Parents on the March

FOUR weeks to the day after her 19-year-old son was murdered in a ``drive-by'' shooting on a Boston street corner, Tina Twitty took to the streets with other parents of slain children for a ``mothers' march'' to protest violence in the inner city. On a hot sunny Saturday, carrying a photo of her son and a poster reading ``Derek Twitty. Born 1970. Killed 4/22/89,'' Ms. Twitty marched with the group through neighborhoods where gang- and drug-related violence claimed more than a dozen young lives in 1988 alone.

Then, weeping quietly, she listened as other grieving mothers and community leaders addressed several hundred people at a post-march rally in Boston's Roxbury district. Amid chants of ``We're fired up, we won't take no more,'' speakers called for more police protection and greater community responsibility for crime.

``AK-47s are not manufactured in this community,'' one mother said. ``Cocaine is not manufactured in this community. We must get them out of the community.''

Echoing that sentiment, Bruce Bolling, a neighborhood City Council member, told the group, ``This has to be the beginning of our commitment to take back our streets. It must be the beginning of our effort to see that our children have a chance to grow up. We have to be out here supporting our children in ways we never have before. We must be out here to lend our children the strength they need.''

This gathering, marked by sadness, anger, and determination, reflects a heartening grass-roots activism among parents across the country. In small but significant ways mothers and fathers are speaking out, hoping to protect their children, not only from drugs and guns, but from other negative influences.

One citizen activist, Lynn Tylczak, the mother of two small children in Albany, Ore., has launched a letter-writing campaign to focus national attention on poison prevention. She wants American companies to follow the example of British manufacturers in lacing poisonous household products with Bitrex, an extremely bitter flavoring agent.

Two thousand miles away in suburban Detroit, Terry Rakolta, a mother of three, is challenging Fox Broadcasting to reexamine programming. Disturbed by ``anti-family attitudes'' in ``Married ... with Children,'' Mrs. Rakolta began a one-woman assault on the program by writing letters of complaint to advertisers.

Newfound parent power is also exerting an influence in education. Following the lead of Minnesota, more than 20 states now permit parents to choose the schools their children attend.

And in the Queens borough of New York City, large numbers of parents turned out this spring as candidates in school board races. Worried about losing control of schools to politicians, residents formed a volunteer group, City Wide Parents Civic Action Committee, to encourage parental participation in the campaigns. As one co-organizer of the group explained to a reporter, ``Parents are just, in general, concerned.''

Concerned parents have always served as self-appointed lobbyists on behalf of their children. But this latest round of parental activism appears to carry a new urgency. After years of abdicating authority - first to their own rebellious youth in the '60s and then to schools and assorted ``experts'' in the '70s and '80s - parents are organizing, almost as their own ``special interest'' group.

From the well-established Mothers Against Drunk Driving to the newly formed Parent Action, a nationwide group that lobbies for family issues in Congress and state legislatures, parents who once might have sought help from an outside ``Them'' are looking within and seeing ``Us.''

It will take more than banner-carrying marchers like Tina Twitty to rid the inner city of violence. It will require more than letter writers like Terry Rakolta and Lynn Tylczak to protect the next generation from other perceived dangers. But if the family, the smallest political unit, continues to flex its muscles in the face of larger political and social forces, parents who once felt powerless may find themselves gradually gaining strength as they march, lobby, write letters, and run for office.

Speaking to participants in the ``mothers' march'' in Roxbury, Juanita Williams, a school committeewoman, summed up: ``Our young people need our support. If we don't support them, who will?''

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