(Photos: Erin O’Brien)

As the sweltering July heat baked the streets of Bed-Stuy Monday morning, mourners dressed in black and white filed out of Pleasant Grove Baptist behind the three-foot-long, cartoon-covered casket of one-year-old Davell Gardner, Jr, who was shot and killed in Brooklyn on July 12. The procession, led by Rev. Al Sharpton, spilled onto Fulton Street with a visible weariness; the weariness of a community wracked by death, facing another loss so horrific it is difficult to even comprehend.

Outside of the church, Gwen Carr, Eric Garner’s mother, embraced Gardner’s grandmother. Rev. Sharpton held his hand firmly on the shoulder of Davell Gardner, Sr., the baby’s father. And Bishop Albert L. Jamison and Kenya Brown, both of whom, during the service, had spoken of losing their own sons, stood next to the Gardner family, protecting them from the crowd. As police stood by, the group stepped into hearses and limousines and drove to the Evergreens Cemetery where they put another young body into the ground. 

Gardner’s death comes in the midst of a summer of drastically increased gun violence in New York City. In the month of June, there was a 130 percent uptick in shootings in the city from the same time last year. In the week after Gardner’s death in mid-July, the NYPD reported 64 shooting incidents, a 220 percent increase from 2019. Gardner’s murder, in particular, earned widespread attention, and spurred Mayor Bill de Blasio to announce the Central Brooklyn Violence Prevention plan last week, which combined increased police presence in the 77th and 79th precincts in Brooklyn with community-based efforts, such as peace marches and occupying the corner. 

When Rev. Sharpton called on Gardner’s mourners to stand up and fight to keep people safe, he was engaging with a history of community activism spearheaded by his organization, National Action Network, and local NYC partners such as the 67th Precinct Clergy Council (the “God Squad”), Street Corner Resources, and the Arc of Justice. For years, these groups have been active in their communities, working to reduce gun violence, and have only increased their efforts in the wake of this summer’s shootings.

Iesha Sekou is of small stature, but her presence fills up a city block. Dressed in a purple T-shirt with SPF (Speak Peace Forward) printed across the front, last Saturday night she stood with burning patchouli incense in hand, and looked out over the corner of 143rd Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem. Gathered around her, her team was getting ready to set out for the night.

“We’re not here to get upset with people,” she reminded them, “We’re here to support the community, hear them, and give what we can give. To be there and be present, to call for peace and give support.”

Sekou is the founder of Street Corner Resources, one of the first organizations to “occupy the corner” in New York City. Alongside civil rights activists like Hazel Dukes and Rev. Sharpton, she was a vanguard of the idea of community violence prevention in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Initially, she wanted to provide education, job opportunities, and resources to the neighborhood, but as violence spiked, she realized that first she had to work to ensure the streets were safe. 

“We found that young people were losing life by gun violence, and were becoming more and more gang-involved,” she said, “We knew that we had to take some action.”

In 2005, she took a crate and stood on a violent street corner (or “hot spot”) in Harlem and began to speak out about non-violence. By embedding herself and making herself seen, she could help deescalate situations that police could not.

“We found that we had to build relationships quickly, so that we would know who the players were and who the shot-callers were. The people who call the shots and say who gets shot or murdered,” she said.

She went out night after night, weekend after weekend, and got to know the people hanging out on the streets of Harlem. She earned their trust, and soon members of the community were coming to her to help deescalate or disrupt violent situations. She and her growing team were able to provide resources and support, and in doing so were able to prevent altercations or “beef” before the police were called.

For the past 15 years, Sekou has continued this work, and has expanded her efforts into Street Corner Resources. She has support from the city (in 2019, the organization received $25,000 in New York City funding), and every night, she goes out with a crew of young employees and supporters from the neighborhood, and picks a corner to occupy. The team now has a mobile RV unit, a van, and supplies like masks and hand sanitizer to hand out. Sekou’s work has attracted national attention– her team is now a part of the national Cure Violence organization– as well as local attention, with State Senator Brian Benjamin going out to occupy with her last week, and Mayor Bill de Blasio going out with her the week before that. 

On Saturday, August 25, she drove her team from the Street Corner offices on 145th Street to the park at 140th and Malcolm X Boulevard. The SCR van, as it arrives, is imposing, and attracts the attention of crowds spilling out of outdoor bars and playing games on the street. A dozen teenage employees of SCR piled out of the vehicle in matching purple T-shirts, and lined up, six feet apart, facing each other in a column. They each had dozens of baggies in hand, filled with face masks and resource cards. Many members of the team were young people Sekou met on the street, who were trying to escape violence.

“Some of these young people came because their mother came to me and said, ‘I can’t take him anymore. I’m worried about him, worried he’s gonna wind up in trouble,’” Sekou said. “And we have one kid we met on the street. And he said, ‘I don’t want to be involved in all of this jumping and beating up people and running from people. I’m gonna go to school, I need help. I need a job.’ So we told him to come to the office and we hired him.”

Sekou spends much of the evening stopping young passersby– especially those that scoff at her– and offering them employment. During one interaction, patchouli incense still burning in her hand, two women who’d initially brushed her off walked away with job applications within five minutes. In her 15 years of work, she’s had many remarkable turnarounds, including one in which she encountered a recently released, formerly incarcerated young man on a stoop, and brought him into her organization. He became one of her most dedicated employees.

Stephen Holton is an Episocopal priest who has been running clergy support for Street Corner Resources for over five years. He lives in White Plains, but drives into the city to work with Sekou on weekends. He has seen the Harlem community suffer waves of violence, and sees SCR’s efforts as integral to the overall decrease in violence in New York City in the last two decades. He believes that above all, Sekou and her team are setting an example for the neighborhood.

“The big picture, of course, is to normalize peace,” he said. “Sometimes these gatherings are immediately after a shooting. And sometimes it can be just reoccupying a place of violence to make it a place of peace, and to show by our words and actions that living in violence is not actually normal.”

Every evening he goes out, he leads the group in a non-denominational affirmation, with the team and passerby in a loose circle. Sekou explains why they’re there over a loudspeaker, and Holton blesses the group. Sometimes, these moments are brief, and simply set intention for the evening. But in the wake of violence, they provide a critical opportunity for the community to come together. 

Holton recalled the evening he prayed over the spot where a woman had been shot by a stray bullet just hours before. “I remember just dropping to my knees to bless the blood on the pavement where she had died. In that moment, there was a wonderful pulling together around both the sanctity of the lives that had been lost, but also the sanctity of all the lives of the people who were gathered in that circle.”

Sekou and her team hope that one day, Street Corner Resources will be able to realize its original intention, to focus on community resources and programs rather than violence. While Sekou integrates this holistic support into her current work– helping people get employment and access to public services, and providing counseling for those at risk– she wants to be able to do so without an undercurrent of violence, and without the constant threat of death in the community. 

“I want the organization to continue to exist, but to not have to bury our sons and daughters. Or to watch young people get incarcerated for 25 years,” she said. “I would like for the organization to have sustainability, so that my grandson and my great grandson, if they came to New York, they’d have something positive to do and a place to be.”

Occupying the corner has gained popularity since Sekou stood on a crate in Harlem 15 years ago. Now, most weekend nights, there are dozens of Occupy the Corner sites around the city, with activists like Hazel Dukes, Rev. Sharpton and the National Action Network, Cure Violence, and Street Corner Resources as their vanguards.

As the sun set over the intersection of Nostrand Avenue and Foster Avenue in East Flatbush on a hot Friday night three weeks ago, Monique Chandler-Waterman and Pastor Louis Straker stood on the busy street corner, masks on, and surveyed the crowds passing by them. Pastor Straker’s orange polo– with “God Squad” emblazoned across the back– glowed in the dusky light, and Waterman’s energy burst out of her small frame, inviting passerby to stop and chat.

Chandler-Waterman, Pastor Straker, and a crew of teenage volunteers from East Flatbush Village were there “occupying” to combat a recent uptick in neighborhood gun violence. The corner where they stood was just blocks from where Davell Gardner Jr. was shot. The effect of the recent weeks clearly weighed on them.

“We are in several pandemics, right?” said Chandler-Waterman. “We have Covid-19. We had to isolate inside. We saw loved ones die and have [their bodies] stay with us for two days. There’s a lot of trauma. There was a lot of time to be online.  Beef was rising while everyone was inside, then it got outside as well. Then you have the over-policing– that was another bottleneck of frustration. And then you have the rise of gun violence and then we have all the disparities with health. There’s just so much happening now.”

Chandler-Waterman worked in Public Advocate Jumaane Williams’ office when he was the council member for the 45th district, which includes East Flatbush. They saw the work that people like Iesha Sekou were doing in Harlem, and decided to bring the Occupy methods to their district, to combat their own rise in crime. Now, East Flatbush Village and the God Squad (otherwise known as the 67th Precinct Clergy Council) receive funding from New York City for their efforts, sponsored largely by Councilmember Williams– in 2019, East Flatbush Village received $226,000 in community funding, and the God Squad received $5,000.

At first, they were occupying corners from 10pm to 2am, and focusing only on violence. They realized, however, that shootings could happen at any time of night, and that their efforts could better be focused on education and preventative measures.

“We took Occupy and expanded the concept,” Chandler-Waterman said. “Occupy looks at giving out food when you’re dealing with food insecurity, and giving out information.”

They’ve expanded their definition to include education, community support, and mental health resources. In everything they do, they work to emphasize how things like better community infrastructure and better community health could be linked to the reduction of violence. 

On this particular Friday night, Pastor Straker and Chandler-Waterman stood next to a tent. The theme of the night was “Stop the Bleed,” a workshop led by the Haitian Nurses’ Network to teach young people how to treat stabbing and gunshot wounds. 

“Because we’re in war, basically, we equip our community members with the knowledge and training of how to stop someone from bleeding,” Chandler-Waterman said. “Unfortunately, we have to do that because we’re the first responders.”

Suddenly, Chandler-Waterman stopped speaking, and handed the megaphone she was holding to a nearby volunteer. Her eyes darted to a group of teenagers walking by, laughing and roughhousing in the street. 

“Let’s go,” she said to Pastor Straker. 

The two adults left the tent and followed the teenagers to a nearby park, where dozens of young people were lounging on newly opened basketball courts, under cut-off street lights. The group deflected questions, but let Straker and Waterman walk alongside them. In friendly tones, the two adults reminded the young people that violence could lead to the authorities interfering, making arrests, or closing the park again. They encouraged the crowd to keep calm, and to deescalate anything that seemed like it could lead to violence. They gave their numbers to young people in the crowd, and told them to reach out if they needed anything.

“We know them, and they know us,” Pastor Straker said. “And a lot of times, you know, they’re going through personal things. And they can talk to us more than they could talk to anybody else.”

Like Iesha Sekou in Harlem, they spend weekend nights earning the trust of the community– particularly young people– so that they might be the number they call first, rather than the police.

Back at the tent, several people crowded around a nurse who was demonstrating how to tie a tourniquet with a flashlight and a “stabbed” dummy. She used a ripped green T-shirt to fasten a tourniquet, and explained to the gathered crowd that the blood loss between the time of an injury and the arrival of an ambulance can be deadly. Citing the Good Samaritan law, she encouraged the crowd to be proactive and try to help when they see someone injured.

Simultaneously, many members of the volunteer crew– teenagers from the neighborhood like those that work with Sekou– walked through the streets of East Flatbush, handing out masks and information cards. Many smiled at the young people, wishing them a good evening and thanking them for the work they do. In the waning moments of sunlight, groups of people, both young and old, laughed with the volunteers as they took the PPE, and promised to do their part to keep the block safe that night.

“It’s gonna take a community effort,” Pastor Straker said that evening. “Public safety is a shared responsibility, and we need to create an ecosystem where we all come together and put our hands to the plow.”

In the final moments of Davell Gardner’s funeral, Rev. Al Sharpton highlighted that in the absence of reliable policing, members of the community need to come together to counter violence and keep people safe. Equally, he said that the community needs to realize when it has fallen short, and when it needs to stand up and fight.

“If you can look at this baby and not try to stop this gun violence, then you are not worth anything to anybody,” he said.

Organizations like ARC, God Squad, and Street Corner Resources have taken up Rev. Sharpton’s mantle. They work under the assumption that no one except themselves is going to keep their community safe, and that their efforts are the only things preventing violent altercations with adversaries or with the police.

“People are people. We’re all human beings, and we deserve to be treated justly and equally in the sight of the law,” said Pastor Straker at the end of that Friday night. “So we’re just out here trying to do whatever we can to stop this gun violence madness.”