Brockton residents put their lives in peril to reach out to youths

Maria Papadopoulos

John Williams knows that going out on city streets to quell the violence could be dangerous.

But he and other city residents say Brocktonians can't afford to sit back and hide in their houses when kids are dying on Brockton streets.

Stopping the violence will require more than peace marches, they say. It's getting to the core of what's going on — city youth and their actions.

“I could easily just go to work and live my life,” said Williams, 27, a stabbing victim and anti-violence activist. “But there needs to be an aggressive campaign to reach out not only to youth, but to everyone in the community.”

“I'm back in these streets risking my life for their betterment,” Williams said.

He is among several community leaders and residents who say ending the violence will require a multipronged effort involving parents, volunteers, community organizations, churches and schools.

“We've got to do it just like the military does it. They come from the land, from the air and the sea at the same time and they want to get the enemy at the same time,” said the Rev. Huston Crayton Jr., pastor of Lincoln Congregational Church on Wales Avenue.

That “enemy” has been the recent spate of violence in the city since New Year's Day that left one man stabbed to death, a second killed by gunfire, and three people wounded, one critically.

“We have to change our whole culture, so it's not going to happen overnight,” said Ollie Jay Spears, founder of the Brockton Peace Crusaders, a group aiming to steer at-risk youths in the city's roughest neighborhoods away from guns and other violence.

While it will take time, experts say residents who work to prevent violence can bring about awareness and positive change in their community.

“Violence prevention is like exercise. Anything you do is better than nothing,” said Elizabeth Englander, director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State College.

To address the violence, Spears organized a peace rally at the Brockton police station Thursday that was attended by law enforcement officials, city leaders, anti-violence activists and family members of victims killed by violence.

On Sunday, about 35 youths led the service at Lincoln Congregational Church, Crayton said. The entire congregation prayed for the family unit and dealing with the violence on city streets.

But, despite those community efforts, the violence continued over the weekend.

Saturday night, a 13-year-old city youth told police he was chased and shot at by two assailants, believed to be 17 years old, in the area of Battles and Neal streets. The boy, who was not injured, fled on foot, police said. Four .32-caliber shell casings were recovered on Neal Street.

“We're not going to sit down and take what is going on in our community,” said Williams, who planned to walk city streets this week. “These are youth, our children, dying in the streets over nothing.”

The Rev. Steven Neville, assistant pastor at Mount Moriah Baptist Church, said it will take trained people who are paid, in addition to volunteers, to walk city streets and put a dent in street violence.

“When you're dealing with hard core youth violence and juvenile delinquents, you can't really expect people to do that for nothing,” Neville said. “It's a pipe dream to think that people who are not trained and who are not hired will be able to ... deal with our young people who are in crisis and turn them around.”

Felicia Howlett, whose 17-year-old cousin, Jose Gurley, was shot and killed last July on the city's North Side, urged city parents to be more vigilant with their children.

“Parents need to get with the program,” said Howlett, 26, a single mother of two.

“If your kid's outside until 1 o'clock in the morning, and he's 15, 14 years old and you're not watching him, that's a problem,” Howlett said. “If he's hanging out and he has money and he doesn't have a job, that's a problem.”

Howlett dropped her child at the Hill Street Community Center on the city's East Side Thursday afternoon. The Old Colony YMCA runs an after-school program at the center from 2:30 to 6:30 p.m. weekdays. Inside, several city youths did their homework, played pool and video games and talked with their peers.

“They're safer with us,” said Juanita Lima, program coordinator. “They're not hanging around the street. They're doing things that are productive.”

The key to ending the violence is getting into the hearts and minds of young people, Crayton said.

Lincoln Congregational Church holds youth nights on Mondays and Fridays and Bible study and fellowship nights to provide support for city youths.

“Whoever has control of their hearts and minds will help them in their decision making, in terms of violence and what other things they do,” Crayton said.

Maria Papadopoulos can be reached at