EAST NEW YORK (PIX11) – After a section of one Brooklyn neighborhood had three fatal shootings last summer, a community organization there determined that it could stop the bloodshed. It was successful, against long odds. Now, though, the Man Up! anti-gun violence organization faces a challenge to keep its success from being eclipsed.
In the front window of the organization’s main office on Van Siclen Avenue, is an electronic sign. On the sign a number, 369, is displayed in a bright red LED readout — that’s the number of days the troubled area went between killings (367 between shootings). It’s a big number, but in the southern section of East New York where Man Up! is located, the number may as well be infinity.
It’s the number of days the 18 square-block community has gone without a homicide. Considering that two public housing complexes, two schoolyards and three parks — places that have in the past been magnets for fatal gun violence — are located within the community, the number is remarkable. Add to that the fact that the number of days includes the latter half of last summer and all of this one, when more people are outside and in closer contact with one another, and the statistic is all the more stunning.
Still, Man Up!’s director takes a realistic approach. “We can’t stop violence totally,” James Peterson told PIX11 News, “but our objective is to stop shootings and killings.”
The program was founded ten years ago by his mentor, Andre T. Mitchell, after eight year-old Dashawn Hill, a resident of the community, got fatally caught in crossfire. Man Up! was intended to prevent more such deaths.
“I could’ve been on the street, on the corner,” said Vladimir Dorgely, “or dead, or in jail.” Dorgely, 28, is now a personal banker at a branch of one of the world’s largest banks. He joined Man Up! when he was in high school, and credits the organization with helping him see the importance of developing a professional career path.
Similarly, Peterson, Man Up!’s director, pointed out that a key to his program’s success is to not necessarily focus on local residents’ gun possession, even though that’s frowned upon, certainly. Instead, he said, Man Up! workers ask questions like, “If you had a job, would that help? If you had educational assistance, would that help? If you had vocational training, would that help?”
In fact, last month, Man Up! doubled its headquarters space, and made the additional square footage into a job training and referral center.
Somebody else who works intently within the organization is someone who cannot be missed — he has a trading card that says he’s seven feet tall. Ron Moore played on the 1987-1988 Detroit Pistons, a team that went all the way to the NBA Finals. He’s not only a full time employee of Man Up!, but also attended George Gershwin Junior High School, which is across the street from Man Up!’s head office.
“We want to prepare them for college,” Moore said about the hundreds of young people who participate in the tournaments, camps and workshops he organizes. The point of his sports program within the larger organization, he told PIX11 News, is to show how sports “can teach self-discipline, competitiveness, perseverance,” and other life skills, as well as provide potential scholarship and other opportunities for college.
However, all is not rosy for Man Up!.
“Right here on the corner,” James Peterson, the director, said, pointing at the end of the block across the street from his office, “a young man was shot. I believe he was hit two times. He’s stable.”
Peterson talked about a violent incident that happened on Tuesday, just a few dozen paces from his program’s office. In the front window of that office, the electronic sign that touts how the community has not had a killing in 369 days shows another, much smaller number as well.
Two is the number that flashes in green. It’s how many days since the last shooting in the neighborhood. Before that, the sign proudly showed how that section of East New York — bordered by Linden Boulevard, Pennsylvania and Cozine Avenues, and Ashford Street — had gone 367 days with no shootings. It was an unbelievable accomplishment.
A major way in which that happens was explained by Timothy Washington, a Man Up! team member, as he walked through a neighboring public housing complex. “We’re [each] assigned fifteen participants,” he said, describing people, mostly men, that Man Up! targets in the community. “Some are recently released from prison, [or have] access to a gun…” he gave a list of criteria that result in people being referred to his organization. Sometimes the probation department refers them.
The organization’s workers, like Washington, and volunteers are now stepping up their already significant efforts to be in deep contact with community members in order to prevent a retaliation shooting in the wake of Tuesday’s gun violence.
Those personal connections have proven invaluable in the effort to increase the number of gun violence-free days. Almost as important, according to Peterson, “You cannot conduct this model effectively without finances.”
He specifically cited State Assemblymember Inez Barron and her husband, New York City Councilmember Charles Barron, for helping to finance Man Up! through their offices’ discretionary funds. Peterson also mentioned that the organization gets money from the Mayor’s Fund, and he listed an anonymous donor as well. It’s a very poorly kept secret that Mayor Bloomberg is a personal financial supporter, an interesting thing, especially since he is often at odds with the Barrons.
About 15 blocks outside of Man Up!’s coverage area, a cop, Jamil Sarwar, was shot on Independence Day. His accused shooter was captured by police Wednesday in Maine. Man Up! has been attempting to find another intensely violent area of East New York in which to open a second main office, in order to turn the situation around. Topping the list of potential locations is the area near the Cypress Hills public housing complex, where Officer Sarwar was shot.