When viewed against the throat-clutching, televised image of crime on America's mean streets, the event was a small thing.
A young African-American man wheeled his Jeep Cherokee into an Omaha, Neb., gas station to fill up. Because his car's colors matched a rival gang's colors, the young man, unaware, was jumped and badly beaten by gang members.
The event was hardly an item for the six o'clock news. But to Omaha labor leader John Foster, the beating was close, personal.
It was his son. When Mr. Foster heard the news, the irate dad packed a .357 and a .44 magnum and headed for the streets, bent on vengeance.
Because he couldn't find the attackers, the story had an upbeat ending: Foster founded Mad Dads, fathers anxious to break the stereotype of unnurturing Afro-American males, men who vow their sons and daughters will not become inner-city statistics by falling to drugs or a bullet.
Since they started in Omaha in 1989, their numbers have grown to 25,000.
Mad Dads have become a new force of nightstalkers. Their quarry are drug dealers.
The problem is one of spiritual lack, and spiritual love is a remedy, they say. Their belief in God is their only protection.
Theron Cook, father of a 13- and a 10-year-old and a spokesman for Mad Dads, walks the streets at night, on patrol with other Dads, talking to young people and the dealers as well. The only weapons they carry are walkie-talkies and cellular telephones.
"We transcend the religious and operate in a spirituality," Mr. Cook says.
Mad Dads spreads
Since its inception, the group has expanded to 45 chapters in 13 states including Texas, Colorado, Mississippi, Maryland, Ohio, California, Michigan, New Jersey, and Florida. It has been touted by former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young and been publicly acknowledged by Presidents Clinton and Bush.
Mad Dads have sprouted up in Hispanic and white neighborhoods as well as on a native American reservation. Some chapters have divisions of Mad Moms and Mad Kids.
"Kids of all races, colors, ethnicities, and social backgrounds are being drawn to gangs and drugs because they are not getting direction and love from their families," says Cook, who developed drug policy for the city of New York until he was drawn to the group's mission. The group's philosophy is that tough love and parental interest can change crime-driven youth.
Can a few unarmed men walking the streets make a difference?
Mad Dads say yes. Most successful so far: "buy-back" gun trades. Mad Dads pays $50 for each gun turned in, no questions asked. In Omaha alone, more than 2,600 guns have been retired from the streets in five years.
The strategy is to think small. "No entity from outside can save the community," says Willie Myles of Mad Dads in Dania, a small community 15 miles north of Miami. "The police can't do it. The church can't do it. The YMCA can't do it." He calls the idea pure "'60s philosophy. It requires that grass-roots folk do grass-roots things."
Cornering street drug dealers is a major strategy. "Drug dealers are only human," Mr. Myles says. They often leave an area when they see four or five men standing on a street corner. "The strategy is to get people on all the corners so all the dealers would leave," he says.
The program did backfire, however, when a Dania man attacked a Mad Dad on patrol. "It was confrontation," Myles says. "We started telling adults they were not going to sell drugs here.
"They said, 'Who are you?'
"We are not vigilantes, but if we are assaulted, we will defend ourselves in the best way we know how." Myles says the attacker later became a volunteer.
Mad Dads often work with police, reporting drug dealers and functioning as go-betweens in communities where police relations are fragile, Myles says. But their commitment is to the community and its young people.
"Mad Dads are definitely an asset to us," says Lt. Mel Lange of the Broward County sheriff's department in Florida.
In addition to embracing street patrols and gun buybacks, some groups hark back to ethnic roots in Africa, where the community was the tribe. Adults watched all the children, not just their own.
Next month, the Omaha branch will offer a 13-week program emphasizing rites of passage used by the Akan tribe in West Africa.
"We want them to understand why African values must come back," Cook says. Advice will be shared about being a good father and finding one's way in the world. Instead of learning to hunt the old way, for example, young men learn how to communicate and seek jobs.
The parenting goal is intended to counter what Cook calls a spiritual decadence. "A lot of kids have gotten taken up with the spirit that glorifies materialism and selfishness. We live in a microwave society. If you can't have the instant gratification, it's not worth the wait."
But young people won't learn lessons of perseverance and hard work without constant repetition, group leaders say. So Mad Dads offers "values training" workshops in some cities with the idea of establishing a consistent presence in the lives of at-risk kids.
"We are firm. We are loving father figures," Cook says. "Just being a good listener and providing a good ear is what these kids need."