My husband Jerry and I walked along the waterfront Tuesday night talking about the end of summer as the band wrapped up at Liberty Park. Ahead, two Erie Police vehicles suddenly appeared and pulled west along the promenade, lights and piercing sirens going off.
And with that, the daydream — about free music, brotherhood, sublime Erie summers and sunsets — was shattered. I had no idea how urgently they rushed, but the cold words of Blue Coats founder Daryl Craig came back and added the needed context.
How urgent is the issue of gun violence among Erie youth? Another child could be killed at any time, even as we speak of early August this morning at the Erie Center for Arts and Technology, he said.
Did it happen on Tuesday? Hopefully not.
But as Craig said, it will happen at some point. And we all know it.
Erie is awash with native assets – that blue swell and shine of Près Isle Bay. The proud history and the architecture, innovation and courage it has sown. Authentic arts, music and food brought to you by a rich and ever-changing immigrant heritage. Erie Insurance and its corporate and non-profit partners deploying capital and seeking strategies to reverse economic trends that have gone unaddressed for too long.
And even. At the same time, in the streets of this same city – not another – generational failures are erupting, in atrocious distillations of evil: young people snatching the life and integrity of their peers because in one way or another another in the world we gave them makes sense, or worse, is the only way to stay alive. Ignoring this means we accept violence and the killing of children as a way of life, Craig said.
He can’t do this and stay sane, he said.
This should be true for all of us.
Data, resources and manpower are key to building peace. But the crisis demands reservations even harder than those to come because the solutions lie in human hearts not always up to the task, even less inclined to work.
The Blue Coats came to the sidewalks of Erie schools nearly two decades ago to defuse tensions between young people that in these turbulent times are too often resolved in gunfire. From, by and for the community, they are positioned to see conflicts as they emerge and mediate the peace. The work gives them the clearest line of sight to just how much need, loss, injustice, and disconnection fuel Erie’s gun violence that, to those who don’t experience it, seems so confusing and senseless.
The Blue Coats see parents who—due to poverty, trauma, and dysfunction—lack the ability or resources to raise their children effectively. They see social media, music and Hollywood attacking impressionable young minds with pathological content that glorifies lethal violence. They see an underground economy flooding already desperate and crumbling downtrodden neighborhoods with drugs and cheap, poorly made weapons that deliver death and endless intergenerational enmity.
They see children with sharp minds, tested survival skills, and deep talents and desires not fueled by growth and opportunity, but herded toward crime and death amid virtual conflicts spilling into streets. Too often, they said, children are left to erect their own structures and values in already criminal and degraded social contexts. They see children, not killers, who feel they have no choice but to capitulate to the massive weaponry unfolding around them in order to survive.
Worse, they see too many people in a position to help who simply won’t.
The Blue Coats make a prophetic, urgent, and uncompromising moral call to meet at-risk children and their families with unwavering love and support, and most importantly, they insist on accountability for all — everyone — involved. Conditions in these neighborhoods are not organic and the gaps, driven by history, politics and intent, must be bridged on all sides.
As Craig said, no one is exempt. And privilege offers no shield against stray bullets.
Craig, a pastor and peacekeeper, points to the potential he sees for sleeping in too many black churches in Erie. Consider what Bishop Dwane Brock at Eagle’s Nest did, he said. Imagine that multiplied.
It was a call fittingly echoed Tuesday when the House Democratic Policy Committee and the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus held a hearing on youth violence intervention and prevention at Brock’s Eagle’s Nest Leadership Corp., 1129 Pennsylvania Ave. There, Brock and Pastor Darrell Cook of Christ Community Church spoke about the role the black church has played throughout black American history, serving as centers of education, political activism, support, d guidance and fellowship.
Cook and Brock asked lawmakers to consider how to deploy state resources to empower institutions that hold such trust and community relationships. Brock described his school, job training programs and the work of the Blue Coats and asked lawmakers to consider how these 501(c)3 organizations could be strengthened. Cook pointed to a program he started with the help of Erie NAACP President Gary Horton to help teach young people how to create media content, such as podcasts, for positive, even profit-making purposes.
Receptive legislators shared the roles played by the church in their own formations. Philadelphia Representative Jordan Harris noted that young people involved in violence so often lack the kind of foundation that religious communities instill.
As Erie once again mounts a community response to escalating youth violence, policymakers and all stakeholders still somehow sitting on the sidelines should heed Craig, and the pastors like Brock and Cook. What power could be unleashed by mobilizing, unifying and supporting trusted community and faith leaders who every day tend the fault lines of the pandemic of violence, the human horizons where heart, soul and desire meet, and where choices – for life or death – are made.
Opinion and Engagement Editor Lisa Thompson Sayers can be reached at [email protected] or 814-870-1802. Follow her on Twitter @ETNThompson.