Work to end gun violence is far from over, activists say

Gun violence is not a new problem, but in 2020 the problem looked different. It looked like houses riddled with bullet holes, residents ducking down near street-facing windows and families couch surfing and living in cars after the death of their breadwinner. 

Northside Mural by Gerald King

Gun violence is not a new problem, but in 2020 the problem looked different. It looked like houses riddled with bullet holes, residents ducking down near street-facing windows and families couch surfing and living in cars after the death of their breadwinner. 

 

In 2020, there were 13 gun-related homicides in Kalamazoo. Kalamazoo Public Safety reported over 75 non-fatal shootings and over 375 assaults with firearms that year. Kalamazoo’s increase in gun violence began finding its way into local media by mid-summer.

 

Map of shootings and recovered bullet casings in 2020

Residents in the Northside, Eastside, and Edison neighborhoods of Kalamazoo felt the impact. Kalamazoo Vice Mayor and Northside resident Patrese Griffin is one among many who felt the effects of gun violence. She remembers running with her family from the sound of gunshots at the park, and seeing people shooting nearby while driving down the road. Both instances took place during the day. 

 

“Homes were getting hit at all times of the day and night. It just seemed to me like we were living in the wild wild west,” Griffin said. 

 

The Kalamazoo City Commission acted on December 7, 2020 by allocating $100,000 towards reducing gun violence. The money was split four ways: mobilizing community leaders and developing block clubs, mental health services, repairing homes affected by gun violence, and home security systems. 

 

“Unfortunately, in my opinion, it did come a little late,” Griffin said, “but I am at least glad that we were able to put those dollars to use.”

 

The City Commission waited until the year’s end to act, but people did not go all that time without help. Community members who had been working on the issue in different capacities met together halfway through the year. They decided to work towards a solution and start healing the community together. 

 

“The Super Friends I like to call it,” said Dontray Hemphill, leader of Blocks United.

 

The group doesn’t have an official name, but like the Super Friends, they came together to meet a need. Kalamazoo residents from different organizations form this group: Tami Rey, Kalamazoo County Commissioner; Patrese Griffin, Kalamazoo City Commissioner; Dontray Hemphill, Blocks United; Ebony Hemphill, Parents United; Gwendolyn Hooker, Hope Through Navigation; Michael Wilder, Group Violence Intervention; Ed Genesis, community activist and organizer; Estovan Juarez, Urban Alliance; Tiffany Burns, Smile Savers Mobile Dental Service; Orlando Little, community activist; and Kevin Ford, Shared Prosperity Kalamazoo.

 

“All the people involved literally live in these areas,” Griffin said. “There was a sense of urgency that could not wait for municipalities, it couldn’t even wait for organizations to realize how serious this situation was.”

 

These community members, among many others, have been at the forefront of efforts to reduce gun violence and start the process of healing community trauma. Though the city government hasn’t contributed aid since December and gun violence has begun to disappear from local media coverage, the “super friends” say the work is far from over, and show no signs of slowing down. 

 

Community jumps into action

Gwendolyn Hooker, CEO of HOPE Through Navigation, said Kalamazoo was on its ninth gun violence victim when the super friends met for the first time. 

 

“This is happening in our neighborhood. Nobody is talking about it. No one is doing anything. We need to do something,” said Hooker, describing the conversation they had that day. 

 

Soon after, the group began planning community events. The goal was to help those that were affected, and urge people to stop the violence. 

 

Hooker began planning pop-up events in the community to spread information and hold important conversations. The very first one took place at the Polar Bear, a convenience store and site of a shooting.

 

Community Pop-up event

Community Pop-up event on Patterson Street

 

“We had lots of tables, we had food, and we had people giving out information about the importance of voting and things like that,” Hooker said. “We also added in kind of a beautification component. We had some local artists do some street art on the sidewalks of the parking lot of the Polar Bear.”

 

More pop-ups followed, taking place on North Street, Douglas Avenue, and Paterson Street; all in locations where shootings or other tragic events occurred. A pop-up event on North Street took place where homes caught fire in June after an overnight city-wide curfew. 

 

These events were an important step towards finding a solution. Hooker says it was a way to have important community conversations without a survey.

 

“The people that are closest to the problem are closest to the solution,” Hooker said.

 

Holding conversations and getting feedback from the community is one of the most important steps towards finding a solution, Hooker said. Without these conversations, decision makers are unlikely to reach a helpful solution, even if their intentions are good.

 

“You’re just throwing darts at a board and hoping it's going to stick,” Hooker said. 

 

Community gun violence activists worked together to plan events that directly helped the families most affected. 

 

Ebony Hemphill, leader of Parents United, says the group planned Thanksgiving and Christmas events to help families that were struggling, and unlikely to be able to afford anything extra for the holidays. 

 

“The parents that I delivered the presents to were so grateful,” Ebony said. “There are other resources that do Christmas giveaways too, but it's kind of cookie cutter: one book for you, one bear for you, one shirt for you, and you’re done.”

 

The Christmas Adopt-A-Family project stood apart by reaching out to families to pick presents their kids would be happy to receive. 

 

Adopt-A-Family was just one of the projects community organizers planned to help affected youth. A 3-on-3 basketball tournament “Stop the Violence,” held in August was also geared toward local youth, said Ebony and her husband Dontray Hemphill. 

 

Dontray and Ebony believe that working with youth is an important part of reducing gun violence in the community. 

 

“We don’t have anything if we don’t have youth,” Dontray said. “If we are killing off the future then what do we have?”

 

While some community activists organized events, others worked to create community networks. Ed Genesis and Dontray worked to create Block Clubs, a network of resident-led groups that provide resources for acquiring security systems and training to build power among residents. 

 

The media is silent, but the problem isn't over

Gun violence was one of the top local news items in 2020, but now coverage has all but stopped. The issue has fallen off the radar without mainstream media coverage to keep the conversation flowing. 

 

“If it's not in the media, people forget about it like it didn’t happen,” Hooker said. 

 

The Kalamazoo City Commission is one institution that has stopped pushing forward to reduce gun violence, says Hooker. The City Commission was praised for allocating $100,000 to the cause, but within that same month they approved a $213.9 million budget that did not include a line item for gun violence. Hooker calls this decision extremely disappointing. 

 

“There is no way that this would be happening in Milwood or Westnedge; nowhere where there are middle-class rich white folk; and no money be specifically earmarked for it,” Hooker said. “If we had 14-15 white people dead, they would be figuring it out.” 

 

Vice Mayor Patrese Griffin agrees that issues involving Black and Brown folks do not get treated with a sense of urgency. Thirteen people were shot dead in 2020, but currently most of the murders are unsolved and only two people are in custody, said Hooker.

 

Government action and media coverage seems to have come to a halt, but the community is still feeling the effects. Some families became homeless after the loss of a family member.

 

“We have people that are living in their cars, bouncing their families from couch to couch because the breadwinners in their household are diseased,” Hooker said. 

 

Hooker herself lost two family members to gun violence since starting this work: DeVante Coleman, 28, shot in his driveway in the Edison Neighborhood; and Brandon Kelley, 31, shot on Ada Street in the Northside Neighborhood and died a week later. 

 

For those that are removed from the problem, it might be easy to fall into a ‘lock-em-up’ mindset that suggests increased policing is the best solution to gun violence. However, the group of community gun violence advocates are mostly Kalamazoo Northside residents, and Griffin says that those who live here know what the problem really is. 

 

“You have social determinants of health; you have housing that’s unstable; you have people living in zip codes that have life expectancies with an 11-year difference from people living in the zip codes right next to them. All of these things play a major role,” Griffin said.

 

Poverty is the single largest social determinant of health, according to the World Health Organization, and it can lead to conditions that make gun violence more likely. Kalamazoo’s Northside, Eastside and Edison neighborhoods, places most affected by gun violence, each have average incomes that are around $10,000 less than the city average, according to the U.S Census Bureau. Substance abuse, insufficient housing, and lack of healthcare; all are symptoms of poverty, and the reason why simply increasing policing will not solve the problem at hand, local activists say.  

 

“Locking people up is not going to be the solution if you are not actually going to educate and provide resources and services to the people’s families,” Hooker said.

 

It is essential at this point, says Ebony Hemphill, to help the community heal from its trauma. If the community and its youth are not given resources to heal, the cycle of violence will continue, Ebony said. 

 

The Black and Brown Therapy Collective was launched in 2020 to be part of the solution. This group was created through a partnership with TRHT (Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation) Kalamazoo, Rootead, and local clinicians. The collective aims to connect Black and Brown residents to the resources they need, cover therapy costs for those dealing with racial trauma, and remove mental health stigmas in the Black and Brown community. 

 

Healing community trauma is part of the solution, but Hooker says dollars are still needed to create meaningful change. 

 

“This is the issue that needs money and needs support,” Hooker said. “To keep people from being impacted more, we need to really be intentional.”

 

That intentionality can come from money, but also government action. County Commissioner Tami Rey is leading efforts to create a gun violence resolution for Kalamazoo County. This resolution should find its way onto the County Board of Commissioners agenda this spring. 

 

Hooker wants to see the city and county government take it a step further by creating a gun violence committee. 

 

“This is a long term problem that needs a long term solution,” Hooker said. 

 

The creation of a committee would hold the government accountable to work towards community peace year round. Dontray Hemphill wants to make sure that the community keeps working towards a solution as well. Dontray imagines outdoor community events, providing education on gun violence and positive messages for youth. 

 

“We need to keep screaming and preaching to ‘stop the violence, keep the peace,’” Dontray said. 

 

There is already a list, 13-names long, of those the community has lost. If we want to keep it from growing, activists say, we cannot wait until there is another body on the ground to act.

 

Learn more by watching Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation's Truth Talk on Gun Violence.

Raine Kuch Community Documenter/Journalist