Newark Fights to Reclaim Bloodied Streets

The August murders of three young people in Newark, N.J., sparked national outrage. Now church leaders, anti-violence groups and politicians hope the killings can serve as a turning point in a battle against street violence.

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Last month in Newark, New Jersey, three close friends were forced to kneel in front of a wall outside a neighborhood school and each was shot in the head.

A fourth friend survived the shooting and worked with police to identify the attackers. Now, much attention is focused on an illegal immigrant arrested in that attack. But the central problem on the streets of Newark, New Jersey is violence between young African-Americans. Now there's hope that this crime may be a turning point in the city's fight to reduce violence.

Nancy Solomon reports.

NANCY SOLOMON: In the days after the attack, protesters called for Newark Mayor Cory Booker's resignation. But then James Harvey, father of one of the victims, stood at Booker's side and spoke in his defense.

Mr. JAMES HARVEY (Father of Dashon Harvey): I don't blame Mayor Booker because it's not on Mayor Booker. It's on you guys. It's on the parents of the city of Newark or whoever you are in the world. It's on the parents.

SOLOMON: The protests stopped, and in a flurry of press conferences, Booker announced a slew of new programs. A local foundations would purchase $3.2 million worth of surveillance cameras to blanket seven square miles of Newark. The state sent in more prosecutors, established a streamlined gun violence court, and added funding to the city's after school programs. And the city council announced an ambitious set of local laws aimed at cutting the number of illegal guns in the city.

Reverend BILL HOWARD(ph) (President, Bethany Baptist Church): Here we have a mayor - fresh, young, vital, a lot to learn by his own admission. We are somehow placing on his shoulders an overnight revolution.

SOLOMON: Reverend Bill Howard, head of Bethany Baptist Church, the oldest African-American congregation in Newark, has watched until the city be dragged under by poverty and political infighting. This time around, though, he sees churches, community groups and major corporations coming together to unite behind Mayor Booker.

Rev. HOWARD: And I heard him say something that pleased me very much. He said I need the help of every sector of this community. I cannot do what needs to be done alone. And I think, frankly, we're going to see people in the community rise to the occasion.

(Soundbite of music)

SOLOMON: At a busy street corner not far from where the shootings took place, an empty casket sits on the sidewalk with a sign that says: How many lives will it take? And music blares from the van operated by the group Morticians That Care.

Shelil Ali(ph) is a funeral director who started the group after he was shot 17 times one night in 2005. He says it will take neighbors and witnesses helping the police, something many Newarkers have been reluctant to do in the past.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SHELIL ALI (Founder, Morticians That Care): A lot of people flee. Don't be afraid; stand up. If you don't say nothing, you might become a victim. And then you want to say something about it. So when you see something going on, report it. That's the only way we're going to stop it or slow it down.

SOLOMON: Many of the grassroots groups working to stop violence say they're getting more attention. What's more surprising, however, is the political cohesion that seems to have happened since the August 4th killings.

Mr. RON RICE, JR. (Councilman, Newark City): Newark is knockdown, drag out, knuckles bare political city. We are Chicago east.

SOLOMON: Newark City Councilman Ron Rice Jr. stands in the middle of two factions. He's a political ally of Booker, but he is the son of the mayor's rival in the last election. The political divisions haven't necessarily gone away, but there's been a ceasefire, at least temporarily.

Mr. RICE, JR: This talk of going after people politically on both sides has to end. If we do nothing with this time period, then that goodwill, that sense of urgency, will dissipate and we'll go back to our tamps, if you will. We'll continue to battle each other. The only losers in the end will be the citizens of Newark.

SOLOMON: Lasting change, of course, will take time. The new surveillance cameras, to name just one program, will take a year to be purchased and installed. And murder statistics are hard to fudge. So it's only after the number of homicides begins to drop that Newark will be able to claim a silver lining from those tragic death a month ago.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Solomon in South Orange, New Jersey.

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