said. “When I see police, they’re usually riding past. And even if they look as they ride past, they kinda look at you like, ‘OK, is this one of the people I’m supposed to be looking for today?’”
Still, Phillips said, Men Standing Up has been hesitant to join in the current protests for racial justice and police abolition. He said that his group’s work fundamentally relies on the community’s trust, which could be jeopardized if the group associated with a protest that turned violent. Instead, they “try not to get caught up in the political stuff” and instead focus on their own community work, which he sees as “proactive, not reactive.”
“We all have our different ways of protesting, just like we all have our different ways of grieving,” he said.
Thody said that community groups like Men Standing Up, and larger groups like COMPASS Peacebuilders and Mothers United Against Violence, are essential partners for the police in the work of reducing crime. “We should expand the use of civilian and citizen-based groups to help us,” he said.
Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin recently announced the creation of a civilian crisis response team that would respond to certain 911 calls instead of police, or alongside them.
Harris said he finds Bronin’s initiative “insulting,” given the underfunding of groups like COMPASS, Mothers United Against Violence, and Hartford Communities That Care, and the fact that more informal groups like Men Standing Up receive no government funding at all.
“Why don’t we just take those funds and distribute them to these organizations that are already doing the work?” he said.
A harmful system
Reaching a point where civilian groups can take over more completely requires time and deep systemic changes, said Thody, not just an isolated, immediate defunding of the police.
“I hope that, for whoever is still here a hundred years from now, that we’re in a place where we need less police, where order and management can be done on a civilian and neighborhood basis,” he said. “But I don’t think we can flip the switch and do that in a year, or even five years… there are bigger issues in socioeconomics and access that have to be addressed, too, before you get a neighborhood that can self-sustain in that way.”
Phillips said that over the decades, things haven’t gotten better in North Hartford. He sees street violence even more frequently than in childhood, he said. Amid an overall downward trend in Hartford crime in recent years, the Northeast District saw a 58% increase in gun violence from 2018 to 2019, according to the Hartford Courant. Harris pointed out, too, that COVID-19 has ravaged the community, as it has other communities of color — due in large part to underlying health conditions like diabetes and hypertension, resulting from food deserts and lack of health care.
Harris said that 15 years ago, he and other community advocates were negotiating with several major grocery chains to get one to open a grocery store stocked with fresh produce in the North End. Ultimately, not a single one agreed.
There’s a whole built-in system that’s not designed to really lift us up and help us out.”
“They didn’t feel that a store in our neighborhood could financially sustain itself,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s all about the dollars and cents.”
In his community, and in other communities of color, he said, health disparities, poverty and unemployment, drug addiction and crime, lack of access to basic resources, simply “haven’t changed.”
“There’s a whole built-in system that’s not designed to really lift us up and help us out,” he said.
One of Men Standing Up’s primary goals is give a sense of hope and direction to the community’s youth to help create lasting change, Phillips said.
They do this by modeling educational attainment — all members of Men Standing Up completed high school, and some graduated from college as well, and successfully pursued a variety of careers from professional basketball to law to religious leadership.
And they do it by modeling behavior, particularly for young men.
“We must show the young men in the community, who are doing all kinds of stuff, this is how men run things, this is how men conduct themselves,” Phillips said.
Men Standing Up members also directly engage youth in a variety of ways. They regularly visit high schools to share their life stories and speak against bullying and violence.
Lisa Clayton, a music teacher at Hartford Public High School, said that she knew Phillips through church, and she invited his group to speak as part of the school’s Black History Month programming this year. On February 27, they spoke to the ninth-grade class about the trauma and challenges they experienced growing up, and their journeys since. Clayton remembers “looking at [the students’] faces and seeing them being inspired.” They then moved into individual classrooms to have more intimate conversations.
Students need to see that there’s a way to be authentically themselves and authentically successful.”
“The kids were captivated,” she said. “They did such a great job inspiring the young people to take pride in who they are, to take pride in their community.”
Clayton said that students hear from various speakers every year — in the past, these have ranged from U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes to city councilmen and local pastors. But it’s especially helpful for them to hear from people who grew up in their own community. After Men Standing Up’s visit, she said, students told her how encouraging it was to “hear from people who are from Hartford, who have been able to do amazing things in their lives, being from the same streets, being from the same neighborhoods.”
“Students need to see that there’s a way to be authentically themselves and authentically successful,” she said.
Before schools closed due to the pandemic, she said, her colleagues were working with Men Standing Up to connect them with students who were on what Phillips called a “downward spiral,” with low grades and attendance. Once schools reopen, Phillips said, the group plans on mentoring these students one-on-one, taking them to dinner and baseball games and offering consistent guidance and encouragement.
“You need people in your corner telling you, ‘You can,’ rather than telling you why they believe you can’t,” Phillips said. He believes this so strongly because credits his own success to his neighborhood mentors — neighbors, church leaders, family friends — with helping him get through high school and into college.
Phillips graduated from Allen University, a historically Black university in South Carolina, in 1976 with a degree in education. He married his college sweetheart, and for 36 years, he followed his “love for kids.” He taught at Wintonbury Early Childhood Magnet School and Laurel Elementary School, both in Bloomfield, worked in Bridgeport’s department of mental health, ran a program for high school dropouts at the (now-defunct) SAND corporation’s North End housing project in Hartford, worked as a youth services officer in the Connecticut Juvenile Training School (which closed in 2018), and returned to teaching before retiring in 2012.
Founding and working with Men Standing Up, he said, is his way of continuing his passion and “giving back to my community.”
“We can’t keep the neighborhood from deteriorating,” Phillips said. “But we can lift the hopes of people in the neighborhood up until things improve.”