SOME of the most powerful crime gangs in America yesterday crowned a ``summit for peace'' with endorsements from three of the country's most influential black leaders.
The 500 gang members gained support for their ``truce'' from Jesse Jackson, leader of Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity); Benjamin Chavis, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; and Louis Farrakhan, Nation of Islam leader. The three had earlier voiced support for the ``peace movement'' among urban gangs, but not in clear, ringing tones during public, face-to-face meetings with gang members.
The endorsements give a measure of political heft and a veneer of credibility to a movement that has been widely dismissed as mere grandstanding since the first gang summit was held in April in Kansas City, Mo.
But critics across the racial spectrum say the meetings are a blatant effort by gangs to gain political leverage and mask their criminal behavior with hollow pronouncements of concern over drugs and crime.
Rep. Mel Reynolds (D) of Illinois on Sunday sought to show America ``another face of the African-American male'' in a press conference he dubbed an ``anti-gang summit.'' Mr. Reynolds called on gang members to make a public apology and pledge that ``gangs will no longer sell drugs and destroy lives ..., gangs will no longer kill people and will turn in those gang members who do kill, and gangs will no longer exist.''
Gang leaders haven't taken the pledge yet. Still, by endorsing the summit, black leaders have assumed at least some responsibility for ensuring that gang members put down weapons.
Indeed, Mr. Jackson told gang members that they were worthy to be activists for PUSH's causes. Speaking at PUSH headquarters, he called them ``the new frontier of the civil rights struggle.''
Despite their pledge of peace, some participants still apparently put their own interests before the concern of millions of urban Americans over narcotics-pedaling and urban gang violence.
Chicago gang-related murders are running at the same pace as last year, with 97 people slain through September, according to police statistics. Just hours before the gang summit began, gunmen ambushed gang leader Willie Lloyd in a third attempt to kill him since his parole in December.
Moreover, although the three black leaders spoke separately of unity and peace, they did not shelve political differences and make a joint endorsement of the gang summit.
In a meeting held last month that prompted hopes for unity among black leaders, the three men and Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D) of Maryland, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said they could work together to end gang violence. But Mr. Mfume did not attend the gang summit and Jackson did not appear at a meeting with Messrs. Farrakhan and Chavis on Sunday.
Farrakhan assured several hundred of his congregation at Mosque Maryam in South Chicago that political differences and agendas are not part of the peacemaking effort among gangs.
``This peace summit is not for political purposes, this is not to line the pockets of some wolves who want to eat more, this is not to enhance the leadership aspirations of a few individuals,'' Farrakhan declared.
The controversial leader - who has been accused of hate-mongering against whites and Jews - ended his speech by declaring: ``Peace will bring unity, and unity will bring power.''
Politics was at the core of the Chicago summit. In many meetings and discussions, politicians and activists told gang members how to use government to bring political influence and prosperity to their communities.
Although critics and supporters of the gang ``peace movement'' disagree over the gangs' sincerity, they agree that in Chicago, at least, urban outlaws are emerging as a political force.
The 21st Century V.O.T.E. organization, a Chicago political-action committee, was active at the periphery of many events during the five-day summit, encouraging gang members to register to vote.
The group in August helped rally former Mayor Eugene Sawyer and two city aldermen in an effort to win the parole of Larry Hoover, the leader of the Black Gangster Disciples. The campaign failed and Mr. Hoover is still serving his 150-year sentence for murder.
Earlier this month, 21st Century V.O.T.E. rallied several hundred of its gang members for a demonstration over the mishandling of Chicago's school system. It was the third time since June that the group has marched its members to City Hall in protest.