I’ve decided to revisit the issue of gun violence again this week, since it remains at the forefront of discussion among many of the city’s Black residents who are urgently seeking a solution.
Two recent community conversations give me reason to hope that the torrent of words will be followed by effective action. For that, I’m counting on African-American City Council members Lisa Wheeler-Bowman and Deborah Figgs-Sanders, who have spearheaded the effort to end the violence using a rallying cry of “Enough is Enough.”
First steps toward developing a strategic plan for their end-the-violence effort took place Thursday. During a virtual session hosted by St. Petersburg College Collaborative Labs, stakeholders convened “to initially identify three to five top areas where we can have the greatest impact, in the least amount of time,” Figgs-Sanders said.
What might those be? They are ambitious: To serve families holistically, create more economic opportunities, empower the Black community and advocate for law and policy reforms. Other areas of focus being considered include mentoring and adoption of families and businesses located in the city’s southern neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, information gathered from Thursday’s session will be used by Nikki Gaskin-Capehart, the city’s director of Urban Affairs, and the Enough is Enough Initiative to develop a plan to be implemented over the next six months. It will include identifying funding resources, asset mapping, collaborations and outreach.
The more than 30 stakeholders who met virtually on Thursday had a lot with which to work. Earlier this week, young people – the city’s future and the group most likely to be affected by violence – weighed in on the recent troubles during a “Real Talk” Zoom discussion.
Their comments were candid. There were questions about the high percentage of police officers living outside the city. One young woman declared that living in the city would give officers a better understanding of the people they serve and let them know “that everybody isn’t bad.” Suggestions were made to expand the city’s community-type policing programs.
Wheeler-Bowman, whose young cousin, Arnieceia Milton, a 23-year-old mother of two and an innocent bystander, was killed in one of the recent shootings, emphasized that the city already has programs to foster relationships between citizens and police. “The police are not your enemy,” she said.
Participants were interested in letting their peers know about job training and career opportunities associated with college or vocational schools. They asked about second chances for young people who’ve had run-ins with the law and suggested reaching out to those who had been involved in, or affected by, violence. A young man called for additional help to combat drug abuse in the community and said jobs will help prevent the unemployed from turning to illegal activity.
Another virtual gathering this week tapped into the city’s traditional Black leaders, representatives from the NAACP and Urban League, pastors, politicians, educators and grassroots organizers. Speakers expressed concern about the state of families and urged churches and others in the community to provide crucial guidance and support. These leaders emphasized the importance of early childhood development, jobs and mental health.
Guns are the problem, Ray Tampa, a retired educator said. Not so, countered others. Whatever the reason, there have been 14 homicides in St. Petersburg so far this year. Nine were with guns. Of the nine gun victims, eight were Black. The department is not yet counting the recent shootout with police in which Dominique Harris, 20, was killed, among this year’s homicides.
While the Enough is Enough campaign was triggered by recent shootings in the 16th Street and 18th Avenue S blocks, some participants in this week’s conversations brought up loud and rowdy gatherings at Cabana Sands, a restaurant and bar on Sixth Street S.
“We know that what we are experiencing in the increase of crime in our communities is greater than these areas,” Figgs-Sanders said. “But we need to begin somewhere and will rely heavily on the community to help save itself.”
Patrols have been increased along 16th Street S and 18th Avenue S., and officers have been meeting with neighborhood groups and businesses that have been attracting large nighttime gatherings, police spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez said. Businesses have been cooperating and some have given police authority to serve trespassing notices to those who gather on their properties after business hours, she said, going on to credit the Enough is Enough movement for helping to reduce the crowds.
The issue of gangs also came up during the discussions about how to halt gun violence. Fernandez described the “gangs” as loosely formed neighborhood groups. “We suspect many of them are armed with stolen guns,” she said, adding that while gunshots have been exchanged among the groups, none have been connected to recent homicides.
But that doesn’t alleviate the concerns of frightened neighbors. As Monday’s discussion came to a close, Pastor Louis Murphy prayed for divine intervention and asked God to turn the conversation “into action.”
His prayers may be answered. The movement, which began just a few weeks ago with a simple slogan and is being steered by two determined Black mothers and grandmothers, is about to take off.