Crime & Justice

Violence, the other pandemic New York is fighting

By Jorge Fuentelsaz

New York, Sep 10 (efe-epa).- “My son was murdered May 5, 2014, in front of me over a parking incident.” “A bullet in the back of his head and he was gone, at age 21.” “Before, I used to be in the streets. I used to just be doing anything I could just to make a dollar. All the wrong things.”

These are some of the admissions of victims of violence and former gang members in New York City who now share the same aim: ending the shootings that continue to bloody the city’s streets.

The numbers are shocking. So far this year, police have reported 1,014 firearm killings, 87 percent more than the 541 registered between January and the end of August 2019, along with 291 other murders, or 34 percent more than the 217 perpetrated in New York during the same period last year.

Carolyn Dixon is a 64-year-old African American, tall and energetic, and she does not hesitate to tell about her experience with violence in New York.

“I’m from South Jamaica, Queens. I’m a survivor. My son was murdered May 5, 2014, in front of me over a parking incident. Through his death I had to learn how to regroup myself and how to become a new person so I’ve worked with Life Camp for five years and … I learned how to meditate. I went to the New School to learn about healing and trauma,” she told EFE with a strength that does not seem to have been extinguished by the years or by her family tragedy.

Last July, life once again confronted her with New York’s most brutal reality when she went to help a man who had been shot and was lying on the street.

“In July, a young man was (shot) in my area while I was … giving out PPE. My only thought was to run to him and try to save him because that’s like a trauma for me. It’s a reflex, it’s a trigger. So the only thing I could think of was my son laying there on the ground … The EMS came; he was shot 11 times but he survived … and we visit him. … He’s doing well (but) he’s not in New York at this time” for security reasons, said Dixon about the victim.

As part of a non-governmental organization she now heads, Dixon tries to speak with young people in her neighborhood: “To tell them, you know, all black lives matter.”

The son of Oressa Napper, another middle-aged African American woman, was caught in a gun battle between gangs in Brooklyn when he went to visit some relatives: “A bullet in the back of his head and he was gone, at age 21.”

“I never want another mother to feel how I feel, another family to go through what we still go through 13 years later, because it’s an ongoing process for the rest of your life. It’s not like you get over it. You just get through it. That’s how the work of Not Another Child started,” said Napper, whose loss also pushed her to found an NGO against violence.

She said that dealing with young people immersed in violence is like trying to navigate a “slippery slope” because although there may be some who want to try and make things better, there are others who “make it an excuse to do what they do.”

“I quite understand that it’s mostly our men, and our men are born with two strikes being African American and being male … But you’re also born with choices. As an African American mother who raised two sons I had choices to make for them. I had choices to show them the different roads to take in hopes that they would choose the right choice. So it’s a slippery slope,” she said with her other son, who works with her in the NGO, nearby.

In East New York, in the eastern part of Brooklyn, there are not many restaurant chains, fashionable eateries or designer stores like there are in wealthier or “hipster” zones of this New York district. You can walk in the area of the Van Siclen metro stop, at the end of Line 3, and see that there are many doors and windows to local businesses and residences that are protected by steel bars.

There, a former gang member, nowadays a social worker with the Man Up NGO, Richie Dunham, told EFE that when he was between 17 and 28 years of age he spent all his time on the streets.

“Before, I used to be in the streets. I used to just be doing anything I could just to make a dollar. All the wrong things. Anything that was wrong, I was involved. If it was something that wasn’t positive I’m out there, but now I’m on the positive side. Before, I was on the other side. Now, I’m on the good side,” said Dunham, who now uses all his life experience to speak to young people who, like he was once upon a time, spend the day loitering around in the places where problems often come looking for them.

The director of Man Up, Andre T. Mitchell, spent 16 years in prison for involuntary manslaughter and, when in 2003 8-year-old Daesean Hill was killed in his neighborhood, he decided to do something to change the tragic fate of the area where he lives.

On one of the walls at the Man Up headquarters, there’s a photograph of Daesean Hill and a caption written by A.T. that says: “Real gansta means walking away.”

Mitchell says that, apart from the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which has heavily affected the most deprived areas in East New York, the resurgence in cases has coincided with the summer months, the period of the year when gang members often resolve their problems with gunfire.

“During these summer months, it’s always that time of the year. Summertime is the most intense time of the year for us that do this work because when the sun comes out the guns come out. The issues that are not being addressed, the conflicts that are not being mediated, then the people see each other they go after each other,” he said.

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