August 26, 2013 | Andaiye Taylor, Founder & Editor, BrickCityLive.com

Originally published September 2011, Columbia Journalism School

This story, published in September 2011 as a master’s project for Columbia Journalism School, is a snapshot of an internal debate about how to solve the gun violence problem in Newark. It is as much about our tendency to talk past each other in debates like these as it is an exploration of ideas and tactics for violence mitigation.

To some extent, this story is also about what we lose when our press simply reports “who got shot” without pausing–often–to contextualize the incidents. It’s about what we lose when we speak of people involved in these incidents as if they have no histories, and materialized only to perpetrate violence, or have some act of violence done to them. It’s about what we lose when we fail to speak of both victims and perpetrators alike as having come from someplace.

The story is about our community’s tendency to wrestle with these questions far from the national spotlight, to point fingers at itself, and even to persistently march on itself, contrary to one popular critique of communities of color’s reactions to police violence.

It’s a story about how far into the past we must dig in order to root out the seemingly intractable problems that still manifest themselves in our communities today.

It’s a chance to reflect on how effective we’ve been, as a community, at listening to each other as much as we talk. And it’s a chance to consider how we balance the countervailing narratives of the green shoots of a resurgence in this city on the one hand, with the persistence of some of the most critical problems a city can face on the other.

A missing link

In 2011, in articles published four months apart, Newark’s hometown newspaper mentioned the young men’s deaths briefly and separately: one in a short breaking news piece, the other in a concise obituary.

The separateness of the two news items obscured the connectedness of the murders in space and time. The victims were cousins Ibn Williams and Zakie Brown, ages 20 and 21. The two were shot on the same Newark street, one week apart from each other: Brown died from his wounds shortly after he was shot, and Williams would die nearly four months later, after suffering a coma and partial paralysis.

The national murder rate has bucked a recessionary trend by declining annually for the four years ending with 2010. After a sharp decrease following the first of those four years, though, Newark’s total murders had climbed each year since. The year 2011 began ominously, with first-quarter murders rising more than two-thirds over what they had been during the same period in 2010. By all accounts, that summer has been worse than other summers in recent memory, with a number of murders – of an off-duty police officer buying a slice of pizza, of a young, award-winning third grade teacher buying Chinese food – coming to symbolize the terror wrought by wrong-place, wrong-time innocent bystander shootings.

The continued high murder rate was rending families, but it had implications even beyond the loved ones of victims and perpetrators.  Newark’s mayor, Cory Booker, had entered office making bold promises about a turnaround on public safety, and laying out a specific set of strategies for how he would achieve it. His approach would be targeted, tactical, and innovative.

Booker had deftly created a national story out of the pending ascendance of Newark. After half a decade in office, the narrative of Newark as a phoenix summoning lift force remained mostly intact outside of the city, largely by dint of Booker’s management of his and the city’s public profile. But many of its citizens knew better, and were fed up with the murders.  As a result, Booker’s support within some quarters of the community was fraying, and the continuing violence was casting doubt on his newfangled approach.

Now there were Ibn and Zakie.

The test

“Reach high.”

Cory Booker was delivering an inspirational address to a captive audience of middle school students and their high school mentors. It was the fall of 1999, and Booker was still a Newark city councilman living in Brick Towers, one of the city’s most notorious projects.

As the older kids looked on, the young ones all raised their hands eagerly, stretching their fingertips up toward the ceiling in the high school cafeteria where the group of about a dozen had gathered.

“Now,” Booker instructed the group, “reach higher.”

Straining their shoulder blades and standing on their toes, the students’ fingertips mustered a couple more inches of altitude.

He gestured toward a nearby lunch table. “What if I stood on this?” he asked. “What if I stood on top of this building?”

He’d made his point. The students could always reach higher, push further. And they could always summon external resources – tables, buildings, even the proverbial shoulders of giants – to reach their apex.

Booker was standing in the cafeteria of Newark Academy, a school eponymous with the city whose Central Ward he represented, but whose location was moved from Newark, where it had made its home for so long that the most notable tribulation it experienced was when Redcoats set it ablaze during the American Revolution, to Livingston in the 1960s. Assembled were Newark Academy high school students, and the younger students from Newark for whom they ran a Saturday school program.

The moment captured the style and approach that would characterize Booker’s career for more than a decade hence. As a politician, he was just as he encouraged the students to be: aspirational and resourceful.

Born in 1969, Booker was a post-Civil Rights politician who had taken advantage of the access to opportunity that the movement won. From his vantage point, a new historical context required a different approach than the ones that had been used by his predecessors.  Many of the problems Newark faced were perennial in black communities, but the times were different, and their potential was no longer circumscribed by law. Booker was energized by the possibility of applying freshly conceived, expert sourced, partnership-based solutions to bear on the issues Newark faced.

Booker’s political career was marked from the very beginning by the generational shift he embodied. In 1998, he won the Central Ward council post in a May-December race against an incumbent 40 years his senior. He then succeeded a mayor who had been born in the 1930s, and helmed the city for an unprecedented two decades.

Taking on the mayor’s job in Newark was a seductive proposition for an ambitious leader who wanted to both test new ideas and stage a comeback story. Newark’s problems were abiding, but its promise was real. Newark had once been a manufacturing center and, like other cities nationwide, had been swept up in the macroeconomics of post-industrial job loss. Crack and its concomitant ills had descended hard on the city in the 1980s; the gangs took root in the late 1990s.

Still, the city had potential. At 26 square miles and just around a quarter of a million in population, Newark was small city, but it was replete with respected institutions of higher learning, an international airport, a major seaport, and arts and sports venues that could attract not only tri-state tourism, but could also theoretically net both extra-regional and international tourism runoff from New York City.  Newark had managed to begin a downtown residential renewal without the usual politics of displacement: the development projects often converted long-vacant office towers, industrial buildings, and factories that had been dormant for years.

For a relatively small city, existing in the shadow of Manhattan, many of the residents there exhibited an outsize sense of place and pride. Newark, reputed to be the third oldest significant city in the nation, possessed the raw potential to become a little powerhouse of an American micropolis. Booker’s goal was to use his novel approach to help it reach that potential.

Of all the issues there were to conquer, violent crime and public safety was clearly the most urgent. By 2006, the murder rate had been mounting annually for the past four years, and Newarkers in the most affected neighborhoods were feeling the destabilizing effects of the violence acutely.

This convergence – of Booker’s ambition and Newark’s potential, his philosophy on governing and the urgency of the public safety issue – would produce a key test of Booker’s approach.  Violence in Newark, as in other cities grappling with the same issue, was a result of tangled, deeply entrenched, stubbornly persistent, centuries-old factors.  And while Booker’s was not a race-blind politics – he acknowledged that the problems his city faced were problems endemic to majority black cities – he endorsed the appealing and politically potent idea that the city could solve its most intractable problems, violence among them, by identifying and rooting out the key loci of those problems today, not unspooling the accumulated problems of the past.

The good news was that by employing this approach, the time horizon necessary for winning on violence could shrink from an entire generation to a mayoral term or two.  But this ambitious approach to crime mitigation introduced pressure to show results: after all, the time horizon for when citizens should be able to see an appreciable difference had shrunk from a generation, to a mayoral term or two.

A porous line

The neighborhood around Vailsburg Park was a high-crime area, and the city placed Shotspotter gunshot detection devices, which would automatically alert the Newark Police Department if they sensed gunfire, around the neighborhood. It was within sight of Vailsburg Park that Zakie Brown was murdered.

Zakie and his mother had moved out of New Jersey, but Zakie soon became restless, and implored his mother to let him return to be with friends and family. His mother relented, and he returned to live with his cousin Ibn, and Ibn’s mother, Zakie’s aunt Lorraine.

The duo’s other aunt, Trinette Williams, noticed that her nephews were “running the streets” a lot, and while she was not sure at the time whether they were involved with anything that would make them targets of violence, she harbored a general concern about their safety because of the areas where they hung out.

Williams’ concern was borne not of paranoia, but of knowing.  Reflecting on her childhood, she described her mother as demanding moral uprightness of her and her siblings when she was a child, and instilling in them a respect for adults and for institutions: no back talk, no foul language in front of churches – not even under their breath.

Yet, as a young woman, Williams dealt drugs at a time when she was low on cash, and a dealer from the neighborhood offered her the opportunity. She would eventually make a career as a licensed nurse practitioner, but not before getting arrested for gun possession, and staring down a three- to five-year jail sentence.  As much as anyone, Williams understood how porous the line between uprightness and criminality could be, and how environment and immediate circumstances could push a person over that line. She could not help but think about that line as she considered her nephews, their associations, and their hangouts.

Williams was heartbroken to receive the phone call about Zakie’s murder, not long after he had returned to live in Newark.  During the memorial service at Cotton’s Funeral Home, she felt uneasy as she looked at the faces of people who had come to pay their respects.  She couldn’t know whether someone present knew what had happened to her nephew, or had set him up, or was even his killer in the flesh, and she shuddered at the thought that this person who had so profoundly affected her family might now be in their midst, viewing her nephew’s body and offering condolences to his loved ones.

Soon after his cousin’s funeral, Trinette said, Ibn Williams received a threatening telephone call: “We got your brother,” the caller declared – Ibn and Zakie were close, and were often mistaken for siblings – “You’re next.”

Ibn took the threat to heart, and began wearing a bulletproof vest and arming himself following the telephone call.  Sure enough, less than three weeks after he buried his cousin, Ibn was shot on the same street where his cousin had been murdered, and subsequently laid in critical condition with a gunshot wound to his head, in the same hospital where his cousin had died, except Ibn was under police guard because of the contraband found on him while he lay bleeding on the sidewalk.

False starts

Booker was both resourceful and aspirational, and following his swearing in as mayor in 2006, he led with aspiration. He announced publicly that Newark would become the latter day city upon a hill, though not the Puritanical ideal to which John Winthrop aspired. Instead, it would be the ideal for our time: a city with a tough past that, through a smart new approach and a strong will to succeed, would make itself over, and become the national model for violent crime reduction.

At the same time, Booker endeavored to put real points on the board quickly, and his early moves hinted at his highly tactical approach. Booker hired Garry McCarthy away from the New York Police Department and installed him as Newark’s police director, increased the number of police on patrol, beefed up the police department’s gang unit, stepped up weapons recovery programs, and implemented a controversial program that set up anti-crime security cameras in high-crime areas throughout the city.

The first tests of his new approach were the Safe Summer Initiative, a pilot of which he rolled out in the month following his swearing in, and Safe Schools, introduced that September. The programs brought diverse resources to bear on high-crime residential areas and school perimeters through a central point of coordination, Newark Now, a non-profit that Booker founded during the four-year gap between his city council and mayoral tenures.

As part of the program, the Booker administration used 16 so-called “Safe Zones” in the city, and announced in their First Hundred Days retrospective report that the Safe Zone areas experienced nearly a third fewer murders versus the year before, while the year-over-year murder rate was virtually unchanged for non-Safe Zone areas of the city.

Results started to look incredibly promising. In 2008, the city saw its murder rate drop by a third, making it a nationwide leader in crime reduction for that year. But closer scrutiny of the data tempered the perception of progress implied by that single year-over-year result.  The murder rate had actually been on pace to be even lower that year, but violence had accelerated during the latter half of 2008, causing the city to actually fall short of mid-year expectations. Also, per capita murders had reached a similar low three times in the past 15 years. Each time, a sharp upward inflection and march toward ghastly highs had followed.

In April of 2010, what in retrospect was an anomalous reprieve from high murder rates looked, at the time, like a real sign of progress: national press and social networks lit up with the news that midnight had brought with it confirmation of Newark’s “Murder Free March”, the first homicide-free calendar month that the city had experienced in 44 years. Booker took to cable television to talk up the news, accompanied during some appearances by director McCarthy.

But while some in the national media reported breathlessly about the milestone, Newarkers where steeling themselves for the inevitable end to the peace. Six days later, a father of two was found shot in the head on the south side of the city, bringing the total murders to date to the exact number it had been at the same time the previous year. By the end of 2010, the murder rate in Newark ended slightly higher than it had been the previous year. By Booker’s own account, while the quarter ending with the murder-free March was the best for the crime rate in twenty-six years, the subsequent one saw the worst quarterly crime rate in twenty.

After crediting their policing tactics for the sustained lower numbers of 2008, and the murder-free days of March 2010, it would be difficult for the administration to eschew blame for the explosion of shootings in 2011.  Did their policies have much impact on the crime rate at all, or did crime wax and wane independently of their strategies? Was the city witnessing tactical victories without advancing in the wider war against the shootings?  Lack of clarity about exactly how the administration’s approach was affecting crime would call into question not only the wisdom of the administration’s crime tactics, but of the assumption on which it was based: that one could address crime without first having to address the problems at its root. In the crucible of that doubt, a backlash was born.

Shut it down

On a late-summer evening in Newark, the typical daily exodus unfolded downtown.

The vendors packed up for the day: those who had been hawking incense and fragrant oils folded and stowed their plywood carts; purse and discount DVD sellers rolled up their sidewalk mats; sellers of house music, the soundtrack for downtown Newark, turned their radios off and packed away thin, transparent homemade mix CD cases.

Employees and managers of the district’s clothing, sneaker, and jewelry establishments lowered the gates in front of their stores. People who worked at downtown’s most prominent employers – including Essex County Courthouse, Prudential Financial, and Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield – drove north across Broad and Washington Streets towards Route 280 and the New Jersey Turnpike to begin their evening commute to the suburbs. A steady stream of New Jersey Transit buses drove up Market street, carrying evening commuters from nearby Penn Station, and stopping at the corner of Broad and Market Streets to pick up the late shoppers who were making their way back to Newark’s residential neighborhoods.

But while most people were leaving, a group of Newarkers was on the way.  Arriving in twos and threes, they lingered on the corner of Broad and Halsey Streets, chatting casually with each other, but also clearly waiting for something to get started.  Uninitiated bystanders were perplexed at the scene, gathering that something was afoot, yet not knowing exactly what.

Shortly, though, the group’s intentions began to crystallize. A couple men set up a speaker system near a corner lamppost. Ras Baraka, principal of Central High School, councilman for Newark’s South Ward, and son of poet and Black Power Movement pioneer Amiri Baraka, stood clad in a plaid shirt, brown loafers, and blue jeans and observed the scene alone.  Earl “Street Doctor” Best, a member of the Street Warriors organization, was pacing the sidewalk, impeccably dressed as always. Other people who were clearly leaders of the group started to arrive, and the tone of the disparate conversations changed from casual to serious, with the previously open body language and audible conversations morphing into to whispers and bodies angled conspiratorially towards each other. Occasionally, they would gesture towards corners, or point to the middle of the intersection, as if working out logistics.

Then Sharif Maloney, one of the group’s principals, grabbed the microphone, and started to rail against the violence in the city.

“Babies are dying,” Maloney rasped. “Women! They just killed a female off-duty cop up the street,” he said incredulously, gesturing down Halsey Street, where a thirty one-year-old police officer had recently been shot and killed during a carjacking just a few blocks away. “She was a young mother.”

Maloney continued: “If you don’t care about violence, then stay right there on that sidewalk.” He looked at a group of young men who were standing on the sidewalk and watching the scene unfold. “But if you’re ready to take your community back, you can start by joining us right here in this street.”

The group was the Newark Anti-Violence Coalition, and their modus operandi was the same each week: they would “shut down” the site of an act of violence in Newark. The location was typically a place where a shooting or murder had recently occurred, but the group would occasionally meet at a more symbolic location – the Board of Education was once a target – when they wanted to tag a specific policy as a metaphorical act of violence.

True to form, at 6:30 PM sharp, the people who had been ambling about the sidewalk walked, gingerly but purposefully, out into oncoming traffic, letting a final few cars pass through their ranks before they fully inscribed themselves in the middle of the intersection. Members of the coalition instructed the protesters to spread out as far as they could in order to prevent any buses or additional cars from breaking their circle.

Just as the coalition wanted, their protest threw the street into disarray. Commuters did the dance familiar to those who had previously encountered the protests: first honking in confusion and frustration, then reversing down the one-way street, or doing K-turns across the broad boulevard.  When five New Jersey Transit buses were trapped between Halsey Street and the police blockade set up at Broad Street to detour traffic, a woman stormed over to the circle of protesters, child in arms, to complain about the obstruction.  On the buses, passengers were encircling bus drivers, trying to convince them to inch up to the circle and play chicken with the protesters.  One bus driver stepped outside to try to reason with the protest organizers, but he was not able to convince them to let his bus through.

The coalition had started their weekly Wednesday protests two years prior, braving rain, blizzards, heat, humidity, the police, and the ire of scores of drivers to stage their weekly protests. The impetus for the protests was the murder of Nakiesha Allen, a mother of two teenaged daughters who was gunned down in front of her home during a rash of midday shootings that left three other people dead. While their endurance in itself was noteworthy, the coalition’s work was more instructive as a rebuke of Booker’s surgical violence mitigation approach.

During the 2008 election, Hilary Clinton drew wild applause during one of the Democratic primary debates when she insisted that if AIDS affected young white women at the same rate that it did their black counterparts, there would be a national “outraged outcry,” and an ensuing rush to converge on and solve the problem. The NAVC members felt the same way about what they termed the “plague” of violence affecting Newark and other communities like it: the shooting deaths in the city should be unconscionable and unacceptable, and be the impetus for urgent and drastic action by political leaders and law enforcement.

The coalition’s leadership held decidedly black nationalistic points of view, with a preponderance of members claiming affiliations with the New Black Panther Party, the Nation of Islam, and the Five Percent Nation. Their rank-and-file included many murder victims’ family members.

The coalition had produced a list of five demands, and they were a direct criticism of Booker’s handling of the violence issue. They wanted to meet with him, and to have him declare violence a public health emergency. They wanted Garry McCarthy fired. They believed lack of self knowledge fueled self-hatred that facilitated intra-community violence, and prescribed that comprehensive black and Latino history be taught in schools (an edict that had been codified, though not muscularly enforced, in New Jersey state law in 2002 under the Amistad Bill).

While Booker looked to tactical methods to address violence, the NAVC favored a comprehensive approach that addressed the history and systems that facilitate and reproduce it.  When Baraka took his turn to speak to the coalition and bystanders from the middle of the protest circle, he drew an explicit link to Civil Rights movement, based on the incident with the mother who argued with organizers to let her bus through near the beginning of the protest. Baraka reminded the assemblage that the Montgomery Bus boycott had lasted for 381 days.  Imagine, he asked, if they had given up on day 380.

“People are out here dying,” he said, “and that lady wants to come over here yelling because she has to get home a little late.” Baraka shook his head. “Tell that to Rosa Parks.”

The solution to violence in Newark had to be located in an explicitly race-based politics.  More broadly, the effective black leader for our time couldn’t outrun history. Booker had tried it his way, but the results did not pan out, creating the opening for a strong castigation of his approach.


Booker’s hypothesis that violence could be reduced without unspooling its contributing factors was appealing, neat, and comported with his yen for novel ideas. But that did not mean it had sprung from the fountainhead of his imaginative, wishful thinking.

David Kennedy and Anthony Braga were researchers in Boston, where crime had more than tripled in the three years from 1987 to 1990.  After querying police about the cause of the problem, they drew a number of conclusions that informed their approach to violence reduction. First, that most murders are committed by a relatively small number of very active offenders. Second, that while people involved with the drug economy were associated with a hugely disproportionate share of violence, most of the violence was actually personal and vendetta-driven. Third, that while the crimes they committed, or could eventually commit, were heinous, most shooters were not sociopaths who cared for nothing and no one. As Ibn and Zakie’s aunt Trinette had learned in her youth, the line between uprightness and criminality was porous.

Following from these first principles, Kennedy and Braga reached the conclusion that, while it would be great if the community could get rid of the drug economy, vanquish poverty, improve education and dismantle street gangs, those were not prerequisites for reducing violence.

To the contrary, by targeting specific people who were responsible for most shootings, applying pressure to their broader social networks, and using a combination of threats and incentives to alter their decision-making, they could provide a reprieve from high levels of shootings and murders in the near-term. The pair created the youth violence intervention program Operation Ceasefire in line with those theories.

In practice, their approach leans on the parole and probation regime to get ex-offenders, gang members, and known associates of suspected murderers into a room. Law enforcement wields the stick, giving the group an ultimatum: cooperate with community leaders, who will work with them to help them appreciate the devastating effects of their activities, and negotiate détente with their rivals, or expect incredibly aggressive, dragnet-style policing.

Next, community leaders and families of murder victims would work at their heartstrings. “I’ve seen rooms full of very scary gang guys reduced to tears, seeing the reaction of mothers who have lost children,” Kennedy said during a phone interview.

A dramatic decline in gun violence followed in Boston after they implemented Ceasefire. Because of its results, and perhaps because its approach aligned with his sensibilities, Booker took notice, said Kennedy, even before he became mayor.  By March of 2011, he had brought the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office and the Newark Police Department on board to implement the approach starting that September. Kennedy himself, now director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay University, was tapped to assist with the implementation.

But March was a long way from September, and as the city warmed up, fears about a continued high rate of gun violence were being borne out.  Booker was dogged about promulgating the theory that a small number of bad actors were responsible for the murders.  As frequent newspaper and word-of-mouth reports of felled youth and innocent bystanders continued to mount, he pushed back hard on the notion that everyday community members in Newark were somehow under siege.

After a July weekend that witnessed a particularly high number of shootings, Booker convened a press conference to press this point.

“What we know right now is that we’ve had a number of shootings this month that have all been related, and involved a very small group of drug dealers,” he insisted. “These were not random attacks.”

Flanked to his right by new police director Samuel DeMaio (McCarthy had been hired away earlier in the year by the Chicago police department), Booker insisted that an escalating tit-for-tat was motivating the shootings.  In all, he used the phrase “small group” to characterize the shooters 18 times during the 15-minute press conference.

“This is what’s very frustrating to me,” he said. “That a small group of individuals can undermine the progress and the efforts being made by the city as a whole.”

Green shoots

The city had arguably made some progress. Consider Nat Turner Park. By eleven on a bright and cloudless Saturday morning that same summer, there was activity in nearly every corner of the park.  If one leaned on the east-facing fence, the panorama of solid horizontal bands of color – the wide blue sky, bright green synthetic turf, and brick red regulation track – gave the setting an inviting children’s book-like appeal.  Young boys snapped, passed, and rushed their way through a football practice under the watchful gaze of their coaches.  Young girls yelled cheers in pitchy unison as they danced and tumbled through a cheerleading practice. Darrin Sharrif, the councilman for the city ward where Nat Turner Park is located, donned a Yankees button-down jersey and Nike track pants as he casually chatted with constituents.

In a lot at the southeast end of the park, groups of children from various neighborhoods played dodge ball and other games, while their parents and older siblings cheered them on. A local nonprofit named FP YOUTHOUTCRY had organized the activities, and had plucked a group of Rutgers students to help administer the games. Older teenagers from the neighborhood sat atop a grassy mound, ribbing each other and watching the younger children play.

In the heart of Newark, this was the classic Anytown, USA tableau. Nat Turner Park had been a deserted eyesore in the neighborhood prior to its 2009 ribbon cutting. It was a beneficiary of Booker’s ambitious parks expansion plan, which refurbished or created new green space all throughout the city, and that coaches, families, and community organizations had descended on this day to partake in the rituals of community life.

Other soft metrics of progress were starting to become apparent.  The New Jersey Performing Arts Center and the Prudential Center were two venues that brought people downtown for concerts by top-tier artists, NBA basketball, and NHL hockey. (Supporters of the previous mayor, Sharpe James, would hasten to point out that deals for both of those venues were closed on his watch. Detractors would add that because of a mismanaged contract process, Newark continues to fight for rent from the Prudential Center.) Nightlife was starting to crop up downtown. The city closed a deal with Panasonic to move their headquarters there. The NBA Draft and Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry festival had made Newark a main attraction for nationally renowned and widely anticipated events. And perhaps most importantly, there was an enthusiastic, grassroots energy around art, technology, entrepreneurship, and sustainability bubbling in pockets of the city.

All of these developments fed the narrative of the city’s resurgence. But for many Newark residents, experience with these aspects of life in Newark was remote-to-nonexistent, while news of, and sometimes direct experience with, the violence continued to cast a pall.

“Son of…”

It remains to be seen whether Ceasefire will work in Newark, but many people are skeptical. It relies on a degree of trust and partnership with the police in a community that is deeply suspicious of the department. It relies on coordination with well-respected community leaders, many of who are affiliated with the same community organizations that are disdainful of Booker’s approach.

Though this specific method for addressing violence will be new, the theory about crime it presupposes is not new for residents who have listened closely to Booker. In the face of the zig-zagging murder rate of the past few years, it has been difficult for Booker and his team to point to the entire span and say, unequivocally, that their tactics worked during the periods when murders decreased.

It is impossible to know whether Ibn and Zakie would still be alive today if their shooter or shooters had been hauled into a meeting and beseeched to stop shooting by a grieving mother. The circumstances of their murders make it likely, though, that if such a conversation had been effective, it might have saved at least two lives. As a single test case of Ceasefire’s first principles, the cousins’ murders do appear to offer verification: their murders were targeted, related, and appeared to be the result of a vendetta.

Murders had a way of activating families. One of the most rousing deliveries on the night of the Halsey Street protest was by a woman who introduced herself to the circle of protesters only as “Queen”.  After she handed off the microphone to the following speaker, she walked over to her sister, who had been among the quieter members of the crowd, standing just behind the circle of protesters, but listening intently.

The woman had been upset by the remarks of one of the group’s frequent speakers, a short, suited young man who used his speaking time to decry the broader community, and the families of murdered youth. Parents were setting bad examples and failing to keep tabs on their children, he said, and then wondering why their children sometimes turned up dead.

“What he said wasn’t fair,” the woman said to her sister in a hushed and woeful voice. “My son came from a good family. He was loved.”

While many of the victims’ family members among the coalition members had worn t-shirts bearing large, silkscreened photos of their loved ones, this woman took a subtler approach: she wore only a button commemorating her son: Ibn Allah Williams, May 17, 1991 – August 11, 2011.