Aug 22 9:00 PM

Ex-cons campaign against violence, and it's working

Updated May 29, 2014

Lavon Walker skims the brim of his fitted hat with his thumbs for a final adjustment.

“Ready,” he said, nodding at a small group of men.

Plunging a handful of fliers into his pants pocket, Walker joins the others as they walk to the corner.

Walker used to wreak havoc on the same streets that he’s canvassing today.

“I was out here everyday sellin’ drugs, robbing cars, robbing stores, gang-bangin’, hanging with the crew,” he said. “I was out here jumping people, fighting people, you know, whatever we had to do.”

The non-violence advocate is now on a mission to save young lives. On this August evening, Walker is making his way through the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, because two people were shot here in separate incidents this week.

The bloodiest borough

Last year, New York City had the lowest murder rate  in 50 years, according to the mayor's office, with 333 people killed. But Brooklyn remains the city’s bloodiest borough, responsible for 44 percent of its murders. Prior to these incidents however, Crown Heights had gone nearly 50 days without a shooting.

Walker oversees the tight-knit crew patrolling the streets as part of Save Our Streets -- S.O.S -- a community-based effort dedicated to reducing gun violence.

Each of the men are trained outreach workers, hired for their street credibility and connection to the neighborhood. They have the same mission, and their own pasts.

Most of the guys who work with S.O.S. have a criminal record. But instead of running from their histories, they’ve embraced them, and are now fighting a different battle with different weapons.

I got caught up in the street life. Wantin’ to be somebody. Wantin’ to be involved with certain groups. And subsequently, I ended a young man’s life and went to prison.

Kenneth Edwards is no stranger to gun violence. The Brooklyn native spent 17 years in prison for murdering a friend.

“I got caught up in the street life. Wantin’ to be somebody. Wantin’ to be involved with certain groups,” he said. “And subsequently, I ended a young man’s life and went to prison.”

After his release, Edwards said he was disappointed to see his neighborhood in the same disarray as when he left. As a hospital responder for S.O.S., Edwards is responsible for keeping the families and friends of shooting victims from seeking revenge.

Unable to forgive himself for pulling the trigger, Edwards uses his personal anguish as ammunition to persuade others not to shoot.

“I wanted to be part of the change because I saw too many mothers, too many fathers, too many relatives grieving when their loved one was shot. Their loved one killed,” he said. “After serving so much time and actually committing the crime I committed, I didn’t want that to be done to another young man or a woman or have somebody else’s family to go through what my victim’s family went through.”


A community in revolt

Founded in 2010 with funding from the Depart of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance, S.O.S. says its impact is already tangible. Since the group started its work, monthly shootings have gone down in Crown Heights, but increased significantly in neighboring police precincts, according to an analysis by the Center for Court Innovation. The study estimated that Crown Heights had 20 percent less gun violence because of S.O.S.

“We get up everyday because we don’t give up. There’s hope. And that’s the seed that we have to plant in everyone,” said outreach worker Derick Scott, who spent 11 years behind bars. “There are people out here that’s buying in … That’s the response that’s needed. And that’s the response that let’s us know that our job is not in vain.”

Scott believes the group’s outreach workers are more credible messengers to young people than those from outside the community, and that by keeping its distance from police, S.O.S. has an even greater chance of connecting with at-risk youth.

“The police have their job and we have ours. Our job is prevention. We try to prevent these guys for goin’ that step ‘cause we’ve been there… The police job is to lock people up,” he said. “So if we affiliated with police, the first thing they gon’ think about is that we’re snitching on ‘em. And that’s the last thing we want them to think."

“In truth, that happens,” he continued, “this work that we’ve gotten into, work that we’ve done for all these years, it’s gone down the drain.”

The program’s success comes from its grassroots nature, says New York City Councilman Jumaane Williams, who represents the nearby Flatbush section of Brooklyn, and also co-chairs the city’s gun violence task force.

“Without a community saying that we’re fed up and we’re tired, without a community stepping up and saying, ‘We’re gonna do our part,’ it’s futile,” he said. “If you haven’t gotten to what actually is causin’ the issues and dealing with those people specifically, it’s not gonna work. So we need the community to start with saying, ‘This is a problem.’ And they have.”


Curing the disease

S.O.S. outreach workers target those who are most likely to shoot or be shot. The goal: Interrupt street conflicts before erupting into gun violence, and prevent retaliation when it does.

In Crown Heights, where the majority of homicide victims are black and either gunned down over a dispute or for revenge, Walker says violence is not just a police problem -- it’s a public health problem.  

Modeled after the Chicago's Cure Violence project, S.O.S. treats gun violence like the spread of infectious disease.

“You wanna be able to educate the individuals that’s spreadin’ the disease,” Scott explained. “If you get them cured, if you get them help or the treatment that they need, its most likely that the individual won’t spread the disease to somebody else.”

Crown Heights residents face a number of challenges, from poverty to lack of education, Walker said, leaving many feeling desperate. And when it comes to younger generations, he added, peer pressure to run the streets is intense.

“Once they get involved with it, it’s hard to get out of it because, you know, you don’t wanna look like a punk,” Walker said. “You don’t wanna look like the person that’s doin’ somethin’ different.”

Doing something different is exactly what a group of teens wanted when they joined the newly launched S.O.S. youth group, dubbed YO S.O.S.

“It's sad that we can't just walk around happy knowin' that we're safe in our own community,” said volunteer youth organizer Rezzy Alexander, 16.  “At a point it just gets ridiculous. It's, like, this (gun violence) shouldn't be normal. This shouldn't be somethin' that we have to experience every day.”

Fifteen-year-old Shakeel Howell became a volunteer outreach worker after his friend was killed.

“If you’re not a part of this, then you will just be a part of the group that’s just complaining about it and not standing up,” he said. “I think for us to be doin’ this, we could hopefully start a chain reaction and maybe everybody could be a part of this someday.”

For older members of S.O.S., hitting the streets is about more than giving the youth a chance. It’s giving them a chance too, for a second act.



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