A year after his nephew, Leroy Bell, III, was stabbed to death trying to prevent his lawn mower from being stolen, the pain from losing him is still fresh for Robert Blackstone.
“It was really tragic to the family to have to lose a loved one like that,” Blackstone said. “The violence is real in our city, and it needs to be addressed. Positive solutions have to be placed on the problem.”
Blackstone’s nephew is one of the 120 black men killed from violence in 2015, according to crime statistics obtained by the Commercial Appeal in an open-records request. Bell was 50 when he was killed, but in Memphis, the victims and the suspects who kill them are often much younger.
“Mostly, our victims and suspects are 18 to 34-year-old young men that (undergo or cause) senseless deaths,” said Michael Rallings, interim director of the Memphis Police Department. “It’s a waste of talent, a waste of life.”
Memphis has a population of 656, 861 people and a homicide rate of 9.13 victims per 100,000 population, according to the U.S. Census. If numbers keeping increasing at this rate this year, the city will end up with more than 240 homicides, which would surpass the 213 homicides recorded in 1993. As of April, there have already been 61 homicides, a 45 percent increase over last year. One 2015 FBI crime report ranked Memphis as the second most dangerous city in the U.S., below Detroit, Michigan.
Community organizations and leaders are stepping up to help combat violence in the Memphis community and to examine possible solutions through actions such as community engagement, mentorship, ministry and holding city leaders accountable.
Although Rallings said that taking actions such as addressing illegal guns and activities are always top priorities when combating violence, he said community involvement is needed to address the issue, as well.
“When I talk to young men that are incarcerated or have been down the wrong road, they talk about mentorship,” Rallings said. “(Regarding solutions) I think about morality and the need for clergy and other individuals to be involved in these young men’s lives.”
Ministry and Mentorship
Minister Joe “Uncle Joe” Hunter, who advocates gang prevention and intervention programs in schools, agrees that one way to combat violence is to connect with youth at an early age. “You have to be consistent, loving and kind, yet firm,” he said. “You have to listen to them and show them a different way of life than what they see in movies, their phones and some of their households.”
For 10 years, Hunter and his wife have been reaching youth through Gospel at New Generation, Inc., or G.A.N.G., a youth ministry for youth ages 7 to18 that offers activities such as etiquette training, mentorship, homework assistance, recreational activities and spiritual guidance.
Hunter said that more community resources and involvement are needed for youth, such as community centers with effective staff and after-school programs in more churchest.
Hunter also wants to see an initiative implemented titled the “Youth Handgun Reduction Initiative.” The plan, which his organization developed with former Mayor AC Wharton’s administration, includes initiatives to expand G.A.N.G., Inc. throughout the city and to implement other community initiatives to reduce violence in areas such as Frayser.
Hunter, who was a former gang member, said he wants to reach out to other young men to make sure they don’t make similar choices.
“I have five bullet (wounds) in my body from a drug deal that went bad,” Hunter said. “This is real for me. I feel indebted to young people to see that they succeed in life.”
Fifteen-year-old Chris Haggins, who said that he grew up around drug dealers, credits Hunter’s program for keeping him on the right path.
“Uncle Joe showed me that the world ain’t no joke,” Haggins said. “He taught me to stay out of the way (of negative behavior), get good grades and be better.”
G.A.N.G., Inc. has also impacted 26-year-old Cleven Smith, who has been involved in the organization since he was 12. He said that before becoming involved in G.A.N.G., Inc., he was involved in gang activity and hung out with a bad crowd.
“G.A.N.G. Inc. taught me how to be a man,” said Smith, who hopes to have a music career. “It provided me with a father figure.”
Smith now volunteers with the program every summer, and he says it’s important for young men to be able to participate in programs like G.A.N.G., Inc. “(It’s important) to talk to the young guys and show them that there’s something out there other than gangs and the streets,” Smith said. “Anything is possible.”
Stevie Moore, founder of Freedom From Unnecessary Negatives, said more community engagement will help remedy violence in Memphis.
“We tend to look at the police department, sheriff department and the mayor to solve our problems,” Moore said. “Until the community wakes up and gets tired of being sick and tired … I don’t think that crime is going to stop or go down.”
Moore founded his non-profit in 1983 to help keep youth and young adults from crime and negative behavior through civic, economic and social programs.
In 2003, he launched the “Stop the Killing” initiative after his 23-year-old son, Prentice, was killed outside of the now closed Denim and Diamonds Club in Memphis. As part of the initiative, the group hosts rallies in economically distressed communities in Memphis and Shelby County to educate people about how crime and senseless killings affect families and communities and to advocate for violence prevention and intervention.
The non-profit also hosts an annual multicultural picnic to unite youth and the community, a type of activity to capture youth’s attention through positive activities early on.
“If we keep on waiting until 12 or 13 (years old), it’s too late; they’ve made up their minds, and somebody’s gotten to them,” Moore said. “We have to do more. We have an epidemic in our community, and we have to face it.”
Breaking the Cycle
The cycle of violence in Memphis can also be addressed by programs such as Juvenile Intervention and Faith-based Follow Up (JIFF), a 16-week program for court-referred youth founded in 2003.
The program’s mission is to break the destructive cycle of juvenile crime through Christ-centered intervention, Bible studies, mentoring and learn-to-earn programs such as career readiness and culinary training.
“All these kids that we’re working with are on a railroad track, and if somebody’s not down there to change the switch to keep them on track, there’s going to be a wreck,” said Richard Graham, executive director of JIFF.
For the 16 weeks that participants are in the program, they are picked up from school on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and transported to JIFF to participate in recreational and educational activities.
Graham said that mentorship, not just money, is what’s needed in order to address the issue of violence among young men. “Throwing money at this particular problem is not going to fix it,” Graham said. “What’s going to fix it are people getting engaged to mentor these youth. There with us for 16 weeks, but what happens after that? That’s where we need the mentors. We’re asking that it be consistent.”
Addressing Internal Issues
For the Rev. Earle Fisher, one key to combating violence lies in addressing the structural issues, such as poverty, drugs and under-served schools that can cause violence within black communities.
“We seem only to be willing to discuss intraracial violence, but not structural violence,” Fisher said. “We need to deal with the fact that it is easier for us to get drugs and guns than it is for us to get a decent job and a good education. When you factor in poverty, political manipulation, economic exploitation and a disgraceful school system, that’s a wonderful formula for violent behavior to flourish.”
Fisher is a member of United Against Violence 901—a coalition of Memphis ministers that aims to minimize violence of all forms in Memphis. The coalition has hosted community events such as White Out Sunday — a march that took place August 30 to demand an end to violence.
Fisher said that addressing violence is a multi-faceted task, which can include things such as providing mentorship and job opportunities, engaging youth to talk about possible solution to combating violence and holding influential community leaders accountable. “The way that violence manifests itself in our communities now is very complex, because the root causes are comprehensive, so our responses have to be comprehensive,” Fisher said. “One of the things we need to do if we’re going to decrease crime is to make sure people have other opportunities, like jobs.”
Fisher also said that it’s important to raise awareness and understanding of some of the complex issue that occur in their communities, such as violence.
“You have to effectively and efficiently educate people on what’s going on,” Fisher said. “If you don’t, that makes it easy for a very oversimplified media portrayal to become the dominant narrative about what’s happening, and how people feel they’re supposed to respond.”
Local Government Actions
Ursula Madden, Mayor Jim Strickland’s director of communications, said that the administration is dedicated to reducing crime and violence among youth in Memphis and is open to working with any organizations that share this goal.
Madden said that there are several initiatives going on in Memphis to combat violence in crime, including,but not limited to:
GRASSY — The Shelby County Schools’ efforts to reduce youth violence includes programs like the Gang Resistance for Saving Society’s Youth (GRASSY). GRASSY is a prevention and intervention program that works with gang members to reduce their involvement and provide assistance when necessary.
Gun STAT — The gun violence reduction strategies targets violent repeat offenders in high crime neighborhoods, based on arrests, gang affiliations and probation status.
Memphis Gun Down — It was started by the previous administration but is still in effect. Tackles violent crime from a five ways: suppression, community mobilization, youth opportunities, intervention (901 BLOC Squad—uses street interventionists in conjunction with SCS GRASSY program—and hospitals if there is a shooting) and organizational change. It operates in four communities Frayser, South Memphis, Orange Mound Hickory Hill.
Multi-Agency Gang Unit (MGU) Task Force — The Memphis Police Department works with USA,FBI, ATF, Shelby County DA and the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office to reduce criminal activity of street gangs. The team enforces gang injunctions under the state’s nuisance laws to disrupt gang activity in specific areas. The latest injunction was issued in Binghamton.
New Blue Crush — The Memphis Police Department is committed to data driven policing, in which a higher number of officers focus on so called “hot spots” that show a pattern of criminal activity.
Madden said that the Strickland administration is committed to working with organizations, such as the Boys & Girls Club, athletic ministries and any other organizations that share its goals of “giving kids opportunities and hope and helping them to navigate around conflict.”
“Public safety is a priority for the mayor and his administration,” Madden said. “We’re willing to talk to anyone and listen to strategies.”
Note: Lexi Kinder and Kalyn Conway also contributed to this story.