George Mitchell stood in front of the mic, glanced at his notes, and let fly.
It’s not always easy for Richmond’s young people like Mitchell to express their feelings and their fears, especially to their peers. But Mitchell was bold, thanks in part to the supportive audience, and his poem took a frank approach to the territorial violence that has suffused his life in Richmond.
“I have a dream that one day I can ride the bus to north Richmond and not worry about who may see me,” Mitchell recited. “Don’t worry about being too far away from home, don’t panic when the bus stops for too long.”
Mitchell wasn’t alone. Other young people from all reaches of the city listened also explored the issues in rhythmic verse, and no one took exception. The gathering was in central Richmond, but the territorial realities were suspended. The teens here were from north, central and south, but those facts went unsaid.
More than 30 young people and local leaders, including Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, gathered at the Nevin Park Community Center Saturday for a youth-led meeting billed as a Town Hall on Violence in Richmond. The event was intended to spark larger and subsequent discussions and strategies for violence reduction at locations in south and North Richmond later this year.
The event was organized by Making Waves/RAW Talent, a creative arts program serving students in Richmond, along with help from Youth Speaks, Bay Area Peace Keepers, RichmondPulse.org, Street Soldiers radio and East Bay Center for Performing Arts.
The three-hour meeting provided a safe environment where young people expressed through art, poetry and group discussions how they have been affected by street violence. They also kicked around ideas about how to reduce violence, with the discussions facilitated by experienced community youth advocates from Bay Area Peacekeepers and Street Soldiers.
A key theme was increasing communication. On Saturday many young people described a reality in which invisible barriers preclude them from even visiting family or childhood friends in rival neighborhoods, much less engaging in any positive discussions with people in those neighborhoods.
“If we can find core groups of youth in each part of the city, at the very end we can bring all of them together to talk across borders, across turf divisions, about how they want to take back their city,” said Molly Raynor, a program coordinator for Making Waves and the main organizer of Saturday’s event. “It’s about more positive outcomes and less violence.”
Art and photo collages loomed large, arrayed around the meeting area. Many faces familiar to area students, like Ervin Coley III and Marquis Hamilton, both of whom were killed in unsolved shootings last year, were featured prominently along with many others in memorial placards. Hamilton and Coley were both killed in drive-by shootings in their North Richmond neighborhood. Neither was a suspected gang member, but both killings are suspected by police to have been in blind retaliation for earlier violence in central Richmond.
The deaths of Hamilton and Coley, as well as countless more, referred to as friends, cousins, uncles and brothers, loomed heavy over the peace talks.
In a poem packed with poignant lines, one of Mitchell’s last lines lingered over the audience.
“A dream that I can laugh with a brother from North [Richmond] and not be judged for it,” Mitchell said. “To not worry about dying for a street sign, land that none of us own.”