Bridging the Opportunity Divide

Disarmed: The Reclaiming of a City From Epic Gun Violence

December 7, 2017
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Disarmed: The Reclaiming of a City From Epic Gun Violence
When Courtney Hemingway settled a rivalry by shooting hoops instead of guns, he launched an anti-violence movement that continues to grow. Photo by Joseph Darius Jaafari
In a community that's experienced a 200 percent increase in the number of shootings in the past three years, residents say it's "kill or be killed."

At every stop during a drive through the Greenville section of Jersey City, N.J., John “Jay” Gilmore recounts exactly what happened and who was involved — including the name of the person who pulled the trigger.

That’s something unique about all the murders in Jersey City: Everyone knows who killed whom. In some instances, the murderer lives right next door to the victim, but no one will talk.

“Nobody’s gonna tell the police because nobody’s gonna snitch,” Gilmore, a former member of the local East Coast Bloods gang Sex, Money, Murda, tells NationSwell. “You snitch and you could get killed.”

So instead of snitching, Gilmore’s one of many Jersey City residents trying to fix the problem from within.

Life on the Hill

Power players in government (including President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner) and finance have turned once-barren Jersey City into a metropolis of 264,000 people living in the shadow of Manhattan, just across the Hudson River. But as of October this year, there have been 16 homicides and 98 total shootings in Jersey City. Most have occurred around the Greenville neighborhood, an area referred to locally as “The Hill.” Almost all of the deaths were caused by guns, according to an independent analysis conducted by NationSwell.  

Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop says that additional law enforcement patrols and proactive policing in high-crime areas are addressing the problem, but NationSwell’s analysis — which only includes reported shootings published in local papers and cross referenced with reported shootings via the Gun Violence Archive — reveals that Jersey City has seen a 200 percent increase in the number of shootings in the past three years. 

The total number of homicides recorded by Jersey City police in monthly CompStat reports — the system that logs city crimes — does not specify the number of murders by gun deaths, nor does it record number of shootings without injury.  

Multiple requests for more accurate records to the Jersey City Police Department on shooting data were not made available to NationSwell.

With gunshots being heard almost every night, a neighborhood resident says the area is tantamount to a war zone.

“It’s kill or be killed in Greenville,” says Hessie Williams, a Jersey City mother whose 17-year-old son was murdered in 2016. When there’s a shooting, more kids take up guns to protect themselves, an issue that the Mayor’s office has said is part of the problem. “I get why they carry [guns]. When you’re running from bullets almost every week, it makes sense,” Williams says.

A pin commemorates the one-year anniversary of the loss of a young man to gun violence.Photo by Joseph Darius Jaafari

Fulop, a Democrat that recently won re-election, has consistently made gun violence part of his campaign, but even he’s admitted that the problem can’t be solved through changes to policing or legislation alone.

“These situations did not develop overnight and we know it will take time, dedication and long-term efforts to bring lasting change…There are many factors that impact public safety and violence,” says Fulop. “While we have hired more police and increased walking tours and community policing — and have found that to be positive — we have also more than doubled the number of recreation programs, created a partnership with the [Board of Education] for more youth activities after school and have hired over 4,000 youth over the past four summers.”

Additionally, 8,000 jobs have also been created and other community programs have been launched during Fulop’s administration.

But families of gun violence victims don’t feel that City Hall’s actions are sufficient. “If the kids being killed were white kids, the city would be doing everything in their power to stop this. Nobody cares about my son. They think my son isn’t important,” says Theresa Franklin, a Jersey City mother whose child was killed in May 2016.

To stop the shooting, regular citizens are borrowing a technique from the gangs ravaging their streets. They’re taking matters into their own hands.

A Cure for Jersey City

Jersey City’s Booker T. Washington Apartments, just one mile north of Greenville, have a long-standing reputation for being lethal. For the better part of the 1990s, the housing project was known for its gun violence and drug trade.

In the past five years, crime has decreased, shootings are rare (though they still happen) and residents are starting to feel safe in their own homes.

Though the city has deployed a significant number of uniformed police officers to the area, the drop in crime has much more to do with a cultural change brought about by a group of young men who live there.

One of those residents, Courtney Hemingway, 30, sits in the project’s recreation center every Thursday with at least 15 of his peers and a motley crew of career professionals, including a volunteer lawyer, a jobs mentor, a social service counselor and a motivational speaker. Dwayne Baskerville, a longtime Booker T. Washington resident, is also there.

“One thing that Courtney probably won’t tell you is that he put a hit out on me,” says the 55-year-old Baskerville. “So I went to him and told him my life’s story and at the end of it, I said, ‘So do you wanna do this? Or do you wanna play some basketball?’”

They ended up shooting hoops.

(Today, both guys refer to the incident as “a misunderstanding.”)

Every week, a group of Booker T. Washington residents meets to vent frustrations and share ideas for the community.Photo by Joseph Darius Jaafari

That was back in 2006. Their initial interaction inspired Hemingway to form a de facto peace treaty between rivaling groups in the Booker T. Apartments and nearby Marion Gardens houses that resulted in 104 days of no shootings.

Ever since, Baskerville has been leading a program that’s unofficially replicating the Cure Violence model, which takes a public-health approach by identifying those that have personally committed violent crimes and using their influence within their community to cool tensions. His group encourages youth to shed their lives of violence and crime by holding weekly sessions to talk about frustrations (they want to be less policed) and troubles they’re facing (they want careers, not just jobs). As a result, a handful have been able to hold down steady career jobs or go to school.

Cure Violence has proven successful in some of America’s most economically- and socially-depressed neighborhoods, including Brooklyn’s East New York neighborhood, where gun injury rates declined by 50 percent, and the South Bronx, which experienced a 63 percent reduction in shootings, according to a study by CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan.

Last year, Camden, N.J., one of America’s 100 most dangerous cities, adopted the model. Maalik Jackson, an outreach supervisor for the local chapter Cure4Camden, says that homicides, shootings, and stabbings have significantly decreased in the four neighborhoods they’re focusing on.

Jackson recently visited Jersey City to learn why Baskerville’s group is so successful.

“The thing that I noticed from the beginning was that there were a lot of similarities in what they want to do to what we’re doing, but they lack the backing,” he says, referring to the fact that Cure models are typically set up through government channels and are heavily financed. “They were able to apply our model within this one area — with no funding, with no help — and [are] still achieving a high level of success.”

Dwayne Baskerville leads a program that’s helped reduce violence at the Booker T. Washington housing project in Jersey City.Photo by Joseph Darius Jaafari

“Put down your guns, y’all.”

The Booker T. group empathizes with residents in Greenville. They know people from the neighborhood who have been murdered, or at least hear the stories. But they’re far removed from it.

“We don’t have the same kind of issues that the people up on The Hill have. Not anymore,” Hemingway says. “They’re shooting at each other like crazy up there.”

Gilmore, the former gang member, has first-hand knowledge of the struggles faced by Greenville youth. Convicted of drug possession, he served a six-year-long prison stint before making his way back to his hometown in 2017 to find that many of the people he raised in the gang had been killed.

Upon his return, Gilmore began talking to kids who may have beef with others, using his connections on the street and “working the chirp,” — listening in on a gang communication network — in an effort to mitigate gun violence. His efforts are similar to the work being done at the Booker T. Apartments.

“Sometimes these kids listen, but they really only listen to people their age or those they look up to,” Gilmore says. “They’re not gonna be listening to the police or their elders. So I talk with them because they know me.”

He’s also involved with A Mother’s Pain, a group of dogged mothers of fallen children that was started by Williams. In August 2016, her son, Leander “Nunie” Williams, was killed, shot twice in the back of the head at a school event.

After her son was shot and killed in 2016, Hessie Williams (right) founded the group A Mother’s Pain to advocate against gun violence.Photo by Joseph Darius Jaafari

Williams was devastated — but not shocked — by Nunie’s death, who she says was “no angel.” He had been running around with troubled neighborhood kids and a year prior, had been expelled from school for carrying a gun, which he had bought illegally.

Williams and A Mother’s Pain have been working Greenville’s streets at least once a month, carrying posters plastered with the pictures of local kids who have been killed. They meet with city council members and the mayor’s office in hopes of elevating their profile and highlighting their work. They lead caravans where dozens of cars block traffic and have sit-ins with gun-toting gang members.  

On the one-year anniversary of Nunie’s death, NationSwell participated in one of those caravans, which visited seven locations where mothers in the group had lost loved ones and  Nunie’s gravesite. A handful of his friends had gathered to show their respect.

“Come on, y’all,” Williams pleaded with the group of six boys. “If you really loved Nunie, you’d stop shooting. Put down your guns, y’all. Put ’em down.”

Just a week later, she’d be doing the same thing after another teenager was murdered.

A Mother’s Pain also counts the rebellious religious leader Dr. Rev. Herbert Daughtry among its ranks.

Daughtry, 86, has mastered the art of protesting against neighborhood violence within black communities. He’s been using his experience and connections to a national network of black leaders to help the mothers in Williams’s group, whom he refers to as “wounded healers.”

Growing up in Jersey City and nearby Brooklyn, N.Y., Daughtry used to run with local gangs and the mafia before he was incarcerated for armed robbery and assault — a crime that led him to becoming a fourth-generation preacher. Since then, Daughtry (dubbed “The People’s Preacher”) has been successful at elevating human rights alongside Rev. Jesse Jackson and former Mayor David Dinkins. He was also Tupac Shakur’s spiritual advisor, according to Jet Magazine.

The action that A Mother’s Pain is taking now, Daughtry did 30 years ago in the notoriously violent neighborhoods of Brooklyn. “We’re taking to the streets, kinda like how we did in the radical days. That’s how we raise awareness and try to stop these kids from shooting [each other].”

Killed Over a Dice Game

But gangs and the problems within their communities have changed since the 1980s, as social media has made people excitable and even tiny issues get out of hand.

“Every other day we hear about another kid getting shot,” says Dennis Febo, an advisor at the Booker T. Apartments’ weekly meetings, in reference to a two-month period this past summer when two people were killed by gunfire and another 26 people were shot. One of those shootings erupted from a dice game.  

“I mean, how do you even address that?”

“Every other day we hear about another kid getting shot,” says Jersey City resident Dennis Febo.Photo by Joseph Darius Jaafari

The problem is particularly vexing in Jersey City. Dozens of residents from The Hill point to the demolition Montgomery Gardens, a public housing project just a block away from the Booker T. Apartments that was once home to 434 families, as stirring up long-standing geographic boundaries between feuding rivals, some of whom were kicked out of their apartments and forced to relocate to areas that weren’t necessarily welcoming.

“The people who lived in the Montgomery houses may have had issues with people up on The Hill,” says Pamela Johnson, executive director of the New Jersey Anti-Violence Coalition Movement. “That beef between families has been transferred down from generation to generation. Now with the displacement, they live next door to an arch enemy they had their entire life.”

Public Safety Director James Shea tells NationSwell in an email that preventing these crimes is much more than just mitigating generational rivalries and requires smarter policing practices.

“Eye-for-an-eye justice is a definite problem and the cause of many instances where one incident sparks a series of retaliatory actions,” he says. “While there are definitely long-standing differences between groups related to specific public housing locations, and that is part of the investigation strategy, it is not the sole cause.”

In January of this year, Mayor Fulop vowed to reduce gun violence by hiring more police, increasing the Jersey City force from under 800 to 922 officers in the past two years, the largest it’s been in 20 years.

The city has also put into place new procedures when a shooting occurs, including swarming the area with plainclothes officers who build relationships with community members that can lead to arrests. It’s believed that a larger, and more visible police force, helps deter crimes.

An overnight solution isn’t possible, Fulop and Shea say, because the issues facing Jersey City are so deeply rooted. Even policing won’t solve it, completely.

“Any number of shooting deaths is too many but these issues aren’t issues that are unique to jersey city [sic] and the reality is they are issues that no city can only police their way to a solution on,” Fulop wrote in a Facebook post in June 2015. “Many of the issues have taken decades to get here and they won’t be solved by pure police.”

Many residents and volunteer advocates praise the mayor’s work, but stop short of saying the administration has helped reduce violence or shootings on their streets.

Dennis Febo and Dwayne Baskerville at the Booker T. Washington Apartments.Photo by Joseph Darius Jaafari

A Community, Together

A Mother’s Pain has yet to see the significant drop in violence that’s been achieved by the group in the Booker T. apartments. The mothers, however, do take credit for a two-week period of no shootings in Greenville — a significant moment considering residents complain about gun violence virtually every day.

Mayor Fulop says that conversations with the group have helped inform the city’s newest anti-violence strategies.

As for Gilmore, he’s taken kids off the street to teach them boxing in Williams’s backyard.

“I do it as a way to keep them from being bored. Keep ’em busy,” he says. “I’d much rather these kids — if they’re gonna beef — learn to use their fists than some guns.”

Back in August, Gilmore noticed a boy, no older than 12 years old, carrying a gun in his waistband. Gilmore demanded that he hand it over. The tween argued back, claiming that he needed it for protection from guys outside his school, waiting for him.

“From now on, I’m walking you to and from school,” Gilmore told the boy.

The situation, Gilmore acknowledges, is complicated for black communities, where more policing might reduce crime but increases distrust among the community it serves.

He is confident, though, that one thing will work: Getting the entire community to come together to take a stand for a better quality of life.

Visit Joseph Darius Jaafari’s GitHub page to learn how the data in this article was captured and analyzed.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Hessie Williams’s son was killed at age 19. He was 17. NationSwell apologizes for the error.

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