The year has been a year fraught with political turmoil for much of the United States, with major changes on the horizon for many families and communities across the country. What better place to uncover and tell those stories than the epicenter of American policymaking? This year’s Reporting the Nation/Reporting New York students trekked to our nation’s capital to do it. Join us in our Washington, D.C., journeys as we confront the issues facing America’s most vulnerable communities, from sex trafficking to healthcare to the opioid crisis. Read our stories here.
Pavement Pieces reporters took to the streets to see what New Yorkers think about the current state of gun control.
The staff of Pavement Pieces, traveled to Baltimore for a 3-day multimedia project. The students covered multiple issues that showed the struggles and promise of the city.
View the project here
A member of the Save Our Streets organization rings the bell for each of the victims who died due to gun violence in Brooklyn. Photo by Taisha Henry.
Dozens of people gathered in Crown Heights, Brooklyn and chanted “I watch your son, you watch mine.” “Enough is enough.” They held signs that read, “Youth Matter, Black Lives Matter.”
They rallied, they marched, they held vigil yesterday in memory of Carey Gabay and the 94 Brooklyn victims of gun violence. Carey Gamble served as an attorney in Governor Cuomo’s administration, and was killed by a stray bullet during a West Indian Day celebration on Sept. 17th.
City officials, residents, chaplains, community outreach organizations, and residents of all races, walked a mile, praying and chanting to Ebbets Field.
Marcher, Devine Alexander of St. Albans, Queens, is a member of Guns Down Life Up (GDLU), an organization that works to dissuade youth from turning to guns. Alexander, who was once an inner city kid himself, understands it can be hard to escape violence. He believes there are better ways to cope with the struggle inner city kids may face. His group provides mentoring and an outlet for kids to have someone to talk to.
“There’s a lot of unsaid reasons why kids go the way they go, maybe not being financially secure, not having a place to live, or just no no one to talk to, “Alexander said. “So we’re here just to set an example that you can change your life and be a prime citizen of society”.
Alexander believes that his organization and others like it, provide action and change in the community. He said he has seen kids in his organization move away from a violent lifestyle and lead others to do the same.
“We’re trying to start a mindset when they’re very young to educate them, that guns do kill people and guns are dangerous,” he said.
Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo, one of the officials who led the rally, believes that boroughs should have an office dedicated to gun violence with responders who come within 72 hours of a gun-violence incident.
As of June, 72% of New York City’s murder victims were killed by guns, a 15% increase from last year, according to a New York Daily news article.
And according to NYPD’s weekly crime statistics, between September 7 and September 13 there have been 33 incidents of gun violence in Brooklyn, and 51 incidents city wide.
Cumbo is also working to gain funding for Operation SNUG, a project funded and implemented by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, which aims to end gun-violence.
Feber Kennedy, a Coney Island resident, who attended the rally said, that the most important thing that young people need to learn is to respect and love one another.
“I’m one of the old folks, I remember marching with Dr. King,” he said. “We had love back then and I think the love needs to continue up here.”
Three blocks away from Evergreen Baptist Church, the site of yesterday’s Bushwick gun buyback event, Akeal Christopher, 14, was shot in the head after a middle school graduation party. He died on his 15th birthday this July.
“My son was murdered in the community he grew up in,” said his mother, Natasha Christopher. “This community is on mute and everyone is acting like this is a normal. This community should be mad.”
But yesterday’s gun buyback event, in the church at 455 Evergreen Avenue, was organized in response to the burgeoning number of homicides and gun violence in the Bushwick community.
According to the New York Police Department January to June 2012, 791 people were shot or killed by a bullet, 1613 total arrests were made in which at least one firearm was recovered. The 83rd Precinct, which covers Bushwick, had two fatal shootings over the last month.
The gun buyback event was sponsored by City Councilwoman Diana Reyna in conjunction with the police department and hosted by the Evergreen Baptist Church.
Flyers were handed out as far as 15 blocks in each direction to persuade community members to hand over their guns. The incentive was $20 for rifles and $200 for pistols and handguns. By 4 PM, the gun buyback collected 85 firearms.
As community members turned over their weapons, police officers stood by to collect them.
“In reality the people who are bringing the guns in aren’t the people most likely to use them in the wrong way,” said the church’s pastor Rev. Gary Frost. “If the guns are in their homes, there are others there who are less conscientious of proper use of a gun or would probably steal them. If you take the guns out of circulation, it’s a better environment.”
Some of the guns that went out of circulation were carried into the church in duffle bags.
“Some of these weapons are like military equipment,” said Frost.
Others brought weapons concealed in small tote bags, and purses. One man stopped a few yards away from the church. He asked church member Anita Haynes if she would turn in a plastic grocery bag half full of bullets for him.
When Rev. Frost watched the exchange, he said he believed the buyback event was like one person on a shore covered with thousands of starfish.
“You can’t save them all, but you can save this one,” he said.
Lynette Frost, the pastor’s wife, recalled a moment this summer when tears prevented gun crime. She called out to two teenagers running towards a fight asking them not to make their mothers cry that night.
“And the boys, they came back,” Lynette Frost said. “They asked me why I cared and I said, ‘because I love you’. They started to tear up and didn’t fight that night. That’s what we’re doing here today.”
Lynette Frost said that this year’s turnout was an improvement. Last year only 32 guns were collected. Out of the 85 guns collected this year were 74 handguns, 4 shotguns, 6 rifles, and 1 assault rifle.
Ariel Salazar, Councilmember Diana Reyna’s Community Liaison, said that the very last weapon collected was brought in by two teenagers. It was a Tech-9.
“The police department was very excited about receiving this specific weapon,” said Salazar. “It’s the one that could have done the most damage.”
PHILADELPHIA – At first glance the pure white cat seemed asleep, serenely impervious to the empty liquor bottles that encroached on its resting place in a trash-strewn alleyway on the 3000 block of North Philadelphia’s 32nd Street. The cat was in fact dead, a feral victim gone completely unnoticed in North Philadelphia’s Strawberry Mansion neighborhood, an area with a violent crime rate consistently ranked in its city’s top percentile. This dubious honor made more infamous by Philadelphia’s homicide rate, which currently hovers just above three times the national average.
Gun violence is a daily way of life in Strawberry Mansion, where according to several residents, obtaining a pistol is as easy as walking up to a corner and asking for one, and where the specter of violence leaves no one in the community untouched.
Rick Ford knows all about life on North Philadelphia’s streets. Ford was born in raised in this neighborhood. He learned to hustle during the heyday of Philadelphia’s crack epidemic in the 80s and 90s, when at least one murder occurred every day.
“Twenty years ago I was the villain down here,” Ford said, gazing down Diamond Street’s stretch of redundant row houses. As a result of this “street lifestyle,” he also spent a period of time homeless before finally deciding to turn his life around in October of 1990.
Standing outside a local church on a recent Saturday morning, Ford looks more like a politician than a former drug addict. His expressive eyes are muted behind a pair of Armani dark glasses, and his black overcoat and crisp white shirt covers the scars left by old bullet wounds.
As he stands talking on the sidewalk, various members of the community stop their cars to pay their respects. It’s not for nothing that people in the neighborhood refer to him as the Mayor of Strawberry Mansion.
Today, Ford runs a youth athletic league, is a leader in the community organization Men United for a Better Philadelphia and gives talk at schools about the allures and dangers of guns and gangs.
But in an area flooded with illegal firearms, the temptation for some can be overwhelming — with potentially lethal consequences.
“These kids can get a gun quicker than they can get a job,” Ford said. “If I needed a gun now, I’d just go right to a corner.”
As he said this he pulled out his cell phone with a flourish and dialed his nephew Lance — not the nephew now in jail for murder, but the one, currently at home after his latest stint in prison — to prove how easy it was in fact to find a gun.
Ford concentrates his efforts on the youth of the neighborhood, the kids who have not yet become entrenched in the cycle of crime and recidivism. What frustrates Ford is that the new generation’s motivations for violence seem to be growing ever more trivial.
“What’s all this killing about?” he said. “We’re the only culture killing each other. It’s black on black crime, senseless stuff, senseless nonsense.”
For Ford, sports have the potential to be so much more than a casual game played between teammates. Baseball is a chance to bring kids from different blocks together, to inspire a sense of camaraderie that transcends whether you live on 30th or 32nd Streets, and can be the difference during a territorial dispute turned violent. An argument that might before have been settled with an exchange of blows is now just as likely to include a splattering of bullets.
Tyrone Williams, community liaison for the Strawberry Mansion Neighborhood Action Center (NAC), feels the weight of neighborhood killings just as Ford does. He sometimes finds himself wondering whether he did enough to try and stop them.
“[Violence] cuts through the fiber of the community,” Williams said. “It tears it thread by thread. If the guns weren’t so easy to get, I don’t think these murders would occur. Some people just act differently when they have a gun.”
In an affirmation of the heartless nature of the violence, Williams’ boss at the NAC, Executive Director Lenora Jackson-Evans, had her own son killed in March of this year.
The question of how these guns find their ways so easily from under the countertops of licensed weapons dealers and into the pockets of repeat offenders and teens is a complicated one, with both city, state and national implications. In the past few years, several gun control laws have been proposed in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, only to be voted down in the face of a well-organized, well-funded gun lobby.
Last month’s November elections were not encouraging for advocates of gun control legislation, with the Democratic Party losing its tenuous control of the House and Governor’s Office.
In response many cities, including Philadelphia, have passed their own versions of bills like the Lost and Stolen Amendment, a law meant to crack down on an illegal weapons trafficking tactic known as straw purchasing.
In a straw purchase a buyer who is licensed to own a firearm sells them to unlicensed buyers under the table. A felony under federal law, these transactions provide a simple means for someone without a permit to buy a weapon. The Lost and Stolen Amendment makes this process harder by forcing permit holders to report missing weapons.
Philadelphia’s Lost and Stolen Amendment was passed in 2008, along with four other gun ordinances, all of which were immediately challenged in court by the National Rifle Association. Two were ultimately struck down because of a state preemptive statute that limits the rights of cities to enact their own gun control policies.
“[The ordinance] does some good,” said Martha Johnston, a senior attorney for the Philadelphia City Solicitor’s Office. “But it would be better if it were statewide.”
Gun control ordinances enjoy a diverse base of local support including Mayor Michael Nutter and the City Council, Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey and the grassroots organizations that rallied in support of gun reform, including CeaseFirePa, Mothers Against Guns and Mothers in Charge.
According to a 2008 study published by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, in the seven states already enforcing a Lost and Stolen requirement, there is a 67 percent reduction in the number of crime guns traced back to sources within their borders.
Paper statistics aside, all such policies are ultimately only as effective as the extent of their enforcement.
Office Ed Fidler, a 13-year veteran of the Philadelphia Police Force, scoffed at the effectiveness of policies targeting illegal weapons holders.
Due to circumstances outside of his control such as jail overcrowding, men arrested for violating the Uniform Firearms Act (VUFA), are rarely held for long.
“Why are people with four, five gun arrests still on the street?” Fidler said.
After a six-year stint with a patrol unit, Fidler is now an investigator in the Crime Scene Unit. He is sent to fresh priority crime scenes — a homicide, a discharge of an officer’s weapon or a police shooting — to catalogue and analyze any evidence left behind. More often than not, this includes firearms.
Among your average hustler, 9mm handguns manufactured by Hi-Brite or Bryco are popular because they are small, lightweight and cheap, Fidler said. However, assault rifles like the AK-47 and its knockoff cousin, the 7.62mm SKS, are often favored by drug dealers because of the intimidation factor that accompanies their increased firepower.
Holding up a SKS involved in the 2008 shooting death of Sergeant Stephen Liczbinski, Sgt. Steve Crosby was blunt. This firearm is not meant to hunt deer or anything else, Crosby said sharply.
“This is meant to kill people,” he said.
Sitting later amidst the debris of his cheerfully cluttered desk, Crosby reflected on his own 11-year stint on the force. A former carpenter and electrician, Crosby came across as equal parts tough guy and proud father, reveling in his exploits as a young patrolman while later showing off a photo of his oldest daughter, an aspiring singer and actress.
Like Fidler, Crosby expressed frustration with a revolving door system that often allows repeat VUFA offenders to walk free.
“The solution is keep them in jail,” Crosby said.
Jail was not the answer for Ford, however. For him, rehabilitation starts with the spirit, not the penal code. “The key to this thing is love,” he said.
“My mother was an alcoholic,” Ford said. “I found my mother on the floor dead. She did the best she could. But I wasn’t getting that ‘I love you.’”
In a neighborhood where fearful gas station attendants fortify their convenience stores, where decrepit, boarded up houses vie for attention with weedy empty lots and grimy take-out windows, hope is a precious commodity.
“I’m tired of the vigils,” Ford admitted. “[Tired] of the teddy bears, the yellow tape. Two nights ago, three people were killed in a ten-block radius.”
He may be tired, but Ford said he’s come too far to give up now.
“The struggle continues,” he said, “But victory is certain.”