Mott Haven residents lead effort to stop the bleeding
As she sat on her aunt’s lap, tears streamed down five-year-old Maryliz Romero’s face as she thought of her uncle, whose picture she was wearing on an oversized button.
“This is what we go through all the time,” said her aunt, Lesly Romero, 35, looking down at her niece.
Two years ago, while Maryliz’s uncle was visiting friends in Mott Haven, a stray bullet took his life. He was 15 years old.
“This is why we’re out here,” said Romero.
Romero and her niece were two of hundreds who gathered at 139th Street and Brook Avenue on May 8 for the Fifth Annual Walk Against Gun Violence. Armed with signs to commemorate loved ones and bullhorns to magnify their words, they walked the streets of Mott Haven and urged the community to end gun violence–a problem many of them say is only getting worse.
“It’s a daily thing up here in the Bronx,” said Yvette Forehand, 49, who lives in Parkchester. Forehand’s son Rory was killed three years ago when gunshots were fired at a party he was attending. “I turned on the news this morning to get the weather, and I find out that three people were shot last night. It’s scary.”
Gloria Cruz, the head of the Bronx chapter of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, started the march in 2006, a year after her 10-year-old niece was struck by a stray bullet at a Labor Day block party.
“We decided to walk on the day before Mother’s Day, because Mother’s Day is hard for the moms who have lost a child to violence,” Cruz said. “We’re walking in solidarity and showing support for each other.”
Every year, the march brings out new mothers seeking comfort—like Allison Diehl, whose 26-year-old son Jeremiah was killed in 2006.
“To this day, I still drive down the road and think I see my son,” Diehl said. “Being out here, it gives me some kind of–I’m not going to say escape–but it helps.”
The group marched down Brook Avenue toward St. Mary’s Park, shouting “It takes the hood to save the hood’” and “Put down guns. Celebrate life.” People leaned out of windows and watched from their stoops and sidewalks.
The people watching from the sidelines reminded those walking that they still have a long way to go to get the community involved.
“We need to let people know, if you’re tired of what’s going on in the community, use your voice,” said Mike Tucker, 44, who was marching in memory of his son, who was shot in 2005.
And the first step, said Bernard Smith, 60, is showing people that it’s okay to speak out when they see things that are unsafe.
“People know who has guns in this community,” said Smith, who organizes anti-violence marches in Morrisania. “Sometimes they’re people in their own families. And a lot of times they want to turn them in, but they’re scared.”
But that’s only part of the problem, said Reverend Martha Overall of nearby St. Ann’s Church. The community also needs to teach neighborhood kids that violence is not a first resort when they’re settling a dispute.
“I’ve taken guns away from kids who don’t even really want to use them,” said Overall. “They’re just making a rash decision, acting impulsively.”
Many teenagers did choose to march.
“Growing up in the Bronx, you see a lot of things—fist fights, gangs,” said Kiara Melendez, 19, who was walking with the United Players, a violence prevention group from Banana Kelly High School. “For us to be a part of this is a big thing. It shows that you can change things even if you’re a part of the violence.”
“It shows that there’s hope,” agreed her friend Kelly Martinez, 20.
The march culminated in St. Mary’s Park with speeches from politicians, including Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. and Assemblyman Marcos Crespo. They promised to help organizations like Cruz’s lobby in Albany for stricter gun control laws.
But most marchers agreed that long-lasting change starts from within the community.
“Gloria’s created a network of leaders,” Overall said. “And we will be out here again next year on the eve of Mother’s Day and every year after that until the guns are gone.”