Nonviolence Begins with You: In the face of record crime, our community bands together to look for answers
Crime is on the rise. But people in our city are finding ways to make a difference.
According to the Chinese Zodiac calendar, 2011 was the "Year of the Rabbit." In keeping with the Chinese tradition, the Rabbit largely represents tranquility and calmness. Yet, unfortunately for our community, the opposite held true. In some circles, 2011 was better known as "Year of the Gun." And we really couldn't argue this notion. All we had to do was turn on the news, read the paper, or log into our Facebook or Twitter accounts to know that these shooting incidents were occurring every couple of days and sometimes even consecutively. Within those twelve months, city police responded to more than 100 incidents in which shots were fired. Of those incidents, 54 people were assaulted and three were killed. Aside from the fact that one death is one too many, what is most alarming about these 100 incidents is this number was twice what it was in 2010, and almost four times what it was in 2009. And as a community, we could only stand back and watch this happen.
What about those that didn't?
On January 5, 2010, Steve Arrington II, 19, was shot five times in the parking lot of his family's convenience store on Buffalo Road. With his body riddled with 9mm bullets, Steve would later die of his injuries. Four hours after he was killed, 17-year old Larry S. Lemon, was in custody at the Erie police station, facing charges of homicide, aggravated assault, and possession of a firearm. A year later, a jury would convict Lemon of third-degree murder—a sentence that ranged from 20 to 40 years. However, that verdict would be overturned when it was discovered jurors had improper access to evidence in the jury room. And instead of a new trial, Lemon would plea bargain and ultimately only get 10 to 20 years. He was sentenced March 2, 2011.
I sat down with Steve Arrington's mother, Sonya Arrington, early on a Friday morning at Burger King on Erie's upper Eastside. I had heard a little bit about Arrington's initiative—Mother's Against Teen Violence (M.A.T.V.) project—but I wanted to know more. Here was a woman that lost her son so violently and so young, and yet instead of being angry and bitter, she started a crusade to end violence and create a better path for others in hopes of ultimately making a brighter future for those this program could reach.
According to Sonya, "Prior to my son's death, while it was sad in my heart to hear of all the violence, I didn't do anything because I thought this could never happen to me." Afterward though, Sonya would ultimately feel the need to step up and create an example. "This is my message to other parents and community members. Don't do as I did. Prevention is the key. I couldn't save my own child, but maybe I can save someone else's." One of the key points Sonya makes is she truly believes a child's success begins in the home. "Unfortunately, a lot of kids don't come from a good home. They don't have mothers or fathers, or they have parents that just don't care. I see this. This is where we get involved. When possible, we aim to help young people and their parents form a bond that will let them love each other and be able to discuss negative conflicts—to change the negative into a positive. And when that isn't possible, we as a community need to step up and take a more active role in these younger lives."
As part of her mission, Sonya goes into schools, churches, and organizations to speak to the youth to tells them her son's story. "This started out as a mission, and now it's a crusade. I will continue to spread these messages until my dying breath."
I think about the impact of what she just said and ask her if she had only one piece of advice to give to anyone out there reading this, what would it be?
"I tell kids all the time: no matter what you do in life, no matter how bad it is, you can always change. But change starts today. A lot of kids think things can never change. That's just not true. You can learn from your mistakes and can move forward. When I talk to these kids, I tell them, I'm not going to tell you anything I wouldn't tell my own child—and that I love each and every single one of them. Because if I didn't, I wouldn't be here today."
Her faith in God is what brought her here today. "God didn't pull that trigger. To me, God is good all day, every day. We need God, not guns, to send a positive message to our kids and teens. The mold for our children's success begins at home, so we need to lead by example and show our children how to respect themselves as well as each other."
Getting Violence Off The Streets
While law enforcement officials work day and night to help get these offenders off the streets, Erie County District Attorney Jack Daneri believes that there are three core processes that play a continual role in the reduction of violence: a proactive process, a reactive process, and a community process. "Obviously law enforcement is a reactionary process," Daneri tells me. "We learn of the offender and arrest them. Though today, we are getting them off the streets quicker." More often than not, I learn, law enforcement officials have an idea of who the offender is, whether it's through the way a crime is committed or through a certain mode of operation, but don't have enough evidence to make an arrest. "We then pool our resources for intelligence with other groups. These guys then work quickly to develop leads and connections that help us make the arrests."
There's also an anticipatory approach to offenders. "Law enforcement identifies through established criteria, a group of chronic violent offenders—and we're not just throwing names on the wall. Statistics show us that a small group of people commit the majority of the crimes. This is not different in Erie," he adds. While Daneri couldn't elaborate on specifics, he cited this example: "Let's say we know someone has been involved in X number of shootings; while we know this, we can't get people to come forth and testify but we know this person exists. We could have really good information, but it just won't survive a search warrant. So, we target these people and do a full-blown investigation."
He also clarifies that this is not profiling. "We are developing solid information on the individuals so that when we make the arrest, everything is accurate. We want to make sure we have the facts straight and no legal problems, and therefore, develop a solid case. By doing this we can identify these potential offenders that are going to commit crimes and get in front of them before it happens."
I mention to Daneri that earlier in the year, Marshall Piccinini from the United States Department of Justice referenced in the papers that Erie needed a better plan in place. "Piccinini believes that the agencies involved—the Erie Police, the Pennsylvania State Police, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Eagle Task Force, the Attorney General, etc.—need to work more closely together. Let's say the FBI has information on a suspect but the Erie Police may not know this and don't have access to it. We need to develop a plan that would allow us to share that information and work better collectively, and we are working on that."
To gather more of my own intelligence, I stop by Chief County Detective, Larry Dombrowski's office after I meet with Daneri. This is where I learn more of the community's role in the process. "There are several active Neighborhood Watch Groups that hold weekly meetings," Dombrowski tells me. "At least one of us goes to these meetings and listens to the complaints and gathers data; through these individuals, we can create more actionable intelligence. They let us know who's in the neighborhoods and what is occurring. They're often the first ones to report it." Of the 60 watch groups that exist, there are 40 that are regularly active. "These are the high crime areas," he adds. "They are our first points of contact. They obviously want something done."
Law enforcement officials also recognize social media as a vital communication tool to help apprehend suspects. Dombrowski explains, "We have a website and a Twitter account that keeps the community in constant loop of all that is happening. It's far more effective than scanners because this serves a continual log for us; if you get up and walk away for a bit, you can come back and not have missed anything. It's as close to real time as we can get." These social media outlets have worked well for them. "After we activated the account, the Sheriff asked us to list the fugitives on Twitter and our website, and as a result we have apprehended 50 percent people that have been listed."
If you're not already following, anyone in the community has access to this information. The website is eriealerts.com and the Twitter account goes by the same name. On the site, there are photos and information about those that have been apprehended and suspects they are still looking for. Dombrowski reiterates what Daneri told me earlier: "Although these have been great tools, we aren't getting to the root of the problem."
Learning the Risks
In order to get to the root of the problem you need to become more proactive. One of the proactive projects that is being implemented is the 'Communities that Care' initiative. Marshall Piccinini, law enforcement officials, the Erie Policy and Planning Council, and other key individuals are currently in the process of creating an actionable community prevention plan that will be unveiled in April. Joseph Markiewicz is the Trainer for this program. "This is a slow cooker approach to create a better community," he tells me on the phone. "This isn't a quick fix; we are identifying risk factors, and we aren't picking up kids that are already in trouble. We're going to work with young kids for the next 10 to 20 years, and in turn, hope to drastically reduce delinquency and violence in youth."
Every two years the council does an assessment of the Erie County community and the major risk factors. "We collect data on several issues and lay them all out on the table. We then select the biggest risk factors that lead towards negative behaviors and focus on those. In order to go after violence we have to go after all the things that lead to violence. We can't just go after the rough and tumble - we need to start with the basics."
Markewicz was approached in December 2010 to get on board. "Piccinini really wanted to target youth violence. The model is designed to involve everyone – businesses, parents, and the community, not just law enforcement."
As for whether this model works, "This initiative can be found in 90 communities across Pennsylvania. There have been three independent studies done on this model. We found out through our own study at Penn State Behrend, the communities that implement this model are 11 times more effective in reducing youth problems. It's the most effective community coalition out there." I learn the group will focus and promote different initiatives and programs. And it's also cost effective. "Erie County spends $30 million a year locking up youth. We can put a huge dent in that. Through this program we're not only saving taxpayer dollars we'll save lives."
Community-wide programs with national models such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters to student run initiatives at individual schools will be promoted and they will vary. One of these programs is through General McClane High School. "The kids and administration have established a youth council out there. It's a group of 20 kids with different backgrounds that work continuously to create a better environment for their peers. Their aim is to reduce sadness and depression and create a positive experience for students."
Marielle Kennerknecht, a senior at General McClane is one of the participants. "The program is known as the Principal's Cabinet," she tells me. "We really work to spread the core values of the school. As part of our mission, we work to create positive environments or develop programs that combat different issues—drugs, depression, student morale—and infiltrate this through the student body. We're not chosen because we're leaders; we're chosen because we're good representation of different students and groups."
The Nonviolence Coalition
Another group that continues to advocate non-violence is Abundant Life Ministries and the Non-violence Coalition. "The reality is we need to speak life because death is all around us," Daryl Craig (fondly known as "Brother D"), the coordinator of the Parade Street Community Center's non-violence initiative tells me. Craig and City Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr. agree to meet with me and talk about this program. I step into the main foyer of Abundant Life Ministry's Parade Street home and immediately take in the sense of family that exists within the walls. A Bible passage, "Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid," is painted on the wall, a coat drive is going on in one of the side rooms, and since it was about noon, several patrons—young and old—are having lunch or milling throughout.
Jones tells me how this all began. "Pastor Robert Gaines from Abundant Life is really to credit. He was always involved in the community and wanted to take the ministry outside of the church, so he started a lot of the outreach programs. We started a separate 501 c3—the Parade Street Community Center—because we were concerned the religious label may push people away." Through this organization, the group runs many non-spiritual activities. "We have the Non-violence Coalition, our community lunches, our coat drive," Craig jumps in. "There's also community service programs, our prison ministry, court advocacy program, and suicide prevention programs." They both look at each other, and I sense they're trying to remember other programs, but they end there.
As for the Non-violence Coalition itself, Jones explains, "There's an underlying mantra of the organization: 'Non-violence begins with me.' We believe there's a personal responsibility to stop violence. Violence is an individual choice, and so is non-violence. We can choose to not respond negatively. A few years back, we had a major campaign to get the message out."
I remember this. Billboards were strategically placed throughout the city. Homes and businesses were given signs that displayed this mantra. The letters were royal blue vinyl and a cutout of a dove was glued on white Coroplast.
"At one point, we were conducting major demonstrations; we would go to various neighborhoods and areas with high traffic and carry these boards—the Bayfront Connector or 26th and Parade [streets]. Sometimes we'd go to a darker region where it was really intense—places where nobody wanted to go. We needed to get this message out."
I ask where they get their funding. They both quietly laugh, and Craig says, "We never really ask for donations. Our focus was always to just do the work and the resources will come. We felt we had to prove ourselves faithful first." As for how others can get involved? "Everyone has a role and a part to play. There are opportunities for everyone to get involved. We know some people can't get involved in a deeper level. Caring IS work. But everyone can play a role.
Craig adds, "What is the one thing that incorporates all of us? Community. We all share the same streets so therefore building a good community belongs to all of us. The answer is in each and every one of us. It's not necessarily about what we're doing," he emphasizes. "It's what you're doing. Whether it's through a donation, or supporting an event, or spreading the message. We'd love nothing more than to see a sea of blue and white throughout this city. This message drives the bus."
Violence begets violence. It's such a simple phrase, yet its very roots run deep. We as individuals can all take a personal role in working towards vanquishing this issue. Whether it's volunteering with Sonya Arrington and M.A.T.V, or with Daryl Craig and Curtis Jones, Jr., at the Parade Street Community Center, becoming a Big Brother or Big Sister, talking to your kids or teenagers like Marielle Kennerknecht and having them get more involved in their schools, or just becoming more active in the community, we can do something. If nothing else though—and to Craig, this is everything)—we can at least spread the message: Non-violence begins with you.
There's an old Cherokee tale of a grandfather teaching life principles to his grandson. The Cherokee says to his grandson, "Inside every person a battle is raging between two wolves. One wolf is evil. He is angry, jealous, unforgiving, proud, and lazy. The other wolf is good. He is filled with love, kindness, humility, and self-control. These two wolves are constantly fighting," the grandfather explained. The little boy thought about it for a moment, and in turn asked, "Grandfather, which wolf ultimately wins?"
The grandfather smiled and said, "Whichever one you feed."