When I was born 50 years ago, a young Bennie Swans had already joined the pitched battle for the souls of Philadelphia’s Black folks. His was not a religious struggle. It was a street fight, and it was waged in the bowels of impoverished neighborhoods. It echoed in the classrooms of segregated schools. It reverberated in the minds of gang members determined to fight those who looked like themselves.
Swans was a warrior who’d learned hard lessons on each of those battlefields. As a Black boy in Philadelphia, he’d become wary of racially biased policing. As a member of the Cedar Avenue Gang, he’d clashed with boys who were loyal to different corners. But as a student at Bok Technical High School in the era of Black Power, Swans developed a thirst that violence could not quench. He longed to know who he was, where he’d come from, and how he fit into the struggle for Black equality in America.
With that longing and those lessons, a young man as gritty as the streets whence he came birthed the Crisis Intervention Network. This organization became a model for defeating the street violence in which Swans had once engaged. Through his organization, Swans not only had a bird’s-eye view of Philadelphia’s Black history — he placed his hands upon the clay of Black communities and helped mold them.
Perhaps that is why I admire him. We both engaged in the pleasures of the streets. For me, it was the fleeting euphoria of crack cocaine in the ’90s. For Swans, it was the power that came with the chaotic gang violence of the ’60s. Like Swans, I escaped from the sins of my youth. But Swans reached back into the cauldron of violence in ways I never have, despite the fact that the cauldron sometimes burns.
In 1967, as a high-school student, Swans met with other Black teens in the Black House at 19th and Columbia, not far from Ida’s, the iconic soul food restaurant. There they plotted to demand Black history lessons in public schools that were mostly Black. By the time Philly students famously marched against the white-dominated Philadelphia board of education that year, thousands of Black students had been mobilized, and Swans was among their leaders.
Now, some 50 years later, Swans is a round, bespectacled man with a neatly cut shock of gray hair. But when he speaks of the march, it’s with the wonder of a teen, as if he still can’t believe he was among the student negotiators who went inside to discuss the students’ demands with school superintendent Mark Shedd. The wonder turns to resignation as he recounts then-police commissioner Frank Rizzo ordering officers to confront the demonstrators outside. The police beat them with nightsticks.
That was always the fear, Swans tells me, his tone matter-of-fact on the phone from South Carolina, where he’s lived since the late 1990s. Swans and most others knew that in the 1960s, Rizzo’s police would meet any Black challenge with brutal reprisals. But for Swans, fear was overshadowed by his desire to show that Blacks were equal to anyone else.
Swans went to Vietnam driven to prove the mettle of Black men. Vietnam was a dangerous place for young men like Swans. The war claimed 64 of them from North Philadelphia’s Edison High School — more than any other school in the country. Swans could not have known that then, but the Bok graduate knew that he wanted to fight. He did so in spectacular fashion, earning three Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart.
When he came home with war injuries that prevented him from fully using his arm, a white police officer called him a nigger because he’d parked illegally.
Though I know Swans has told that story before, I can hear the pain as he recounts it to me. The pain is that of every Black soldier who has fought in America’s wars only to return to the dark familiarity of racism.
Swans doesn’t say so, but I believe that pain is what drove him back to the battlefields he knew best. As gang violence ravaged Philadelphia’s streets, Swans dove in and built a coalition of the tired. As I listen, he speaks their names insistently, forcing me to abandon my singular focus on Swans’s story. It is then that I realize these people are his story.
There was Ma Roberts, who was 90 when she joined women like Fara Gibson and Ann Canty in a weekly march from 52nd Street to the Municipal Services Building to send the message that the community would not let our boys die in gang violence. There was also Charles Durham, the hoodlum judge who spoke often of his street credentials.
There are many other names, and Swans seems to relish speaking each before explaining the simple model he created to fight gang violence. Through a program called Safe Streets, Inc., Swans, with the support of Arlen Specter and probation officer Tom Reid, organized the gangs in North and West Philadelphia to work for peace. From that model came the city-funded Crisis Intervention Network, which used probation officers to convince older gang members to make their younger protégés stop the violence. Through the probation system, the program could require gang members to obey the rules or face jail.
Crisis teams often comprised of former gang members were dispatched to quell disputes. Parents were involved, and a yearly banquet was held to thank community members who helped make it work.
The Crisis Intervention Network was so successful that its mandate was expanded. It responded to racial conflict in Philadelphia’s Elmwood community when whites objected to Blacks moving in. Swans tried to negotiate with MOVE before the bloody 1985 confrontation in which police dropped a bomb, killing 11.
Swans’s model was replicated in cities like Chicago, but it died here in 1990. I can’t help but believe it withered, like so many other effective programs, because politicians crippled it with bureaucracy. Swans doesn’t quite say that, but his tone is melancholy as he offers his own explanation.
“We succumbed to many of the issues that impact organizations,” he tells me. “There was some pettiness, some jealousy. … I spent too much time in the street and not enough time behind the desk.
“But we did what we came to do,” he says, sadness giving way to pride. “And that was to break the cycle of community violence.”
Solomon Jones is host of Your Voice on Praise 107.9 FM, the author of 10 books, and an award-winning Daily News columnist.
Published as “Heroes” in the February 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.