“If we had a moment of silence for every Black and Brown kid that was a victim of gun violence, we would never leave this place,” said Carolyn Dixon, mother of a son who fell victim to gun violence. The silence was deafening as the crowd on the rainy steps of City Hall listened to her story. Dixon continued, “My son died right in my arms and we never got any justice. When Life Camp heard what happened to my son, they supported me and offered me a position.” Headed by Erica Ford’s South Jamaica’s Love Ignites Fire through Education, Life Camp is just one of the dozens of crisis management organizations that exist throughout the five boroughs. Their mission is to interrupt the violence and diffuse the situation before the NYPD has to get involved.
June commences the summer season, which usually sparks a rise in gun violence. In 2013, New York became the first state to delegate a month for gun violence. CEO of Gangstas Making Astronomical Community Change, an activist group part of the Gun Violence Awareness Month task force, Shanduke McPhatter led the news conference, which took place May 31. He stressed the importance of recognizing the work that these grassroots organizations are doing in their communities. “Men and women are putting their lives on the line every day, but we are being overshadowed by the NYPD.”
Saturday, June 2, again hundreds of community members joined dozens of organizations, who gathered to march across the Brooklyn Bridge to a rally in Manhattan’s Foley Square. The marchers were led by a white casket, which McPhatter (who lost a brother to gun violence) and Ford say represent victims of shootings. The visual reminder often leads to onlookers asking what’s going on, and the answers have them giving sympathetic nods, positive comments and queries as to what can be done.
McPhatter stated, “We have to use alternatives to violence to solve problems in the community. We have been taught to use guns as a method to resolve conflict, and so gun violence ravages our community. We have been teaching alternatives on how to deal with conflict with one another. Every summer we want to see our youth working and successful. A young person with a job is much more likely to be successful than one who does not.”
Thursday, June 7, students, advocates and elected officials rallied on the steps of City Hall in support of the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program to call for its expansion in the budget. Council Members Debi Rose, Jumaane D. Williams and other electeds joined the Campaign for Summer Jobs, the Community Service Society of New York and a coalition of high school students and advocacy groups calling for an SYEP expansion in the FY19 Budget.
Williams said that the program does not currently have the capacity for universal placement. SYEP currently provides six weeks of summer employment to 70,000 youth aged 14-24 around the five boroughs. SYEP also provides workshops on job readiness, career exploration, financial literacy and opportunities to continue education and social growth.
McPhatter explained, “We are advocating for an increase in the Summer Youth Program to be all year- round. Every year we get 11-15 young people and teach them conflict resolution that makes sense to their peers; they then go out and are able to help resolve situations in the parks and in the community.”
GMACC and other violence interruption groups teach our young people how to “de-escalate and meditate rather than escalate.”
A Giffords Law Center study published in March claimed that there were 900 deaths by firearm in New York, which is the third lowest rate per capita in any state besides Massachusetts and Rhode Island. This may be in part because of the federal laws in place. New York’s Secure Ammunition and Firearm Enforcement Act, passed in 2013, is one of the strictest state gun laws. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said, “The SAFE Act stops criminals and the dangerously mentally ill from buying a gun by requiring universal background checks on gun purchases, increases penalties for people who use illegal guns, mandates life in prison without parole for anyone who murders a first responder and imposes the toughest assault weapons ban in the country.”
State officials represented their neighborhoods and expressed their support of crisis management organizations. Councilman Williams said, “When you fund local organizations, they do a better job at healing the ills of gun violence.” There was also a push for more action on the federal level. Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney urged Congress to pass stricter gun legislation. She emphasized, “Putting a stop to gun violence should not be a partisan issue. It is a life or death issue.” Assemblywoman Diane Richardson of Crown Heights criticized Cuomo for not doing enough to stop gun violence, stating, “A budget is a testimony for our values. It’s time for the state of N.Y. to put their money where their mouth is.”
Co-founder of social activist hip-hop group 4 Wheel City Namel “Tapwaterz” Norris was 17 when his cousin accidentally fired a gun that struck him in the neck. Being paralyzed from the neck down shattered the former basketball player’s athletic ability. “My injury wasn’t really a result of gun violence per say, but because of what happened to me I will always stay away from a gun,” he said. Norris and his partner Ricardo “Rickfire” Velasquez have used their wheelchair-bound lifestyle to raise awareness about inaccessibility in the city, and also to encourage youth to disengage from gun violence. Norris said, “It’s hard for someone to see past what they don’t wanna do. They’re not thinking about the guy they might accidentally shoot who will be in a wheelchair for life. We want to inspire them to consider their other options and potential consequences.”
Ford is another trailblazer in the fight to end gun violence. Her organization acts as a first response team to shooting incidents, provides anger management and meditation classes, and counseling for those in the community. Ford announced plans to be more proactive in hopes of de-escalating violence during the summer months. “We will intensify our work to meet the needs of our community. The NYPD doesn’t understand the dynamics of our community, but our organizations will host events all monthlong with a nontraditional, public health approach,” she said.
Upcoming events for the month include a community family day, street festival, Father’s Day Pledge Against Violence and a youth symposium. For more information, go to gunviolenceawarnessmonth.com.