(The Root) — It's 12:15 a.m. in New York City, and nearly 60 people are gathered on the corner of 125th Street and Amsterdam Avenue in Harlem. Rev. Al Sharpton stands in the middle of the group, which includes his National Action Network members and volunteers. Members of the media wield bright camera lights that cut through the darkness.
As he addresses the small crowd of people who've been monitoring eight different corners across the city from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. for the last four weeks as part of his Occupy the Corners movement, it's clear that the MSNBC Politics Nation host is tired. But, despite preaching two sermons in Detroit and rallying that community for a second activation of Occupy the Corners before flying to the Big Apple for this encouragement speech, Sharpton delivers.
"We've got to take that veneer of 'I want to be a thug, that gets me respect' to where it doesn't get you respect," he says, pausing to speak to The Root.
By involving community members in Occupy the Corners, or OTC, Sharpton aims to decrease the violence with the theory that criminals will not think it is OK to attack their neighbors. With New York as ground zero, he hopes to push the movement nationally, in light of violence in cities like Philadelphia and Chicago, the latter which saw 19 people shot in 30 minutes in August. But will this movement be enough to identify and defeat the true catalyst behind the rising gun violence in America?
Attributing the increased violence primarily to gun availability, Sharpton adds that self-hate is also at the root of the phenomenon. Black-on-black crime, in particular, continues in inner-city communities because it's easier to hurt someone who looks like you. He also says to truly curb gun violence, a showdown with the National Rifle Association is inevitable.
"The solution is we've got to get the guns out of the community, and we've got to change the attitude of the kids," he says. "When you talk to 13-year-old children and they know where to get a gun, we have a crisis."
OTC may not have the deep pockets of the NRA — Sharpton announced in Harlem that one of NAN's next steps is to secure funding for the cause — but the activist asserts that the OTC movement can apply pressure on politicians seeking re-election to ignore gun lobbyists.
Not that this is only an inner-city problem. Following the recent headline-grabbing Dark Knight shooting in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater and the Oak Creek, Wis., massacre in a Sikh temple, many assumed gun control would become a hot campaign topic, but both President Barack Obama and his Republican rival Mitt Romney have mostly stayed quiet.
"Obama's trying not to wake up the gun lobby against him, which is politically wise," admits Sharpton. "But he's got to speak about it. I would hope after the election, he'll even be more aggressive."
Still, the candidates' silence hasn't stopped the human toll.
In July, 4-year-old Lloyd Morgan Jr. was fatally shot by a stray bullet while watching a basketball tournament in the South Bronx. The child's death shook his family's community and made Sharpton take notice.
"When I looked at that little casket of that little boy I said, 'We've got to put a priority on this,' " he recalls.
Shortly after Morgan's death, Sharpton requested a meeting with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to discuss a solution to the violence, without success. An August New York Times story revealed that 80 percent of blacks felt that New York police favored whites, which coincided with stop-and-frisk statistics that blacks and Latinos are 85 percent of those targeted. In response, Sharpton and NAN began the Occupy the Corner movement on August 17.
As murder rates rise in cities like Chicago and Philadelphia, New York City has seen a decline. Bloomberg and city Police Commissioner Ray Kelly have pointed to stop and frisk as their weapon against violent crimes. Eleven years ago almost 2,000 people were killed in one year in New York City. Since then, the murder rate has decreased by 32 percent. On the other hand, shooting victims and incidents have risen within the last year by 2.8 percent and 3.3 percent, respectively.
Meanwhile, in Chicago, where more than 250 people were killed in the first six months of this year, homicides have risen 38 percent. In Philadelphia, according to the police department's 2011 five-year report, a gun was used in 88 percent of homicides between 2007 and 2011, and the city has had a 23 percent rise in homicides in 2012 thus far.
The trend is especially troubling because it runs counter to what's happening in the country as a whole. Nationally, the murder rate (xls) fell by 4 percent between 2009 and 2010, and there was a slight dip in murders involving a firearm (xls).
Meanwhile, back on the corner by Harlem's Grant Houses, Sharpton announces three new phases of the OTC movement: Recruit artists like Sean "Diddy" Combs and others as cool currency to film ads against street violence; "occupy" schools by working with principals to patrol hallways and facilitate conflict resolutions among students; and raise money for the fight.
If gaining media attention is the goal, Occupy the Corners has been a moderate success. If tugging Bloomberg's ear is the aim, Sharpton points to a recent phone conversation with the mayor during which contributing funds to the OTC was discussed. Either way, the movement's nascent phase was a victory.
But as the cameras power down and Sharpton shakes hands with supporters, it remains to be seen whether these concerned locals will inspire a national movement capable of slaying the behemoth of gun violence in America.
The National Rifle Association, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Diddy were all approached for comment but had not responded as of press time.
Hillary Crosley is The Root's New York City bureau chief. Follow her on Twitter @HillaryCrosley.