Holding back tears, Tracey Suggs spoke clearly and with determination as she implored the gathered youths on the New Haven Green Thursday afternoon to reject violence and think before they pick up a gun. Though Suggs said she hadn’t spoken much publicly since her son’s death, she wanted to let kids know they didn’t have to be used by gangs and criminals.
“The bullets don’t come back,” Suggs said. “You can’t pause them. There is no joystick.”
Suggs, whose 13-year-old son Justus was shot while riding his bike home from a carnival on July 29 and died the next week, was a surprise speaker at the Youth for Peace vigil held yesterday to give New Haven youth an opportunity to take a stand against violence in their community.
The idea for the vigil, which was organized by the City Wide Youth Coalition, emerged in March during a coalition meeting in which a woman came in and placed a button with the picture of a 21-year-old woman on the table, CWYC Member Services Coordinator Gerene Freeman said.
“The woman walked in and said, ‘I shouldn’t have to remember this kid this way,’” Freeman said. “We talked to some kids, and they felt it was their responsibility, but it’s the adults who have let it go this far.”
Since planning began for the vigil, there has been an outpouring of support from the entire community, CWYC Manager Brooke Crockett said. Various local businesses and organizations have provided financing and material support, such as television and radio advertising, flyers, posters and sound systems, for the event.
“Adults have really come together to make this happen,” she said.
Mayor John Destefano Jr., Gov. M. Jodi Rell and the New Haven Board of Aldermen all issued proclamations in support of the vigil, declaring Sept. 21 — which coincides with the United Nations’ “International Day of Peace” — New Haven Youth Peace Day.
The New Haven Police Department assisted preparations for the event, Freeman said. NHPD staff researched deaths among youths under the age of 19 resulting from gun violence since 1990.
“There have been 67 kids who have died — the youngest of which was a 3-year-old,” Freeman said. “One would be too many.”
The afternoon’s event, which some 100 to 200 people attended, featured drumming by local youth organizations and various speeches — some impromptu, others planned. Marcellus Allen, president of Saving Our Selves, a Newark group comprised largely of former Bloods and Crips gang members that is committed to ending gang violence, spoke briefly. Allen said he was horrified by the magnitude of the problem and that although he was glad so many people had turned out for the afternoon, the community remained divided.
“You all are here because you are the ones who want to do something about [the violence],” Allen said.
Barbara Tinney, executive director of the New Haven Family Alliance, said many things need to change in New Haven before real progress can be made.
“We need to get guns out,” Tinney said. “We need to give children a sense of worth. And adults have to step up … [because] we’re losing babies.”
A friend of the Suggs family, Ronnie Prescott, said there need to be more programs to take kids off the streets.
“When we grew up, there were boys’ clubs and other groups like them,” he said. “There are now too, but a lot of kids don’t know about them.”
Not all those in attendance, however, were sure of why they had come to the vigil.
A teenage girl, who identified herself as a member of Ultimate Dance Experience (UDE) but wished to remain anonymous, said she was present because UDE members were among those drumming.
“I don’t know what’s going on here today,” she said. “I didn’t know there was anything else [besides the drumming].”
But Eric Foskey, another UDE youth member, said he wasn’t only in attendance because of the drumming.
“I’ve heard of [some of the kids who have died],” he said. “So I’m here to support [them].”
Jonathan Elder, site coordinator for Leadership, Education and Athletics in Partnership, a New Haven reading-based program for kids aged 7-12, said his group was present to show support for ending violence.
“We try to help the kids, get them to college,” Elder said, “and we couldn’t be about this and not show up here.”
Not all those present, however, were directly involved with the proximate goal of ending local gun violence. Local groups milled through the crowd, passing out pamphlets. One sought to honor a Colored Regiment that fought in the Civil War; another passed out copies of People’s Weekly World, published by the Communist Party USA; and the Greater New Haven Peace Council distributed flyers tying violence in New Haven to wars abroad.
Peace Council representative Henry Lowendorf said he had been asked by CWYC to attend the vigil.
“It’s a recognition that violence in the city is related to international violence,” he said. “How can you say to kids, ‘Don’t commit violence,’ when you have a government that strafes villages and kills children?”
Toward the end of the vigil, a series of kids read from index cards the names, ages and dates of death of the 67 children who were memorialized during the event. After the recitations, a young girl released a dove as a symbol of peace and harmony.
Reiterating Suggs’ plea, the mother of 13-year-old Jajuana Cole, a recent victim of random gang violence, said young people should find a positive way to live together and warned their parents of the consequences of apathy.
“There’s more to life than fighting each other,” Cole said. “Every child is a victim to the streets. Even if it wasn’t your child this time, it could be next time.”