I listened to the names slowly read by the woman on the microphone. The banquet hall in Jamaica, Queens was filled with families who have lost their loved ones to senseless gun violence throughout New York City. As the woman read the names of the many young men killed at the mercy of a gun, I saw the devastation on the faces of their mothers. Unbearable. Tears strolled down the cheeks of these courageous women for whom, regardless of how long ago their sons died, the pain seemed as fresh as when the death occurred.
As difficult as it was to witness their uncontrollable sobbing, it was part of the healing process. A healing process I have witnessed for years, as I have proudly co-hosted this dinner every year with Erica Ford and her incredible anti-violence organization, Life Camp, a nonprofit that has saved hundreds of lives in my old neighborhood through violence intervention and prevention work. At the end of the evening, Erica asked if I would come to a press conference the following day at City Hall to announce the beginning of Peace Week, a week-long program that encourages young people to engage in a peaceful lifestyle. I was supposed to have hopped on a plane that night to make sure I took my daughters to school the next day in Los Angeles, but I knew they would understand that their father had to stay in New York for a few more hours.
At the press conference, on the steps of City Hall, when I took to the microphone I spoke from my heart, allowing God to guide my words. I have never been one to prepare my remarks... I just speak whatever words come out. I trust in God. I was fortunate enough to make it to Los Angeles in time to put my girls to bed. But when I woke up this morning, I was shocked to see my words spread across the press, especially the attacks from the right-wing media. The attacks were centered around my support of a program called "The Peacekeepers," which was founded by Capt. Dennis Muhammad, an expert in conflict mediation and sensitivity training. At the press conference, I called on more funding for these types of programs and including them in our schools. I never thought that advocating for conflict mediation in schools would be controversial. But I guess during this bitter dispute on gun control, "conflict mediators" get twisted into "unarmed guards" in the conservatives' daily talking points memo. These heroes are far from "unarmed guards."
For many years, Capt. Dennis has recruited men in twenty-five cities around the country and overseas, training them in the necessary skills to diffuse potential beefs between young people. His work, as well as Erica Ford's work and that of countless others, is cost-effective and has proven to work, as no one can speak to these young people any better than those who have walked in their shoes at some point in their life. These are highly skilled individuals who are already working in schools with little funding, and are loved by principals, teachers, community members, politicians and the police. In an era when the sadly misguided believe that we should fight fire with fire and arm teachers with weapons, I believe we should be supporting programs that don't need the threat of violence to make young people put down their guns. That is what we should be funding and that is what our children deserve.
Some of these nonviolent violence-interrupters have not always been nonviolent. Some, like Capt. Dennis, are ex-convicts. Some, like Chaz Williams, are notorious ex-criminals. Some, like AT Mitchell, are still struggling with violence in their own family. Some have connections to the Nation of Islam, an organization that has never been involved in any violent activity in its history. But, all of them now know that the greatest gift they can give this earth is to protect our children. Teach our children. Support our children. Love our children. Uplift our children. They know the battlefield. They have seen where the wounds originate. They have triaged their brothers and sisters in the middle of wars. Everyday, they are reminded of the old phrase, "There but for the grace of God, go I." For they all know that those tears that are shed by the mothers who have lost their children are tears they shed, as well. As they try to wipe those tears dry, without their important work, new mothers will begin to cry... and nothing breaks their hearts more than that.
On the birthday of one of the greatest nonviolent activists this world has even known, Martin Luther King Jr., now is the time to live up to his words. No more speeches, no more tweets of his quotes, no more studies, no more meaningless tributes. Now is the time that we go to work. If the gun extremists want to attack me, they have a constitutional right to do so, but don't ever think that they will stop us from believing in nonviolence approaches to cure the sicknesses that are ailing our communities. We must do better and we will do better, as long as we properly fund these programs that go to work everyday with a prayer that no more mothers have to cry.