Between the shooting of Denver police officer Celena Hollis and the death of twelve people at the Aurora theater massacre, it's been a particularly violent summer locally -- a fact that underscored an annual peace march over the weekend. Denver officials and community groups banded together Saturday morning to denounce gang violence and respond to the recent bad headlines.
"It makes me upset that it's so easy to get guns," says Brigitte Espinoza, a 41-year-old Edgewater resident who came to the march with two of her children and her mother. "I have a twenty-year-old son. Every time he walks out the door, I worry something is going to happen to him."
Her daughter Jazzmin, eight, held a cardboard sign that read "Keep me safe" -- standing in a crowd of around a hundred residents and officials who gathered in Fuller Park for the fourth annual East Side Peace March before walking to the St. Charles Recreation Center. Mayor Michael Hancock, Denver Police Chief Robert White and several Denver City Council members joined anti-gang organizations and youth groups for the event.
In our July cover story "Flash Point," we outlined Denver's plan to respond to a potential rise in gang-related violence in Denver. Crimes like Hollis's murder have raised concerns about a possible sequel to the so-called "Summer of Violence" that took place in the 1990s.
In his speech delivered prior to marching, Hancock -- who called speculations about gang connections in the Celena Hoillis case a "distraction" -- said that the challenge of youth violence is larger than questions of gun control or gang affiliations.
"When a young man or young woman can pick up a gun and point it at someone who looks just like them and pull the trigger, there is something very wrong...with that act alone -- that I can do it, that this individual is nameless to me, lifeless," Hancock said. "That tells you that there's a deeper problem than just whether or not a young person is a member of a gang."
Hancock said he recently sat and talked for ninety minutes with youth who claim gang affiliations about why they were involved in these groups.
"No one had ever told them they were worthy or that they mattered," Hancock said. "The second thing they told me -- and I'll never forget this -- a young man said, 'We need mentors.'"
Hancock then referenced a speech by Cicely Tyson in the Tyler Perry movie, Madea's Family Reunion in which she says to the women, "You are more than your hips and your thighs." To the young men, he said, "Take your place in your communities and your families."
"The power of what she said at that moment was confirmed by what those young people said to me...the other day," the mayor continued. "Every one of them said their family let them down. They grew up without a man in the household. They grew up without a role model in their family. They grew up with dysfunction in their family. Or they grew up with a family that was already embroiled in gangs.... They did not have a chance."
Page down for more comments and photos from the march. Before the mayor took the megaphone, Jason Janz, a pastor at Providence Bible Church, said that residents of Denver need to take the lead in fighting gang violence.
"The ultimate solution is, we need leadership. We have a crisis of leadership in solving the problem," he said, giving shout-outs to the Gang Reduction Initiative of Denver and the Prodigal Son Initiative. "True leaders move a community forward and that destination has to be reconciliation."
Janz said that with seven gang-related deaths this year, overall gang violence is decreasing in Denver -- though "that's seven too many."
"Let's make it so that next year when we come back there are no gang-related deaths," he said, adding, "I'm gonna pray for our new police chief, that you would give him the wisdom, the power, the strength to operate the police force in a way, Lord, that would keep the community safe and at the same time make everybody feel that they were for them."
For his part, Police Chief White told Westword before the event began that community collaboration with officers is key.
"This is a community that understands the importance of taking back the community. That can best be accomplished by...working together, holding the police department accountable, working with the police department and holding each other accountable," he said. "Part of our responsibility is to make sure we continue to connect with communities...and listen to their concerns."
Willie Mosley, a 36-year-old former gang member who has spent time in prison and is now starting a Boy Scout Club of Metro East Denver, said that he knows how hard it can be to avoid gangs.
"It's very important that kids have role models in the neighborhood," said Mosely, adding that he still has family members involved in gangs today. "I didn't have role models when I was growing up."
When he was younger, his gang was involved in the drive-by shooting of three-year-old Casson Evans.
"Everyday, I fell responsible for that child's life," he says.
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