Reclaiming the StreetsA Bronx group makes noise after a gun death in their community
The Release the Grip team knew the drill. An oversized map was spread out on the conference table in their Morrisania headquarters. The six of them leaned over it, focusing in on the area marked with a red rectangle as they decided their route.
“We definitely have to hit 169th and Morris,” said Michael “Love” Rodriguez, who was sitting at one end of a large white table in a black computer chair. “That’s where the other shooting was.”
“So we stop here, do what we do right here for a little quick second, and then we go past College down to Clay,” said Aliano Reyes, tracing his finger over the route on the map as he spoke. “And this is where we are really going to focus on here.”
Reyes pointed to the intersection of 169th Street and Clay Avenue near where Bronx resident Rahmel Johnson, 30, was gunned down early in the morning on April 23 outside a house party. Johnson was rushed to Bronx Lebanon Hospital, where he died of a wound to his chest. That same morning there was another shooting just blocks away on 169th Street near Morris Avenue, with no fatalities.
After every act of gun violence in their area, be it a murder or an incident—or both in the case of this day in late April—Release The Grip, a city-funded violence prevention group, counters with a shooting response: an event where supporters gather, march to the crime scene, and speak out, denouncing violence and calling for change. This was the fourth time that Release The Grip has done so this year.
The concept of the shooting response and Release The Grip’s program stem from a program model called Cure Violence. Developed in Chicago by Dr. Gary Slutkin, former head of the World Health Organization’s Intervention Development, the model treats violence like an infectious disease. Cure Violence centers around detecting conflict, “treating” those who are high risk for violence, and changing the way a community views violence. Since its inauguration in 2000, Cure Violence has been used around the world from Basra, Iraq to Baltimore, Maryland.
Yet it is a localized treatment: trusted community members do outreach instead of outsiders. Here in New York City there are 18 Cure Violence groups across the boroughs, sponsored by the city and state. David Gaskin, who is the Crown Heights, Brooklyn program manager of one of the city’s first Cure Violence programs, Save Our Streets, says that responding to shootings physically and vocally is also a way to call out the violence that the media may miss.
“I’ve seen people lose their life to gun violence and that person is not spoken about—that person virtually goes unnoticed as if he or she never existed,” Gaskin said. “If one person is inflicted, whether it’s fatal or not, we want to show this presence, because we know there are others who feel the same way we do, but they just don’t know about standing against it and maybe they will join us.”
Release The Grip, one of the Bronx-based iterations of Cure Violence, started up officially this past summer, propelled into existence by local Council Member Vanessa Gibson and contracted through the youth organization Bronx Connect. Release The Grip works out of its own community
Credible Voices for Change
Release The Grip outreach workers talk about violence in the neighborhood, the choice between the cell or the coffin, and why they’re part of the cure.
Michael Rodriguez, Outreach Worker
Taneka Seldon, Outreach Worker
Freddie Charles, Outreach Worker
center—a big, open space with speakers, a kitchen, a couch and chairs, situated in the heart of what they call their catchment area, a 20-block zone where they focus on violence reduction. The headquarters is right across from a nursing home and down the street from a public school.
“In this catchment area there are over 13 different factions of probably four or five different gangs,” said Christopher Garcia, program director of Release The Grip. “There’s Bloods and there’s Crips, obviously, but within Bloods and Crips there are hundreds of factions. In this community there’s probably three or four factions of Bloods, two or three factions of Crips, and then there’s crews who neither are Blood or Crip, but may have alliances with either.”
Garcia, 44, knows first hand about the struggle on the streets, having served time as a young man for drug and gun trafficking before becoming a counselor and pastor. Last summer he began assembling the rest of the Release the Grip team, drawing from community members who would be able to reach directly out to the youth and to gang and crew members.
But on this evening in April, the focus isn’t on individual outreach. Instead, tonight’s mission is to speak out to the community about the violence that left a young man dead.
A few minutes before 6 p.m. people begin to show up in the courtyard outside the Release the Grip office. Many of them wear jackets and hoodies emblazoned with the colorful logos of Stand Up to Violence, Save Our Streets, Rock Safe Streets—other Cure Violence groups throughout the city. Hand-made signs are distributed. Garcia gathers everybody in to go over the chants they’ll do. Bronx Pastor Jay Gooding, who is the director of community outreach at Stand Up to Violence, leads the group in prayer.
At 6:30 p.m., the group makes their first stop in front of the Bronx Writing School up the street, before continuing on to the street corner where the shots were fired the same day as Johnson’s death. “On Saturday night there was a shooting right here on this block,” says Garcia into the megaphone. “We are saying that there should be no more shootings in this community, we are saying that people should be safe in their own communities. No one should be fearful for their children going to the park.”
People stop at the corners to watch. Garcia holds out the microphone before him—“No more shootings,” he cries out, to the group’s reply: “Put down the gun.” Neighborhood resident Eric Lewis, 32, is walking by and stops. He’s never seen this kind of vocal reaction to gun violence. “It’s getting worse out here,” he said as he joined the group for a few blocks. “I like what these guys are doing.”
The march continues past apartment buildings and businesses and down several blocks of houses with front porches, until the group reaches the corner of 169th Street and Clay Avenue.
A single cop car, with lights flashing, is parked across the street, waiting for them. As Garcia blasts their message onto the quiet street, a few people move to the doorway of the delis to watch, or stop where they were walking to listen. A couple of neighbors come outside. Others walk by as if they aren’t there at all.
Council Member Vanessa Gibson joins the group and takes her turn at the megaphone. Her voice rings out toward the facing apartment houses: “Violence is not the answer to address the problems that we have within our community.” Dr. Ester Henry, a pastor who lost a son to gun violence in 2012, goes into a song-like chant, full of pain—“sending healing to that home right now God,” she calls out.
Eventually the group recedes, making its way back to the headquarters. An older man who came to stand outside the barbershop across the street makes the sign of the cross and goes back in. People who had stopped to watch scatter.
While the group that evening was largely composed of Cure Violence groups from across the city, Garcia feels confident that with time more people from the community will feel more comfortable joining them. Making the community feel as though there are people who care and who will react to the violence is integral to the Cure Violence movement.
“It’s a voice that’s missing from the community that combats that other voice that says ‘Mind your business, accept the violence as a social norm,’” said Garcia. “People have given up and said ‘This region is plagued by violence and we’re always going to have violence,’ and this voice combats that.”
Some in the Morrisania area, when asked, do shrug off the violence or decline to comment on it, but others worry about violent incidents in the neighborhood.
“It’s scary,” said Sandra Watson, 55, who moved here last fall with her teenage son and daughter. “I don’t walk at night, I get back at my house and I have my two kids there. They need more cops on the street.”
For Garcia and Release The Grip, these are the kinds of fears that they hope their work will alleviate.
Program Director Chris Garcia calls out to the neighborhood.
Council Member Vanessa Gibson speaks on the street where a recent murder took place.