In Wake of Shootings, Newark Residents Fight Back

The murder of three teens over the weekend is just the latest in a string of violent Newark tragedies. Yusef Ismail, executive director of Stop Shooting Inc, a neighborhood organization dedicated to bringing peace to Newark, talks about how residents are taking action to protect their streets.

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CHERYL CORLEY, host:

The schoolyard slayings are only the most recent in a string of tragic Newark murders. Now, the community is banding together to try to end the violence. Yusef Ismail is executive director of Stop Shooting Incorporated, a neighborhood organization dedicated to bringing peace to Newark streets.

Yusef, welcome.

Mr. YUSEF ISMAIL (Executive Director, Stop Shooting Inc.): Thank you.

CORLEY: Well, set the scene for us, if you will. How bad has the violence gotten in Newark?

Mr. ISMAIL: Well, the violence is just very overwhelming because we're out here everyday and we're trying to fight the violence, and then when such a brutal and heinous crime happens like this, it's like a slap in our face. But we felt as though the violence, it was kind of coming down, kind of - it was getting better. And then things like this happen. Usually, in the summertime in the month of August, a lot of brutal type of crimes like this happens for some reason.

CORLEY: And what is your group doing in the wake of these slayings in the schoolyard?

Mr. ISMAIL: Well, in the wake of these slayings, we always are here in the community. We always are here working hard, working with the youth trying to stop people from committing senseless acts of gun violence. But right now, we're working with a host of community leaders, individuals, residents; we actually signed a peace proclamation, a nonviolent pledge, if you may, with various residents of the community and with various organizations, businessmen and political leaders. This is a collaborative act because we understand that we can't do it alone, so we're definitely reaching out to everybody in the community.

CORLEY: How confident are you that people are going to stand by that kind of pledge?

Mr. ISMAIL: Well, I'm pretty confident because people are just fed up. People are fed up with all the violence that's going on in our city. And a lot of people are ready to step up to the plate and do whatever they can to do to stop this type of violence. And when something like this happens, then a lot of people really rally around this cause. And we're getting calls from everywhere, from people just asking us what can they do to help. And it's really a lot of - we're getting a lot of support.

CORLEY: Mr. Ismail, I would imagine, though, that the people who are calling you and the people who are signing that pledge are, as you say, people who are fed up, who are ready to take some action. How do you reach the folks and how does your group reach the folks who may not be as committed and maybe the people who are involved in committing these sorts of things?

Mr. ISMAIL: Well, I believe that our people are like - it's the old saying, it's like monkey see, monkey do. And when they see, they have to see results. They have to see people. The more people they see rallying for this cause and the more people that we gather up, then the more and more people will start joining, even those who you would think would never join.

CORLEY: Well, the mayor has been catching a lot of flack for this - Mayor Corey Booker. He ran on a campaign of reducing crime. Do you think that criticism of him is fair?

Mr. ISMAIL: I won't say it's fair, you know? But when - I mean, when you're the leader of a city, then you're going to get a lot of heat when things like this happen. But at the same time, he does have a responsibility just as we have a responsibility to stop this. And - I mean, he should - whatever resources or whatever he can do to stop the crime and the violence, then that's what he should do. But I believe that it's a community problem. And we have to stop them within ourselves because no one person or one group could stop this alone.

CORLEY: Well, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. ISMAIL: All right. Thank you.

CORLEY: Yusef Ismail is executive director of Stop Shooting Incorporated, a neighborhood organization dedicated to bringing streets - bringing peace to Newark's street. He joined us from member station WBGO in Newark, New Jersey.

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Students Bring Newark's Murder Toll to 60 in 2007

Two mourn the three killed in Newark, N.J., at an impromptu memorial/AP. i i

Bishop Samuel Dabon (right) of the South Orange United Methodist Church holds his daughter, Rachel Ramirez, at an impromptu memorial in Newark, N.J., on Tuesday, for three young people who were shot and killed at the scene Saturday night. Mike Derer/AP Photos hide caption

itoggle caption Mike Derer/AP Photos
Two mourn the three killed in Newark, N.J., at an impromptu memorial/AP.

Bishop Samuel Dabon (right) of the South Orange United Methodist Church holds his daughter, Rachel Ramirez, at an impromptu memorial in Newark, N.J., on Tuesday, for three young people who were shot and killed at the scene Saturday night.

Mike Derer/AP Photos
A family friend holds a 2006 photograph of Iofemi Hightower and Terrance Aeriel/AP. i i

Family friend Cathy Rainey (left) holds a 2006 photograph of Iofemi Hightower and Terrance Aeriel. Mel Evans/AP Photos hide caption

itoggle caption Mel Evans/AP Photos
A family friend holds a 2006 photograph of Iofemi Hightower and Terrance Aeriel/AP.

Family friend Cathy Rainey (left) holds a 2006 photograph of Iofemi Hightower and Terrance Aeriel.

Mel Evans/AP Photos
Dashon Harvey, one of three young people who were shot and killed Saturday/AP. i i

Dashon Harvey, one of three young people who were shot and killed Saturday, is seen in an undated photo that is part of an impromptu memorial at an elementary school near the scene of the shooting. Mike Derer/Ap Photos hide caption

itoggle caption Mike Derer/Ap Photos
Dashon Harvey, one of three young people who were shot and killed Saturday/AP.

Dashon Harvey, one of three young people who were shot and killed Saturday, is seen in an undated photo that is part of an impromptu memorial at an elementary school near the scene of the shooting.

Mike Derer/Ap Photos
Newark Mayor Cory Booker at a news conference Wednesday/AP.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker at a news conference Wednesday. Mike Derer/AP Photos hide caption

itoggle caption Mike Derer/AP Photos

Billboards in Newark, N.J., read, "HELP WANTED: Stop the Killings in Newark Now!"

The new mayor, elected last year, ran on a campaign promise of reducing crime. Still, gun violence has become an all too common part of daily life.

Last weekend, four young adults, friends who were headed to college together in a few days, were shot at close range, killing three and critically wounding the fourth.

The brutal killings, along with another unrelated shooting over the weekend, brought Newark's murder total to 60 in 2007. That is three fewer than for the same period in 2006. The count is lower, but statistics show that 17 people have been killed in the city in the past eight weeks – a rate that, if it continues, would surpass 2006's total of 106 murders for the calendar year.

A month ago, Newark's mayor, Cory Booker, announced that crime in the city had fallen by 20 percent in the first six months of 2007, compared with the year before. The number of rapes, aggravated assaults and robberies has fallen. But shootings continue unabated. The murder rate is up 50 percent since 1998.

"This shows that we still have a problem," Booker said. "We're working to push it down and encouraged that we are going to deal with this. We're going to come together."

Booker said the father of one of the victims said he wanted his son's death to be a spark that will pull people together to fix the city's problems.

"We all have to be cognizant that there are things we could be doing to change the way we go about fighting crime, but more importantly preventing crime," Booker told NPR. "This is something we really have to face, gun violence in our country."

Some residents say Booker needs to do more.

"He doesn't deserve another day, another second, while our children are at stake," said Donna Jackson, president of the Take Back Our Streets organization. "Anyone who has children in the city is in panic mode. It takes something like this for people to open up their eyes and understand that not every person killed in Newark is a drug dealer."

Booker, in return, called for unity, saying this is "not a time to play politics and divide our city."

He said the community shows many signs of progress, and that residents, activists and clergy members are helping to turn the city around. Under Booker's watch, a specialized narcotics bureau was established. He has put more police officers on the streets, and the fugitive apprehension team has been successful at bringing in known criminals with outstanding warrants. The city is working on its prisoner re-entry program, helping former inmates reintegrate into society.

"We know Newark is heading in the right direction. We're really turning a corner by every measure," Booker said. "Newark was really doing a lot to challenge the stereotypes that people have often of our great city."

Looking for Clues

Killed in the apparent robbery attempt were Terrance Aeriel, 18, Iofemi Hightower, 20, and Dashon Harvey, 20. Aeriel's sister, Natasha, 19, is listed in fair condition at Newark's University Hospital after being shot in the head.

The friends were hanging out together outside an elementary school in a middle-class neighborhood, less than one mile from the campus of Seton Hall University. They liked to go there and listen to music.

Gov. Jon S. Corzine said the crime was "beyond comprehension," and "cold-hearted and cowardly."

Terrance Aeriel, Hightower and Harvey were forced to kneel against a wall behind the school and were shot at close range. Natasha Aeriel was found about 30 feet away, slumped near some bleachers.

Police are piecing together details of the crime from witnesses, including Natasha Aeriel, and are analyzing graffiti at the school. Security cameras were mounted at the school, but most were not working at the time. City officials said Wednesday the cameras may have been tampered with in the 24 hours prior to the shootings. Investigators are urging anyone with information to come forward and are offering a reward of more than $50,000.

Booker's office said Wednesday that after struggling to find clues, they are now close to identifying at least one suspect. They have not made an arrest.

'Good Kids with Bright Futures'

The four victims were all set to return to Delaware State University this fall. They played music together, and stayed away from drugs, alcohol, gangs and violence. None had criminal records.

"They were good kids," said Essex County Prosecutor Paula Dow.

Friends since elementary school, Hightower and the Aeriels had played together in the West Side High School marching band. Terrence Aeriel took Hightower to prom in 2006, chauffeured by his sister. The three met Harvey at Delaware State. Harvey planned to graduate from Delaware State with a degree in psychology in 2009.

Terrence Aeriel was studying business management in college. He wasn't enrolled last spring but had re-enrolled for fall semester. He played the baritone saxophone and attended Delaware State's band camp last summer. He also worked with kids at a teen center.

His sister, Natasha, is a junior, majoring in biology. She played the alto saxophone in the Delaware State marching band.

In addition to school, Hightower held two jobs. One was at an assisted-living center where her mother also works.

"I'm very angry because they were good kids with bright futures," said Hightower's mother, Shalga. "They didn't deserve it. My daughter was a very sweet, loving young lady who would help anybody in need."

Written by Kayla Webley from NPR reports and The Associated Press.

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