Rest-in-peace elegies and images embellish exterior walls of buildings throughout New York City. To some these are fitting work-of-art memorials to lives once lived. But to so many others, like members of the anti-violence organization PURGE, founded in 1993 by community activist and child advocate Freddie Hamilton, these tombstone murals are tragic reminders of young lives cut short – mostly by senseless gunshots triggered by lovelessness, ignorance, fear and dysfunction.
“Every time a bullet cuts down a child, it is piercing a bullet into our inheritance, our legacy and the future of our community,” said Graham Weatherspoon of Black Law Enforcement Alliance, guest speaker at a Community Speakout on Saturday, January 16, hosted by PURGE (Parents United to Rally for Gun-Violence Elimination) partnering with Voices in Action Against Youth Violence, and Calvary Fellowship A.M.E. Church, where the initiative took place. “We talk of heroes,” Weatherspoon emphasized. “We talk of leaders. We talk of our future. That boy or girl who is shot by another boy or girl could have been that hero, that leader, a future President, the bodega owner, the educator, the organizer, the faith leader. They are our heirs, but what are we doing to stop the violence, and take the power back from the media’s images, and put it back into the institutions that shaped all of us who are here?”
The remarks were forceful, tough. “But the PURGE meeting was purposed to do just that. It was designed to provide a forum for acknowledging the problem of gun violence, to develop action strategies and to involve disparate voices in a dialogue about how we move our youth from the line of fire,” said Rev. Joseph Walston, pastor of Calvary.
Ms. Hamilton, who lost her 17-year-old son Njuzi Ray to a fatal gunshot wound in the early 90’s, organized sixty-five other parents whose children had met the same fate. PURGE commenced a federal lawsuit against gun manufacturers arguing the proliferation of guns in our communities was a deliberate act against the community. Although the lawsuit was dismissed after trial, many organizations joined in by supplying supportive briefs. The gun manufacturers remain a powerful lobby and force through NRA and other groups.
Since 1993, according to the Children’s Defense Fund, the number of people killed by gun violence either through bystander status or direct young adult victimization has increased several times over, and PURGE is still on the frontlines seeking to educate and eliminate gun violence and most importantly, says Ms. Hamilton, “to remove the stigma that all youth shot or killed by gun violence are gang members. Many innocent youths are killed by guns daily.”
The Reverend Jacquelyn R. Bullock, an attorney, and Rev.Dr.Yoreel T. Fraser, a health advocate and womanist theologian, hosted the session, and are working with Ms. Hamilton in organizing and getting the message out. Rev. Fraser, who understands gun violence as a health issue, says PURGE is committed to putting “feet to our faith.” Rev. Bullock, an attorney, mother of two sons, understands the need for community healing; she works with persons with disabilities, and families with violent histories.
Many community persons and family members of persons lost to violence were present, including, Geoffrey Davis, the brother of slain NYC Councilmember, James E. Davis, and an elder who lost two sons, one to gunshots, in Harlem. She called for PURGE and other community to work on the ground level where “the problems and the people are.”
NYS Senator Velmanette Montgomery, chair of the State Senate’s Children and Families Committee and one of the founding members of the New York chapter of State Legislators Against Illegal Guns, and City Councilwoman Letitia James, were present and pledged to assist in future group community speak-outs. Senator Montgomery shared insights about the issue and opportunities for collaboration with state agencies, and Councilwoman James suggested that the youth further define what segments of youth they are targeting, and offered outreach strategies to interest youth and parents in attending PURGE meetings. Among other strategies proposed were establishing one-on-one mentoring programs, the need for the youth to be engaged and involved in the process, and the issue of how to address and educate our communities in Bedford -Stuyvesant and Central Brooklyn about gun violence elimination.
Others attending the meeting included representatives from all segments of the community: education, faith, media, state, parents, and three young people. And they brought their stories, many noted on police blotters in precincts all over town. Three of the most poignant made headlines within the past 18 months and within a radius of 10 blocks from Calvary Fellowship at 790 Herkimer Street and Rochester, Central Brooklyn’s southeast corner portal to the great Weeksville Village founded and developed in the early 19th century by Africans and Americans of African descent.
In the Weeksville Houses in August 2008, a nine year old was caught in a crossfire and struck in the head by a stray bullet. On September 11, 2009, across the street from the church 18 year old Jahlal Lee, Boys & Girls H.S. student, was gunned down by one of four assailants; he collapsed in front of his doorway. Several days, later on Bainbridge Street, two young men were shot and killed, and a third wounded by a drive-by perpetrated by teens in an SUV.
Pastor Walston reached out to the family and held prayer vigils with other local clergy, including close family friend and member of the clergy, Damon L. Cabbagestalk, Pastor of Joppa Christian Ministries. And he has noticed that cries for action are coming out of these vigils and wakes, more than acceptance that “this is the way life is.”
Other clergy members attending the community speak-out all joined in by expressing that gun violence is a problem near their church homes. They included:
Rev. Octavius Heyward, St. Paul AMEC; Rev. Maurice Douglas, Bridge Street AMEC, and chair of the Brooklyn Economic Development Corporation; Rev. Mariella Rogers, St.James AMEC; Evangelist Barbara Brown of Bridge Street AMEC; Pastor Damon L. Cabbagestalk, Joppa Christian Ministries, and Ministers Francetta Hairston and Darlene Desmond of Calvary Fellowship AMEC (coordinating on behalf of Voices in Action Against Youth Violence).
Rev. Fraser set the tone for the strategy-development session of the meeting. “In the past, our elders, as knowledgeable and giving as they were, did not listen to us, though they spoke to us,”: she said. “Today, we must listen to young people.
“I strongly believe the issues we are facing today stem from the lack of knowledge of the in and outs of our young children lives,” said Cherylann Welch of the Patricia Lezama Foundation and who is a mother of five. “Children face challenges on a daily basis, peer pressure, dysfunctional homes and more. Sometimes their desire to want to belong or feel worthwile might lead them to make the incorrect decisions or path.
“I believe that if we are to work with our leaders today, we need to investigate and understand what are the underlying causes that are leading our children astray,” she continued. “We need to reach out to all types of youths today and the best strategy will be to go into the schools and educate them on the issues, today. Another suggestion is to create a tool kit based on their concerns. Where are they? They are in Cyberspace: Facebook, Twitter, and other Social Media. As Mr. Weatherspoon stated we will have to go to them, rather than tell them to come to us. We owe this to the children of this generation, and thereafter.”
Pat Llanos, a Public Health Educator for the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, personally witnessed a young man die of a gunshot wound. The experience haunts her. “Witnessing gun violence first-hand has increased my sensitivity to the problem. This is a very complex issue: it involves finding out how young people get their hands on guns to defending the Second Amendment. No one can ignore the loss of so many young people to senseless acts of violence. Many people say ‘that’s just the world we live in’ however, it doesn’t have to be. The highest price, death, is being paid by too many of our young people.”
At the PURGE speak-out, Ms. Llanos offered to tutor children, as part of her personal contribution to making a difference. It’s an experience comes easy and with passion: she mentored young women detainers in the Jackson County Court System in Kansas, Missouri, and has worked with pre-schoolers and high school students. “It is imperative that we reach out to the young people in our communities and engage them in being a part of the solution and not a part of the problem.
And it may surprise some us that many young people would like to be on the side of solution than on the side of the alternative.
It was reported that the brother of the 9-year-old who was shot in Weeksville Gardens Houses summer 2008, told supporters at a vigil for his brother that they “made a difference.” He said, “You think the chips are down (when) things like this (happen). People like y’all show me why life and love is important.”
PURGE’s future plans call for speak-out sessions; an anti-gun violence forum for and by youth; a “Know Your Rights” lunch and Black History film presentation. The organization also will conduct a community-organizing workshop for youth around such issues as education, transit passes, making elective officials responsive, and more.
Mr. Weatherspoon, who is a retired NYPD detective, also spoke about the need for faith leaders to overcome fear and to develop dialogue with youth by reaching outside of the church and going out into the community, improving relationships between parents and youth, and understanding the political structure or lack thereof in our communities. He also spoke about controlling the spread of firearms; strategies organizations can pursue targeting illegal guns, breakdown of the family structure and the accountability of the church. He agreed to return to conduct a workshop with youth on how to interact with the police in the future.
On the PURGE 2010 Calendar:
Thursday, February 4, 2010, 6:00pm: PURGE general meeting at the Mt.Carmel AMEC, 121 Chauncey Street, (718) 771-8061.Open to all. Rev. Kenneth John, Pastor.
April 2010 (Date TBD): PURGE Community Summit at a site TBD will convene faith-based and community groups to discuss issues impacting the quality of life in New York.
Saturday, September 25 and Sunday, September 26: GOD NOT GUNS SABBATH WEEKEND in association with faith organizations in Brooklyn and beyond.