University of Delaware Professor Yasser Payne’s Efforts to Decrease Wilmington’s Crime Rate
Growing up running the streets of Harlem, Payne’s seen more than his share of violence—and he believes he has a way to end it. Will it change a troubled Wilmington?
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There are snakes in the yard.
After the heavy rains of spring, they started to appear in greater numbers, the little garter snakes that the neighbors have tried to expel from their own yards. They end up in the grass and on the patio of Yasser Payne’s home, because he cannot let them be killed.
“The pest control guys ask if I want them to get rid of them,” Payne says. “I’m like, no, man, no way. Animals are the most spiritual things on earth.”
Forever associated with the serpent in the garden, he who tempted Eve to taste the fruit of the tree of knowledge, the snake gets a bad rap among many Westerners, who have lost sight of its other great significance. Often depicted as a circle, a reptile eating its own tail, it is a symbol of regeneration, of constant renewal.
So the snakes remain in this place, the first house Payne, 38 years old, has ever bought. It sits on the wooded slope of Chestnut Hill in Newark, among other landscaped, well-spaced homes in a still-young subdivision. It is his garden—if not a perfect suburban paradise, a refuge just the same, his place of peace, where the nights are dark and the stars shine bright and he can leave behind the post-traumatic stress of a youth spent running the streets of Harlem.
Yet in the deepest part of night, alone in his bed, he lays awake, or wakes in a sweat, or wakes amid some somniloquy, or finds himself grinding his teeth. Because for all this relative comfort—and it is relative—his people are suffering. In neighborhoods like Harlem, and in Wilmington’s Southbridge and East Side, poor black people are struggling to survive, and because they are struggling, sad things happen. Especially among the boys and young men, who beat and stab and shoot each other, and do so frequently enough to drive Wilmington’s rate of violent crime to No. 1 in the nation
That’s No. 1 with a bullet, and Payne cannot allow that to happen.
“I got a Ph.D. for one reason: the liberation of my people,” says Payne. And his people—especially young men who make a living on the street—are not whom you think.