On the eve of Black History Month this year, a community group based in Detroit went viral after sharing clips on social media of its members, many dressed in all-black and armed with long rifles, assisting women around the city by pumping gas into their vehicles and loading groceries into their cars.
The group’s open display of guns — broadly legal in Michigan — was greeted by many people not for being threatening but for protecting Black women in dangerous neighborhoods at night.
The group, New Era Detroit, has been carrying out this kind of public safety work in the city’s most crime-ridden streets for almost a decade.
“We do this out of love,” Nilajah Alonzo, one of the leaders of New Era Detroit, told Yahoo News.
The group’s Instagram page includes videos of members escorting child care workers home late at night from a daycare only a block from where a murder had recently taken place. Another social media post shows members hosting a workshop with children on conflict resolution.
“We're not trying to be crime heroes or anything like that,” Alonzo said. “We're just trying to educate and uplift our community.”
Launched in August 2014, New Era Detroit was founded by Zeek Williams as a call to action for Black men in the city to step up and be more present to combat rampant crime and violence in poverty-stricken areas around the city. The appeal went out as muggings of women in and around grocery stores and gas stations were becoming more prevalent.
The group calls itself a “mudroots” organization because of its approach.
“We say ‘mudroot,’ because we get under the grass, we get into the mud, we get into the community, we get into the streets, we get into the 'hoods, to connect with people and engage with them,” Alonzo said. “So they know that there are people out there that care.”
In the last decade, Detroit has consistently ranked as one of the most dangerous big cities in the U.S. In 2022, while preliminary police data showed an 11% reduction in violent crime over the previous year, carjackings increased by 21%, and other property crimes, including burglaries, saw a significant spike. In addressing these issues, the goal of New Era Detroit, according to Williams, has been predicated on the idea that with structure, Black people can protect and serve their own neighborhoods and streets.
“We want to be in a position to where, if things pop off or something happens in our community, it doesn’t always have to involve police,” Williams told MSNBC earlier this month, adding that the organization's members carry guns not to incite violence, but to protect innocent people. “We believe that able-bodied men can step up to the plate and do more to police their community.”
The group has managed to maintain a working relationship with the city’s police force.
“We have a good relationship with New Era Detroit,” Detroit Police Department spokesperson Sgt. Jordan Hall told Yahoo News. “We even have an understanding where they give us a call [ahead of events], so nothing should be alarming for officers when they see anyone with a rifle.”
Detroit’s challenges are complex and rooted in its Rust Belt history. Once the global center of the automotive industry, Detroit was the fourth-largest city in the U.S. in the 1920s. Its population ballooned to nearly 2 million residents at its peak in 1950. But automation curbed the blue-collar employment boom. Racial tensions grew, and deadly riots rocked the city in 1967, as tens of thousands of white residents left for the suburbs. Detroit struggled financially, and in 2013, it became the largest U.S. city to file for bankruptcy. Today, it has the highest rate of concentrated poverty of the 25 largest metropolitan areas in the United States.
In the past seven decades, the steady decline in the city’s population, of which Black people make up 77%, has left the city with just a third of its peak total.
In a show of progress, the city has been working to turn itself around, with the emergence of new restaurants and bars, a growing art scene and a revitalized downtown area. But a study from Michigan State University revealed that much of the progress has been limited to a 7-square-mile radius, in a city of 139 square miles.
That leaves a wide swath of the city where residents feel they’ve been left behind.
“We are looking at a system that really isn’t broke. It just hasn’t had us in mind — or protecting us in mind,” Williams told NBC. “Why don’t we do more to police our own communities?”
Many people liken Williams’s New Era Detroit to the original Black Panther Party, which grew out of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Founded by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, Calif., in 1966, its intent was for Black residents to act as vigilantes in their own communities. As they evolved, the Panthers began to arm themselves, in a show of force, often dressed in a uniform of blue shirts, black pants, black leather jackets and black berets. However, unlike the Detroit organization, which seeks primarily to address issues like crime in its own community, the Black Panthers sought to protect Black residents from instances of police brutality.
“The Panthers were really focused on potential police violence toward people in the community,” the journalist Mark Whitaker, author of “Saying It Loud: 1966 — The Year Black Power Challenged the Civil Rights Movement,” told Yahoo News. “New Era are just as concerned about the danger that ordinary, law-abiding citizens in the inner city face from other Black folks who might do them harm. … So for young people to help protect other people in the community, I think it's wonderful to see.”
Other cities with similar challenges have taken notice. The original Detroit group, under the umbrella New Era Nation, has formed more than a dozen chapters, in cities including Dallas, Atlanta, Cleveland and Baltimore. The movement of self-sufficiency, according to Alonzo, has also attracted interest abroad, in Jamaica, the U.K. and Nigeria.
“We are all leaders, and the opportunity is given to everyone to lead,” she said. “We have chapters in every city, so it’s not going to die with one person. We set up a structure that someone is in charge, no matter what. We appreciate that we are compared to other groups, but if we perpetuate that we are all leaders, it cannot die.”
Whitaker cautions against scaling up too fast, too soon.
“The lesson of the Black Power period is to stay local,” he said. “That’s where you can do the most good, and that’s where people most need you, and people aren’t being adequately served by police or local government.”
Cover thumbnail photo: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images