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When Fort Wayne residents ask for help to combat violence, will you answer?

Saturday, March 23, 2013 - 9:29 am

Jonathan Ray, CEO of the Fort Wayne Urban League, said he was expecting around 30 people to come to Friday’s first community meeting to address gun violence in the community.

Instead, there were closer to 300 – so many people, in fact, that the Urban League was packed, with small groups formed from the attendees spread in various rooms and hallways in the league’s headquarters at 2135 S. Hanna St.

The attendees were men, women, teens and a few children, with different racial backgrounds. One thing united them all: These people wanted to be heard.

They wanted to talk about the violence that they have either seen, or read about, or been touched by. They wanted to discuss what it is like to have violence as a daily presence in their lives. They wanted to offer their thoughts and opinions about what causes it and how to address it.

And while all appeared to acknowledge that one meeting will not change what years of systemic breakdowns continue to produce, one thing is clear: They want it to stop.

They’ve seen enough death. They have mourned too many times. They have lived with fear for too long.

Those in attendance at the Urban League on Friday want the rest of the community to join them, to engage, to attempt to find another path. To understand that while they may not be able to save every life and change every person who is capable of committing murder, there are still others who can change and be helped.

My question: Are enough people listening, truly understanding, about what those in attendance are asking?

Allen County has averaged around 25 homicides per year in each year of the last decade, a majority of those by gunshot. There were 30 homicides in 2012 alone.

Those are words I just typed. And I freely admit that it is extremely possible that I’m not talented enough to make those words resonate with enough people.

So I’ll try again.

Those 30 homicides in 2012? The 25 on average, every year for the last 10? Those are people. People whose lives were taken through violence.

Those people are someone’s children. They are parents. They are brothers and sisters.

They are human beings.

No different than anyone else, some are flawed. Some made mistakes, the kind of mistakes that lead the most callous of us to say things like “they deserved it.”

While this isn’t a specific criticism of Mayor Tom Henry, it’s that type of mindset – that those who are killed, while tragic, just might have had it coming – that leads to a comment like the one he made Thursday in a news conference. In attempting to reassure the public after the six fatal shootings over the last week, including one by police snipers, Henry said there is no need for the public to feel unsafe because the recent round of shootings were due to gangs, drugs and domestic violence.

“If you’re not involved in one of these things, you should be OK. But if you see something, let the police know. When people work with police, we see positive results,” Henry told reporters.

While working with the police is certainly something that has to happen, I’m going to state this unequivocally: There were plenty of people at Friday night’s meeting who weren’t involved in gangs or drugs – unless grandmothers and grandfathers are up to more than I’m currently aware of – and they’re not feeling “OK” about the shootings taking place in this city.

Instead, why don’t we ask just how many children in this city are too familiar with the sounds of gunshots? How many more live in fear? How many people are bereaved?

Just because we may not know them, or may not see them, how is it acceptable that as a community, so many of us continue to do as we’ve always done in living our lives, knowing that murderers steal so much from so many?

Are all of us certain, 100 percent certain, that we’ve done all we can do to prevent them?

Are we positive that we have paid as much attention to the murders of our neighbors, our fellow citizens, as we’ve paid to, say, moving statues hundreds of feet?

Or developing riverfronts?

Or making sure newer and better attractions and buildings are built that those who are murdered will never see?

I ask these questions for one simple reason: In a matter of weeks, Ray’s focus groups will attempt to present suggestions to those in the city with the means to implement change: those with political capital, financial capital. Those who own businesses and companies. Those who can help turn suggestions and ideas into policy, into action.

Ray’s focus groups – some of whose participants have lost loved ones to violence – will be asking for help. They will be asking for help in changing a culture of violence that has grown deep roots in some parts of the community, and the help they will be requesting will very likely not only not pay immediate dividends, it is entirely possible that those who will be asked for assistance may never see or meet a single person they impact with their prospective aid.

One last question, then: Who will be willing to give assistance to those who need it most, without judging those who are asking?

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Elbert Starks III at estarks@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8266.