Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.
It was a Saturday afternoon peace smoke in the Edison neighborhood.
Kids were having a blast in the Elmo bounce house, the DJ was leading dancers in the "Cha-Cha Slide," One Man and a Grill was filling the air with the smoke of about a ton of rib tips, hamburgers, chicken, and more.
The music stopped, and Kalamazoo City Commissioner Esteven Juarez took the mic to address the people at the Urban Alliance's parking lot.
"How many of you have been affected by gun violence, raise your hand."
Hands go up all over the parking lot.
"Most of them! If you live in this community, you've been affected by gun violence one way or another.... We want people to understand that gun violence is not OK. Gun violence is not OK in our community. If we don't say something about it or do something about it, it's going to continue to happen."
Juarez himself had been on the wrong path -- when he was growing up just around the block from where he spoke, on Washington Avenue, he could've either been a victim or a perpetrator of gun violence before he turned his life around
. He didn't mention that, but everyone in the close-knit community of people trying to end conflict in Edison knew his story.
Yafinceio Harris (Group Violence Intervention, Peace During War), center, gets a lesson on how to do the "Cha Cha Slide."
He speaks with passion, "We need to unite together, to end gun violence. I believe it can stop! My faith tells me it can stop. But what needs to happen is we need to come together as a community to make it stop. If we don't stand together, we'll fall. I need you! Turn to your neighbor and say 'I need you!'
"I need you!" a chorus of voices say.
'Peace smoke beats gun smoke'
Michael Wilder of Group Violence Intervention
says the event is all about "peace smoke!"
That's the smoke of "barbecue grills.... The gist of it is, peace smoke beats gun smoke. If the guy's coming to shoot the neighborhood up, but when they get over here they see all of this, they smell the food, they see the kids," he says, then they may rethink their intentions. "The point is, peace smoke beats gun smoke at that moment."
A community event providing community cohesion is important to bring people together in support of peace. The Gun Violence Resource and Resilience Rally was also meant to bring people to resources in not only prevention of gun violence, but in helping those directly and indirectly impacted.
It was the second of these rallies for the summer. The first was for the Eastside, the next will be on the Northside, July 2. Many allied organizers and community leaders have united behind the rallies: The Kalamazoo Alliance to Prevent Gun Violence (KAP), Justice Against Bullying at School (J.A.B.S.), ISAAC, GVI, BLOCKS Club, Urban Alliance, City Commissioner Juarez, and Kalamazoo County Commissioner Tami Rey.
One Man and a Grill was filling the air with the smoke of about a ton of rib tips, hamburgers, chicken, and more. Michael Wilder of Group Violence Intervention and Peace During War says the rally was all about peace smoke, the smoke of BBQ grills.
A big goal is to bring together the many community organizations working to stop violence in Kalamazoo in order to gather resources to help people whose neighborhoods have been way too bloody in recent years.
"What is so very powerful about this is, there are a number of community organizations that are working to prevent gun violence," Davis says. "We're not doing it in siloes, we're doing it together."
She points to the many tables at the rally, from the local Moms Demand Action
giving away gun locks, to J.A.B.S. shining a light on a source of neighborhood violence, violence in schools. Others, like the trauma navigators of H.O.P.E.'s Recovery and Resiliency Trauma Center Director Reggie Nelson, and recovery navigation coordinator Mighty Stream, were enjoying the block party and mingling with whoever needed to speak with them.
Rally organizers want to provide "anything that helps us as a village and a community," Davis says.
Gwendolyn Hooker, CEO and founder of H.O.P.E
., points out KAP's new community resource guide, a directory of Kalamazoo groups. KAP is H.O.P.E.’s anti-gun violence initiative.
Some organizations in the directory, like GVI, do the "underground work," as she says, of defusing potential violence.
Why underground? "It's not that we're working in secret, but we are working smart and safe, and realizing there's a lot of people who have not been brought to justice for the crimes that they committed," Hooker says. "Also keeping in mind folks that are willing to talk to us and work with us, and help us, are putting themselves in, for lack of better words, in the line of fire, because there are so many unsolved murders, and not knowing who is who." Work needs to be done to build trust "from the inside out" to stop disputes before they turn deadly.
The directory also contains support for a community suffering from violence-induced trauma. "When you have a group of people that care enough to come into your community and offer resources, and nobody else is doing it, it goes a long way," she says.
Alphonso Harris, left, a Northside resident who ran for Kalamazoo City Commission in 2021, speaks with a member of Kalamazoo Moms Demand Action. "Kalamazoo should not have this big gun problem. It's insane to me. We're not Chicago, we're not Detroit,
Hooker’s organization has been talking to people over the past few years to find out what help they need. "Just talk to people -- people who've been impacted -- and just ask them, what kinds of things would be helpful for you right now?"
People say they need help with the stress and trauma they're feeling, so the directory includes the Black and Brown Therapy Collective
, The Synergy Health Center
and other groups offering professional therapy services or just giving a chance to talk-it-out peer-to-peer.
People need shelter when they have to flee a violent home or block. So the directory includes ISAAC, UA and H.O.P.E., who assist with temporary shelter or help to find something permanent.
Youth need mentorship, so G.L.O.W. (Girls Loving Our Wisdom), STR8 Motivation, O.D.D.S. (Overcoming Difficult Daily Struggles), and other groups are listed.
Help is needed with the criminal justice system, so Parents United is there to assist families with youth caught up in the system.
Starkly, the directory also points to help with the worst aftermath of gun violence, funeral cost assistance from Gryphon Place and H.O.P.E.
Web of trauma
Kalamazoo Moms Demand Action's Rick Omilian was giving out firearm locks at the rally, and spreading the word that if there is a firearm in one's home, it must be kept "unloaded, locked and separated from ammunition. That's the best way to keep it safe."
Omilian is a regular at events like these, and has been working with J.A.B.S, ISAAC, and other Kalamazoo organizations, "because we've got to save some of these lives."
Some of the many leaders behind the rally. From left, Michael Wilder (Group Violence Intervention, Peace During War), Kalamazoo City Commissioner Estevan Juarez, Sammy Graves (BLOCKS Club), Gwendolyn Hooker (H.O.P.E.), Charlae Davis (ISAAC).
He knows about the cost of gun violence -- in 1999, in a Kalamazoo College dorm, his daughter Maggie was murdered
by her ex-boyfriend, who then turned the gun on himself.
"There's such a web when there's a traumatic event from gun violence. It just spreads to so many people," he says.
There is a financial cost to gun violence. Juarez says that each murder costs Kalamazoo around $1 million. According to recent studies, gun violence costs the entire U.S. $280 billion a year in everything from hospital bills to lost wages
But there is also a heavy cost to entire communities in repeated trauma, Hooks says. The fear that one's block isn't safe anymore, "even if it's just by hearing the gunshots and knowing the end result of that interaction, it's traumatic," she says.
It's important to keep in mind, "when we talk about gun violence as a public health crisis, it means that it impacts everybody that's in that community. It's not just the family of the victims, it's not just the victims, it's anybody who's impacted in any way."
Kalamazoo neighborhoods had bloody summers in 2020 and 2021. So far in 2022 "the numbers are down right now, and hopefully, they hold. I think a lot of that is attributed to the underground work that we're doing as far as interfacing with actual community residents that live and work in areas that are directly impacted."
All the allied groups at the rally "can solve the issue if we all get on the same page," she says. "The community collaborators who I'm working with are trying to come up with some proven strategies that we know and have seen throughout the country."
It is vital, she says, to have "organic face-to-face conversations" -- say, by attracting neighbors with free BBQ, music, fun for the kids, and info on how to find help.
"It makes it more comfortable for people to reach out for help."
The next Gun Violence Resource and Resilience Rally is 7 p.m. Saturday, July 2, at Versluis and Dickinson Park, 1924 Douglas Ave.
Caption for group photo at top: A multitude of Kalamazoo anti-gun violence groups and community leaders are behind the Gun Violence Resource and Resilience Rallies. L-R: Patrese Griffin, Charlae Davis, Ms. Rhonda, Jorge Rodriguez, Ariel Juarez, Esteven Juarez, Michael Monroe, Rider Griffin, Floyd Matthews, Jordan Watts, Yafinceio Harris, Ed Genesis, Michael Wilder, David McDonald, Gwendolyn Hooker, Rodney Atkinson. (Photo courtesy of Charle Davis.)
All photos by Mark Wedel, unless otherwise noted.
Kalamazoo Alliance to Prevent Gun Violence (KAP) Community Resource Guide:
Black and Brown Therapy Collective
Connects residents of color to therapists of color for healing of racial trauma.
Contact: (269) 720-9200
A grassroots approach to becoming and/or staying active in our respective communities' revitalization.
Contact: Ed Genesis
Change in Christ
Contact: Alejandro Rodriguez
G.L.O.W. (Girls Loving Our Wisdom)
Mentoring Program for young women ages 11-18.
Contact: Dominica Sims
GVI (Group Violence Intervention)
Assist with employment
Assist with finding housing
Assist with basic needs
Contact: Michael Wilder
Assist with funeral costs up to $3,000
HOPEtN (Hope through Navigation)
Justice Against Bullying @ School (J.A.B.S.)
Recovery & Resiliency Trauma Center
Grieving Into Future Triumphs (G.I.F.T.)
Kalamazoo Alliance to Prevent Gun Violence
Families Against Sexual Assault and Drugs
Assist with temporary shelter
Provides temporary transitional housing
Assist with funeral costs
Assist with holistic support
Provides support & outreach
Contact: Gwendolyn Hooker
ISAAC Gun Violence Prevention Task Force
Assist with temporary shelter
Works on policy
Contact: Dr. Charlae Davis
KDPS Complaints & Commendations
Youth criminal justice system advocacy
Assist with navigating the school and justice
Resources for parents
Contact: Ebony Hemphill
O.D.D.S. (Overcoming Difficult Daily Struggles)
An organization geared toward community development through self-development by inspiring and motivating the youth and young adults to overcome their struggles.
Contact: Emile Washington
Civil rights advocacy and complaints
Contact: Wendy Fields
Talk it out group sessions
Health & Wellness
Growth & Development classes
Contact: Jeff Fry
Suicide Help line
The Synergy Health Center
Mental health and substance use services with particular attention to African Americans
Contact: (269) 323-1954
Change of status program
AA & NA Meetings
Assistance with securing permanent housing
Assistance with diapers
Assist with cell phones
Youth mentorship programs
Contact: Chris Pompey