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Advocates call on community to end violence

on September 9, 2011

There were fewer bodies in the audience at Thursday night’s Office of Neighborhood Safety meeting than have been laid out in blood on Richmond’s streets thus far this year.

But although organizers said they were discouraged by the turnout at the Dynamics of Peace forum, those who did show up at the Nevin Community Center did not lack for conviction.

“Right now we’re a small team, but if we all come together we can be an army,” said Charles Muhammad, a senior ONS peacekeeper, drawing an echo of amens. “We’re tired of innocent women and men dying because we are too afraid to take charge.”

The mission of the meeting, held in central Richmond’s Iron Triangle, was to bring youth, community members and civic leaders together to discuss a plan of action for putting a recent spat of violence to rest. The city saw 10 murders in August.

But the question of the night became, “What’s it going to take to fill these seats?”

Suggestions included offering transportation – Muhammad pledged at least two vans for the next gathering – asking faith organizations to bring their congregations, conducting more comprehensive outreach, which will include Spanish language flyers, reaching out more to local nonprofit establishments, and, most importantly, getting young people to show up.

“If we’re going to make a difference we’ve got to talk about it,” Muhammad said, before turning to ask the panel if there had been any murders this week in the nonchalant way one would inquire about the weather.

For the few who did show up, many sitting put for the entire three-hour dialogue, it was an evening strung together by stories of struggle, sorrow and strength. Nine panelists, most born and raised in Richmond and who have lost their own loved ones to gunfire, shared their personal experiences, triumphs and hope.

Lana Bolds smoked crack for years. She is now sober and advocates for parenting interventions and more youth programs.

“We want to tell our babies to stop killing, but what else do they have to do?” she asked.

Kevin Williams returned home several years ago after spending more than 17 years in prison and most of his life living by the violent code of the streets.

“If I can change anyone can,” Williams said. “But you have to change the thinking.”

Peacekeepers attributed the cycle of violence to poverty, lack of guidance and opportunity, and hostility between geographic lines. That is why ONS also plans to hold similar meetings in north and south Richmond.

“It’s never been how it is now,” Williams said. “It’s been violent but not segregated like this.”

In addition to offering inspiration from their own trials, each panelist offered a course of action, such as providing skills training for youth, mentorship programs, group sports, and, lastly, a community presence.

ONS, formed in 2007, is composed of volunteer, full- and part-time employees called peacekeepers and neighborhood change agents. The group strives to develop and sustain social resources for Richmond’s most vulnerable populations, while emphasizing youth violence prevention.

“There’s a new sheriff in town,” Muhammad said. “And that new sheriff is you.”

The ONS office will host a Women Against Violence meeting at 2 p.m. on Saturday. To find out how you can get involved or to become a mentor, call 510-435-4909.


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