Inside a small cul-de-sac in the Crescent Park neighborhood, dozens of community members linked arms and encircled a solitary tree adorned with photos of Mark Henderson II, 29, who was shot and killed just yards away from this spot on April 9. Most of the guests looked down at the base of the tree, the concrete still covered in candle wax from vigils held the days after his death. But, as they picked their heads up, smiles spread through the crowd. This day was about celebrating life, not mourning death.
Richmond residents had filed in throughout the day on Saturday to offer their support to the Henderson family and listen to gospel music and sermons organized by Pastor Kellis Love of Greater Love Ministries, which hosts “Save Our Sons” anti-violence events throughout the city. There was also free food and a clothing giveaway arranged by Crescent Park resident Elana Bolds, organizer of the annual “Put The Guns Down” gathering and Henderson’s godmother.
Near the end of the event, Henderson’s mother, Decenthia Evangalist Henderson Jones, took the mic and addressed the crowd. “This is what’s helping me stay strong: my neighbors, my friends, my everything,” she said. “There’s somebody out there that had a child and they didn’t get this.”
“My son touched so many people, so many, and just for me to know that he did something right, that means I did my job,” she continued.
According to family and friends, Henderson was an outgoing and popular member of the Crescent Park community who enjoyed mentoring neighborhood children. He worked with Bolds on nine of her Put The Guns Down events, which have been held in Richmond since 2006, and had earned associates degrees in African-American Studies and sociology from Contra Costa College.
Henderson was a mixed martial arts fighter and boxer who planned to use the money he was set to earn for a fight in May to set up a boxing program in Crescent Park. He was also the father to a 4-year-old daughter named Ariel.
Henderson is one of four men who have been shot and killed in Richmond in separate incidents since April 7.
Javoni Foster, a 20-year-old Antioch resident was shot in his car near the 1000 block of South 55 street on April 7.
On April 12, Mark Johnson Jr., 35, was killed on the 200 block of South 15 street after getting into an argument with the person who shot him, according to police.
The most recent shooting occurred on April 19 in front of a convenience store near the Monterey Pines apartment complex, resulting in the death of a 21-year-old Pittsburg man who has yet to be identified.
According to Richmond police spokesman Lt. Felix Tan, a suspect has been identified in the Johnson shooting, but Henderson’s killer remains a mystery. “We are pretty confident, although not confirmed, that there’s a gang relationship to the homicides,” Tan said in reference to the murders of Henderson and Foster. Tan said the two victims were not in gangs themselves, and motives for the shootings aren’t yet known.
“Nobody’s child deserves to die, but what we’re seeing a lot of now is that it can happen to anyone,” Bolds said about Henderson’s death. “You don’t have to be out there in the street, you don’t have to be in a gang.”
Bolds, who has worked as a funeral singer for 25 years and attended services for many people who have been lost to gun violence, said the outpouring of support for Henderson is something new. “I’ve been here 22 years and never seen a response like this,” she said referring to the number of people who had gathered at the memorial. “Something is different with this one, maybe because so many people knew [Henderson], because so many people knew his parents.”
“Maybe because we as a community are just getting tired,” she continued after a pause. “That’s what I’m hoping.”
Among the crowd was Richmond Police Department crime prevention manager Michelle Milam, who in the past had worked with Henderson at events geared towards kids and young adults. “I think [this event] is a reflection of who Mark was as a person,” she said. “Mark cared about these kids and he cared about this community. I think it’s a beautiful thing that people showed up for each other and that we continue to show up for each other.”
The recent wave of shootings in Richmond came after an almost five-month period without a homicide, the longest stretch of time without a murder in the city since the police department started keeping records in the 1970s. As recently as the mid-2000s, Richmond routinely suffered from over 40 homicides a year, a figure that dropped to 17 last year.
The timing of the first two shootings just days after Bay Area news outlets published stories about the drop in violence in Richmond has not been lost on residents, many of whom have criticized the stories as a jinx or even a spark for the violence.
Milam said that while there’s no easy way to discuss gun violence, residents shouldn’t be afraid to talk about improvements. “I think the best response is that we acknowledge the fact that [violence] has gone down, but we still have to keep doing the work, because there are still many families that are suffering,” she said.
Milam points to an increase in community engagement as a major factor in the reduction of gun violence, but pointed out that the residents at Saturday’s event were mostly in their 40s or older before saying that more can be done to reach younger residents. “We need people who can go and do direct intervention, people who are trained to do that with young people,” she said. “Because young people don’t necessarily come out to the community forums and events. You have to come to them and it has to be one-on-one.”
Bolds says that although Henderson’s death hit so close to home, she and his family plan to push forward with their advocacy against gun violence. “It’s not normal for our kids to die at such an alarming rate, it’s not normal for them to die at the hands of each other,” she said. “So I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing. Am I grieving? Absolutely. Was I depressed yesterday? Absolutely. Am I going to stop fighting? Hell no.”
Henderson’s funeral will be held this Friday at Tabernacle of Praise on Harbour Way. In the coming weeks, his family hopes to partner with the city to open a boxing foundation and gym in his name. They are raising money for this goal through a GoFundMe campaign.