Activist Looks Back on Efforts Against Stray Gun Violence

For someone known throughout the South Bronx as the “gun lady,” Gloria Cruz receives more than her fair share of hugs.

“I walk down St. Ann’s Avenue and people come up to me – grown men, men in their 20s – and they hug me. And they thank me,” the 48-year old Bronx native said. “They thank me because I talked to them when they were kids, which other people didn’t do. And they thank me for the work that I do.”

Cruz has spent the last five years as the leading voice in the South Bronx against gun violence. But unlike other gun activists, Cruz has focused her activism on the specific issue of random gun violence, defined as the injuries, deaths and rippling devastation caused by a stray bullet. Cruz conducts her work through the New Yorkers Against Gun Violence (NYAGV) group. She founded the Bronx chapter in 2006.

“She has her ears to the ground,” Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz said in a statement released to the Bronx Ink through his press office. “She has relationships with everyone in her community – and knows how to speak to our youth about the danger of gun violence.”

Gloria Cruz holds a portrait of her niece, Naisha Pearson, who was the unintended target of a stray bullet in 2005. Dan Fastenberg / Bronx Ink.

Gloria Cruz holds a portrait of her niece, Naisha Pearson, who was the unintended target of a stray bullet in 2005. Dan Fastenberg / Bronx Ink.

So when the New York Police Department and the Bronx District Attorney’s Office teamed up to organize a gun buyback earlier in the year, it was no surprise the office turned to Cruz to spread the word. Once the drive was completed, almost 2,000 firearms were traded in for $200 each.

Cruz looked back on the gun drive.

“People are more comfortable walking into a church to hand over a gun than a police precinct,” she said in an interview at her headquarters, located in the St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in the Morrisania section of the Bronx. Operating out of the church’s partially oak-paneled basement, Cruz has transformed the pastoral property into a bunker for a multipronged campaign in which news clippings of the latest acts of random gun violence pass for wallpaper.

For the mother of three and grandmother of one, the gun buyback event was just another day on the job of a five-year crusade against gun violence inspired by the death of her niece, a victim of a stray bullet fired during a neighborhood block party. Cruz’s niece, Naisha Pearson, was on her way to play on a scooter at a Labor Day barbecue when a fight broke out, sending an errant bullet into her chest along 137th Street and Brook Avenue in the South Bronx. When Pearson was taken to Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx, the 10-year old was announced dead on arrival.

Five years on, as Cruz plans to pull back from her full-time commitment as a gun violence advocate and go back to earning a full-time salary, she took time to assess her years of activism.

“I’m sure I’ve made a difference,” she said. “I’ve had young people come up to me and say, ‘Wow, after what I’ve seen from you today, I don’t want to be in a gang.’ That means a lot to me. My niece’s killer got 50 years, and he’s only 18. He had a baby that he’ll never see.”

Crime rates throughout New York’s northernmost borough are down from the Bronx’s darkest days in the 1970s and 1980s. According to the Bronx District Attorney’s Office, homicides have dropped 80 percent over the last 20 years, going from 19,326 in 1990 to 3,516 in 2008. Burglary, grand theft auto and other acts of violent crime tell the same story. And while the district attorney’s office also reports an 11 percent drop in incidents of shootings from 2001 to 2009, the number of actual victims of gun violence over the same time period is up 16.1 percent. Moreover, last year’s total of incidents of gun violence stood at 404, an average of more than one shooting a day in the Bronx.

To try to beat back the onslaught of gun violence, Cruz has assembled an army of 63 supporters – the members of her New Yorkers Against Gun Violence chapter, most of whom have lost family members to random gun violence.

Much of Cruz’s life revolves around the members of this group and its work. The roughly 20 people contacted for this story were at a loss when trying to provide details of Cruz’s life outside of her activist work. And even when discussing her own interest in science fiction books, and watching movies like “Titanic,” she made sure to deplore the 1983 movie “Scarface,” which she says glorifies gun violence.

Apart from advocating for stronger gun laws, gun turn-ins, increased education and other attempts at trying to rally against gun violence, Cruz serves as a grief counselor for survivors and family members affected by gun violence. Every Thanksgiving, she organizes a fellowship dinner for people who have lost someone to a shooting to come together and console one another.

And when 25-year old Aisha Santiago was killed in September after putting herself in the line of fire to protect her son while walking out of a self-service laundry on 146th Street between Willis and Brook Avenues, Cruz came to her family’s side.

“Gloria was there from the start,” said Santiago’s mother, Yvette Montanez. “She went so far as to even accompany me to all my daily appointments after my daughter died.”

Her drive to respond to gun violence through civic action has caught on among the members of her chapter.

“It’s a calling for any of us, “ said Bronx chapter member Davina Perez, herself a survivor of random gun violence. “When groups like the [National Rifle Association] are up against you, it’s not easy. We could sit at home and watch soap operas, but this is something that’s been ordained to us.”

In keeping with the spirit of the gun buybacks, the chapter openly promotes throughout the South Bronx the turning in of “community guns,” a term used to describe a firearm passed around by gang members to hide the weapon from the authorities.

“Cooperation with the police is not new, not in this area, and not in New York,” said 40th Precinct Capt. Elias Nikas, during an interview in his cinderblock office located on Alexander Avenue in the South Bronx. “But around here we are seeing enhanced cooperation. No doubt about it. Not just from active community members, but from everyone. People are coming up to us all the time and trying to give us tips.”

Gloria Cruz flips through newspaper clippings in her office in St. Ann's Church. Dan Fastenberg/The Bronx Ink

Gloria Cruz flips through newspaper clippings in her office in St. Ann's Church. Dan Fastenberg/The Bronx Ink

As the public face of a campaign that calls for the turning in of neighbors through phone hot lines, what some would deride as “snitching,” Cruz is undoubtedly putting her own life on the line.

“I think her life is in danger everyday,” said Bronx chapter member Annette De Jesus. “Her activism shows where her heart is. We all know about the Crips and Bloods. Well someone should start the Gloria Cruz gang, because she needs backup.”

For Cruz, a woman whose demeanor is about as menacing as a librarian, the choice of not acting poses the greater threat.

“Yes, I am afraid for myself,” she said. “But if we don’t do this, my niece will have died in vain. We make sure everything is anonymous, all the calls and tips. We speak and connect families. If we put a face to this stuff, maybe it will stop the nonsense. Bullets, after all, have no destination and they don’t discriminate.”

No relevant body, neither the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services in Albany nor the New York Police Department, has ever gathered statistics specifically devoted to cases of random gun violence.

But after losing her niece, Cruz began to do just that.

The year following the loss of her niece, David Pacheco Jr., a 2-year-old boy became the unintended target of a stray bullet on the way to an Easter dinner. That event was followed just a few weeks later by the death of 18-year-old Samantha Guzman, a prom queen who was shot in the middle of a street on Mother’s Day.

“A lot of people are afraid to speak,” Cruz said. “I am not. I believe God has put me on a mission to save lives.”

In the wake of the deaths, Cruz decided in 2005 to leave her job as an office manager for Toys ‘R Us. Through financing provided by the Trinity Foundation of the Trinity Cathedral located in downtown Manhattan, she became a full-time activist against gun violence. Her efforts took off a year later, when she organized her first Walk Against Gun Violence, a rally that has become an annual event, and was soon complemented by an annual April Gun Lobby Day in Albany.

The two marches have become the cornerstones of Cruz’s lobbying calendar. This spring will mark the final time Cruz will oversee the marches while heading up the Bronx chapter of the New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. She’s also leaving behind the Bronx chapter of the Million Mom March that she’s overseen for five years.

For Cruz and many others, the local gun violence problem can be traced to the lax gun laws that allow firearms to enter New York.

Bordering states do have much looser gun laws, according to New York State Assemblyman Robert Castelli, an expert on guns and law enforcement who is also a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

But, Castelli said, “It’s a non sequitur to say if we had more laws we’d have less violence.”

“When we see criminality, what we naturally clamor for are more laws,’’ he said. “New York City already has the toughest gun laws in the country. So the issue comes down to enforcement and education. We need to get into the schools and educate not after a crime has occurred but before.”

Schools are exactly where much of Cruz’s remaining energy is spent.

This year’s gun marches will be run in partnership with the Harlem Children’s Zone. Cruz hopes one of her legacies to a new generation of activists will be a closer link between the anti-gun movement and schools. She regularly attends after-school programs and other educational events to talk about violence and pass out cards that list phone numbers for places to hand in guns.

For Cruz, like Assemblyman Castelli, the focus is on reaching youngsters before they start mixing with the wrong crowds, before they get into trouble.

“You have all these kids who are the aftermath of the crack era,” she went on. “So they have no parents. Some of the parents are gone because of AIDS or drugs. Or they’re in jail …. They’re looking for a place to belong and that’s where the gangs come in. And we’d hope they’d join our gang.”

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