‘Put down your guns,’ youth group pleads

Danny Barber and fellow LIFE Camp members
Danny Barber and fellow LIFE Camp members

Mott Haven organization works to curb growing violence

Danny Barber has been warned that people are out to kill him because he’s trying to keep young people from a life of crime and violence.

Gang members have targeted him because he helped bring a program called LIFE Camp to the Bronx, he says. They believe his efforts could cut into their profits by reducing their ability to recruit young people to help them sell drugs, according to Barber, the Resident Association President for the Andrew Jackson Houses.

“I don’t want to go out like that,” Barber told a crowd on stage following the annual Mother’s Day March Against Gun Violence. “But they keep me going,” he said, pointing at the teenagers by his side. “They’re my joy, strength and will.”

Surrounding him, wearing brightly colored t-shirts saying “I Love My Life!” were members of the new Bronx chapter of LIFE Camp, a youth organization dedicated to helping young people make good life choices and fight against the plague of violence in their neighborhood.

The program, developed by activist Erica Ford in 2003, is built around young people recruiting their peers.

Danny Barber
Danny Barber at the Mother's Day March

Ford tells the story of Ronald Merritt, who says LIFE Camp saved his life. A former gang member, he heard Ford speak at a funeral for one his friends, put down his gun and picked up a camera. Now he’s an established cinematographer who shoots most of the videos and public service announcements for LIFE Camp, as well as producing music videos for well-known artists.

Mott Haven resident Keyauana Ramon heard about LIFE Camp earlier this spring, and decided to attend a meeting in hopes of making a difference in her own neighborhood.

“I’ve already lost more friends than I can count,” said the 15-year-old, “and I don’t want to lose another to gun violence, fighting or prison.”

Her friend Soniannette Diaz, like Keyauna a resident of the Jackson Houses, nodded her head in agreement. At the Mothers Day March, she said LIFE Camp has taught her to respect people, and helped her improve her grades.

The week of the Mothers Day March, the 40th precinct reported seven murders. Violent crime is on the rise citywide, for the first time in more than a decade. In the Bronx, homicides jumped by 34%, while rape was up 22%, and felony assaults 2.7%.

In Bronx public housing the problem is more severe. Homicide claimed 27 victims in 2010, compared 13 the year before. The number of shooting victims on Housing Authority properties skyrocketed by 71%.

According to David Kennedy, professor of Criminal Justice at John Jay College and director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control, many of these shootings can be traced to anger flaring over a perceived slight or to vendettas governed by a street code born in the prison system that lays out rules about respect

Mott Haven resident Javiel Riveria and his family know first-hand the danger of mixing guns with conflicts. Nine months ago Riviera’s 21-year old son Luis Soto got into a fight with another young man. Shots were fired. The police who responded shot and killed Soto.

“It’s like the wild, wild West out there,” he said. “When I grew up we settled our differences with our fists. Now, if a young person gets angry he just shoots.” Pleading to young people, he asked them to be more responsible and stop the killing.“

I wish they could see how my family has been destroyed, he said. “When you shoot someone,” Riveria added, “You don’t just take the life of the person you killed but you also take your own life and destroy families and loved ones along the way.”

“Guns make young people think they’re in charge of what others do and in control,” said 14-year-old Mott Haven resident Gabriel Cruz. But, says the teenager, kids don’t talk about how they worry every day about whether they’re going to see their friends or their parents tomorrow.

Cruz has already lost his 4-year old nephew and an older step-brother to gun violence. He says he joined LIFE Camp because he didn’t want to lose any more people in his life.

The program starts with a six-week training that provides classes on topics such as non-violent conflict resolution and health and wellness. Using young people’s interest in film and music, it develops leadership skills and teaches them how to turn their passions and talents into businesses.

Barber is looking for funds to keep the program going in the summer, when young people have time to take part in training—and time to get in trouble.

“My life would have been very different had a program like this been around when I was younger,” said LIFE Camp member Lisa Lorenzi.

Before she joined, she said, she would have been afraid to come to an event like the Mothers Day March. Now, she continued, as Danny Barber stood next to her and cheered her on, “Everybody is united and working together. We’re making a movement!”

A version of this story appeared in the June/July issue of the Mott Haven Herald.