March in St. Pete to stop gun violence listen04/27/09 Andrea Lypka
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Eight-year-old Paris Whitehead-Hamilton’s death was a wakeup call for the community in Bartlett Park to mobilize against the crimes committed in their neighborhood. About 400 concerned citizens marched to end gun violence in South St. Petersburg on April 25.
The St. Petersburg Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), other community organizations, and City Council members marched from Bartlett Park to Campbell Park in honor of the victim killed during a gang dispute on April 5.
The president of the NAACP’s St. Petersburg chapter, Ray Tampa, told the crowd that they were marching for all the victims of violence in the city. “This community is tired of the senseless killings that have been going on. Enough is enough,” he said.
Shenita Willam- Joseph, Whitehead-Hamilton’s aunt also marched carrying a sign saying Stop the Madness. She said she hopes that the recent happening will energize the community to end gun violence. She says that despite the community support, she now lives in fear.
“But my faith keeps me moving. We are going to stop the violence and we will do everything to save a kid’s life,” she said.
Dorothy Eaten from Seminole, a member of the NAACP, held a peace sign. She said that she attends most of the peace demonstrations. “I am concerned about the gun violence in the area that has taken the lives of so many sweet young children. I understand that some people don’t like to tell on each other but when children’s lives are at stake… Nothing can justify these actions,” she said.”The violent behavior needs to stop.”
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker said the city, police department and other organizations and the community must unite their forces to create a safer city. Baker announced tough measures taken to combat illegal guns in Midtown including the new Gun Bounty program. Police will pay a $1,500 reward for tips leading to illegal assault weapons and $1,000 for tips leading to other firearms to anyone who calls the Crime Stoppers of Pinellas County hotline at 1-800-873-8477. Citizens that give information that results in an arrest, recovers a gun or leads to a weapons charge, are eligible for the rewards.
Tom Tito, a crime watch coordinator and vice president of the Bartlett Park neighborhood association has lived in the neighborhood most of his life and the area was safe until the eighties when “the no snitch and code of silence" has enabled street drug sales to flourish. Residents have learned to live in fear and remain silent. Domestic violence has permeated the neighborhood.
“Two days after Paris was killed, family members of another girl shot in this neighborhood came to our crime watch meeting and demanded that we start reporting crime to police. No one has challenged them. This code of silence protecting violent crime for so long seemed to just fall away in the face of a united, outraged and mobilized community,” he said.
Tito said this movement has prompted the city to start the Gun Bounty program and the state Department of Juvenile Justice to lead a workshop on Restorative Justice. The community participates and enhances these programs and now their focus is on preventing crime, teaching youth how to stay out of trouble and making restitution to victims.
“Crime watch and neighborhood leaders embrace this new philosophy as those committing crimes are from our families and while we want them to stop hurting us we also want to see them get a chance to turn their lives around,” he said.