Tag Archive | "violence"

‘Violence Interrupters’ Answer SOS in South Bronx

The whiteboard at the SOS South Bronx office displays the number of days since the last shooting in the territory SOS covers. (LAUREN FOSTER/The Bronx Ink)

The whiteboard at the SOS South Bronx office displays the number of days since the last shooting in the territory SOS covers. (LAUREN FOSTER/The Bronx Ink)

It’s hard to hold your breath for 108 days.

At Save Our Streets South Bronx, which launched in January 2013, a whiteboard in their Mott Haven office read “107” on Oct. 13 and “108” on Oct. 14. They dread when that tally of days without a shooting in their 20-block territory must go back to zero.

Save Our Streets, or simply SOS, originated in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn in 2009 and has since expanded to 15 sites across the city. The City Council along with the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation, the largest U.S. charity devoted to public health, have pumped millions of dollars into this unconventional anti-violence initiative modeled after Chicago’s CeaseFire program. Now called Cure Violence, the program was celebrated in the award-winning 2011 documentary “The Interrupters.” Cure Violence has been emulated in roughly 50 cities worldwide since its inception 15 years ago.

The cornerstone of Cure Violence is the work of “violence interrupters,” “credible messengers” and “outreach workers” who patrol the streets and nurture relationships with at-risk individuals, typically young people, in an effort to undo a culture of violence of which they themselves were once byproducts. A job flier for SOS South Bronx (they’re hiring) describes such responsibilities for violence interrupters as identifying youth who are gang members or at-risk for joining, finding tips on potential conflicts, mediating with those parties involved to prevent retaliations and diffusing “hot spots” where shootings are likely to occur.

The credibility of these paid staffers is rooted in empathy.

“What I like about Save Our Streets is it’s composed of staff and volunteers who are former gang members or drug abusers themselves, or people who have been incarcerated,” said City Councilmember Vanessa Gibson, a Democrat who represents neighborhoods such as Morrisania and Melrose. “The best person you can get to really understand what a young person is going through is someone who has been in that situation before.”

Gibson allocated $5,000 of her discretionary funds for the 2015 fiscal year to SOS South Bronx. Democrat Robert Cornegy of Bedford-Stuyvesant and northern Crown Heights set aside $9,000. The Council voted earlier this year to expand SOS efforts from three neighborhoods to 15, including new posts in the 44th, 46th and 47th precincts in the South Bronx.

Jeffrey A. Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, echoed Gibson’s assertion that knowing the streets is key for SOS employees. “They have to have some connection to the community that doesn’t make them seem like an outside meddler or do-gooder,” explained Butts. Researchers at his school are currently evaluating the Cure Violence model and its implementation in Crown Heights and the South Bronx. “Some of the programs have successful employees who’ve never been arrested, but they might be the son of a well-known gang leader,” he said.

SOS is guarded about disclosing details on its organization. An SOS staffer said the program’s parent organization, the Center for Court Innovation, clamped down on news media access after The Mott Haven Herald published the criminal record of an SOS interrupter. Robert Wolf, director of communications for the Center for Court Innovation, denied that claim but said “everyone is tied up here” and would be unavailable for interviews indefinitely. SOS staffers have been instructed not to participate in interviews without approval from the Center’s Midtown Manhattan office.

Butts, whose center at John Jay received more than $1 million from the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation and $750,000 from the city council to study Save Our Streets through 2016 in conjunction with the Center for Court Innovation, explained the concern over public scrutiny.

“These programs do get very skittish. There have been lots of stories about some of the dominant political infrastructure forces running to the media to explode the situation when something goes wrong,” Butts said.

“Cure violence does not conform with the dominant political culture surrounding public safety,” he added. “So when you’re talking about crime and violence in a public policy arena, people immediately think of policing, prosecution and punishment. This program does not fit that model, so you start off with immediate opposition from the people who think conventionally about public safety.”

In the South Bronx, SOS outreach workers are unarmed and identifiable by their red T-shirts. Although sanctioned by the city, they operate in communities where cooperating with police work is a serious taboo. Despite often being privy to criminal activity, SOS explicitly refuses to have contact with police.

“You have a disconnect with a lot of young people who don’t trust the police and don’t think police are there to serve the public and to protect them,” Councilmember Gibson said.

This wall of separation between law enforcement and social workers is not unusual.

“I was visiting some police departments in Washington, D.C., and they said they keep in touch with outreach workers at these types of programs, but only at the highest level,” Butts said. “They might hear, ‘Things are really heating up in this neighborhood’ or ‘We’re getting rumors that something is about to go down between this crew and that crew,’ but no individual names, no tip-offs and certainly no post-incident information to help the investigation find a perpetrator. As soon as you do that, word gets out and the whole program is dead.”

SOS South Bronx employs three interrupters and three outreach workers, all middle-aged, to engage a territory composed of four public housing complexes and about 20,000 residents. They work full-time Tuesday through Saturday, with shifts running as late as 2 a.m.

In Crown Heights, interrupters underwent 40 hours of training in direct consultation with Cure Violence experts in Chicago, according to a 2011 report from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance. SOS South Bronx is also in frequent contact with Chicago, allowing for a uniform implementation of the model.

Crown Heights had a homicide rate for those aged 15 to 24 nearly four times the city average in 2011, at 41.9 homicides for every 100,000 people in that age bracket, according to a report by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. (The department is now an advisor to SOS.) Fordham / Bronx Park and High Bridge / Morrisania in the South Bronx were also in the top-five neighborhoods most plagued by youth gun violence. Whereas SOS Crown Heights developed a successful “Youth SOS” program driven by student volunteers, efforts to duplicate that youth engagement in the South Bronx have foundered.

“The youth are disempowered and basically have no opportunity. One of biggest frustrations from a social work perspective is when you’re not addressing the core causes behind these issues,” said Markus Redding, a professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work who has worked extensively in non-violent conflict resolution. “It’s going to be very similar to what we do in the court system, which is reacting to what’s there but not getting at root causes like better education.”

The Crown Heights program reported recruiting 96 community members between January 2010 and May 2012 to participate in the SOS mission. All but one of these recruits was male, 94 were black and two were Hispanic. An SOS South Bronx official said his team has fostered about 25 such relationships.

Researchers led by Butts have interviewed roughly 200 people about gun violence in neighborhoods with and without SOS programs, and they are analyzing shooting data in these test and control areas. Butts would not give any tentative findings — their work began in February 2014 and will conclude around August 2016 — but he did outline basic variables that impact Cure Violence:

“To what extent are public institutions well-coordinated? Do social services people talk to the schools? Do law enforcement know their own community? How do neighborhood residents feel about their access to necessary support? Are police seen as an outside occupying force?”

The SOS South Bronx office displays posters advocating to end gun violence. (LAUREN FOSTER/The Bronx Ink)

The SOS South Bronx office displays posters advocating ending gun violence. (LAUREN FOSTER/The Bronx Ink)

SOS South Bronx has struggled to form alliances with institutions in the area. An exception is the Bronx Christian Fellowship, a church in Mott Haven where Rev. Que English has collaborated closely with SOS efforts. English reiterated the need to solve violence through means outside law enforcement.

“There’s an idea in these communities that if a cop kills us they’ll get away with it,” she said. “It’s circulated throughout generations. I once heard a 5-year-old say, “I don’t like cops.’”

Religious figures are a core component of the SOS strategy, according to literature distributed at the program’s Mott Haven office. One form reads, “Faith-based leaders are encouraged to preach against gun violence from their pulpits.”

What would it take for programs such as SOS to thrive in the pastor’s community?

“My first thought is a miracle,” English responded. “If we had a wish list, it would be ongoing community awareness and a lot of media coverage because we need to get the word out on violence to turn the tide.

“It’s going to take a while, and there’s no quick answer,” she added.

Anti-violence initiatives are not new in New York City. In 1979, Curtis Sliwa founded the Guardian Angels, whose red berets and jackets became trademarks of the amateur pseudo-police force that patrolled the subway amid a rash of violence. That operation was controversial for its vigilante approach, instructing volunteers to make citizens arrests and even providing them training in martial arts. The Guardian Angels do not accept volunteers with gang affiliations or serious criminal records.

But Redding and Gibson support the inclusion of ex-convicts in SOS South Bronx.

“With the prison industrial complex — we have more people incarcerated in the United States than any other country in the history of the world — there’s such labeling and the stereotyping of anyone who has committed a crime,” Redding said. “That lack of a second chance is very frustrating.”

In areas of Chicago where Cure Violence has been implemented, shootings are down 75 percent, according to cureviolenge.org. Crown Heights saw a 6 percent drop in shootings from January 2011 to May 2012 — the first year and a half of SOS activity — while comparable Brooklyn neighborhoods saw increases of 18 to 28 percent in that period. Experts say it is premature to conclude a cause-and-effect relationship between SOS efforts and diminished shooting rates, but they point to these data as cause for optimism about the efficacy of Cure Violence.

Still, Chicago is far from eradicating its gun epidemic or the culture behind it. The city has suffered 329 homicides in 2014, the Chicago Tribune reported, following 440 in 2013.

Lil Bibby, a 19-year-old at the forefront of the hardcore rap movement in a city nicknamed “Chiraq,” spoke in January on New York’s HOT 97 hip-hop radio station about gun violence in his hometown.

“In the last couple of years everybody got guns now, man. There ain’t no more fist fighting or arguing anymore, just guns,” Lil Bibby said. “Guns come out right away. There are kids, 13 or 14, playing with guns, and there ain’t no big homies telling them, ‘Stop this.’”

Several months later, HOT 97 debuted “Hot N—-” by the then-19-year-old from East Flatbush, Brooklyn, named Bobby Shmurda. The song is now ubiquitous on New York street corners, and it was blaring on repeat from a stereo across the street from the SOS South Bronx office on the day the whiteboard showed No. 95.

“Hot Boy,” as it’s called on the radio, reflects a pervasive gun culture that SOS staffers are fighting desperately to reform. Seven of the song’s first 10 lines, and most thereafter, draw on boastful anecdotes dealing with guns.

Although experts such as Redding note the peril of discounting underlying political causes behind crime, Save Our Streets is premised on changing a cultural mentality — as Butts put it, “accepting violence as normal behavior.”

“It’s not an easy thing or a quick thing, but I think it’s the only way you fix this problem,” he said. “If we continue to see community-level violence through the lens of a war on crime, it will just be a war on crime forever. It takes someone bold enough to say maybe there’s a new way to think about this problem.”

To keep urban shooting tallies like the one on the Mott Haven whiteboard low, must interrupters patrol violent street corners indefinitely?

“The foundational idea behind this model is that you implement it for three years or 10 years  — some period of time  — and you slowly shift away the social norms in support of violence, then you’re done,” Butts said. “There’s no need for people to be constantly funding programs to stop cigarette smoking: that cultural shift has already happened in this country. It’s the same thing with violence.”

Posted in Bronx Life, Crime, Culture, Southern BronxComments (0)

Neighbors rally to fight increased gun violence in Morris Heights

Neighbors look on as Assemblywoman Vanessa L. Gibson speaks about crime in Morris Heights. (DIANE JEANTET/The Bronx Ink)

Sandra Cuevas has already started looking for a new apartment — anywhere but Morris Heights, where her 20-year-old son was shot and killed 12 days ago.

The circumstances surrounding the death of her son, John Vasquez, are still unclear, but the shooting was the impetus for a “Community in Crisis” rally Wednesday night. About 100 neighbors gathered at a playground on Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx for a candlelight vigil to protest the rising rate of violent crime in the area and pray for the people they have lost.

“No one should have to live like this,” said Cuevas, 47. Her eyes were red and puffy from tears as she talked about her son. “I don’t want to live here anymore,” she said. “It’s too dangerous.”

According to the latest crime statistics from the 46th Precinct, which encompasses Morris Heights, there have been 15 murders so far in 2011, compared to nine at this point last year – a 66 percent increase. The number is up 7.1 percent since 2001.

Many shootings go unreported, said Jackie Mercer, 57, Vasquez’s paternal grandmother. Mercer has lived here for 21 years and said she’s steadily watched the violence increase. She’s also planning to move.

Vasquez was discovered shot in the torso at the intersection of Sedgwick and Cedar avenues at 2:21 a.m. on Sept. 24. A 56-year-old man had been shot in the arm and was transferred to Lincoln Hospital. The case is still under investigation.

Cuevas and Mercer said they’ve heard multiple stories about the altercation, but are adamant that Vasquez was not involved in drugs or gangs.

“It was an act of pure stupidity,” Mercer said. “He was a good kid, but he wasn’t a punk. He’d fight you, but he’d use his hands. Not like these other people.”

Cathy Stroud, executive director for River Watch Inc., a community outreach nonprofit, organized the Wednesday night rally and said the anger over the rising violence is justified.

“It’s almost like you are being held captive in your own home,” said Stroud, who has lived on Sedgwick Avenue for 39 years and is known in the neighborhood as Miss Cathy. “The seniors especially might as well have gates on their doors because they’re afraid to come out of their houses. They’re prisoners. And yes, it hurts.”

Stroud said she was disappointed at the event’s turnout. She’d hoped for hundreds more. Still, the ones that showed up were active, chanting “stop the violence, increase the peace,” over and over with Assemblywoman Vanessa L. Gibson, who emceed the rally from a podium at the center of a circled-up crowd.

Gibson, who lives in the area, said young people need “something better to do” than be on the streets late at night.

“There’s nothing positive in this community at 2 or3 a.m.,” she said. “Give them the education, give them the resources and tools they need to make better decisions.”

Posted in Crime, Featured, Northwest BronxComments (0)

Using sports to stop the violence

Verna Montgomery sitting at her desk in her Fordham apartment.

Verna Montgomery sitting at her desk in her Fordham apartment. Photo: Amara Grautski

Verna Montgomery and her pack of curious children couldn’t help but stare at the lifeless figure across the street from M.S. 399.

It was a Saturday morning in August, and just like every Saturday morning that month, the 50-year-old African-American woman from Fordham had brought a group of eight- and nine-year-olds to the schoolyard to play basketball. She tried to divert their attention from the corpse, ushering the juvenile flock away from the horde of police officers, reminding them not to be nosy. But she couldn’t hide the fact that barely 100 yards away lay another casualty of violence in the Bronx.

A single mother of three herself, Montgomery didn’t know what to tell the children. Their parents weren’t around to help. When one child asked what happened, she replied simply, “Reality.”

“How do I tell my little ones what a dead body is?” she asked a group of residents at a 46th Precinct Community Council meeting almost two months after the incident. The vision still haunts her. She won’t stop telling her story. “We need to stop the violence.”

While crimes like burglary and grand larceny have decreased in the Bronx this year, according to the New York Police Department, the murder rate in the borough has risen by almost 20 percent. Through October, there had been 109 murders – 11 of them coming from the 46th Precinct, where Montgomery lives.

But Montgomery had taken a stance against violence years before her plea at the police precinct in October. In 2007, she founded U.B.A. Sports Club 4 Kids – United Binding Athletes – a non-profit organization and grassroots sports program in the Bronx that is meant to be an alternative for children who might turn to the street. Since then, she has worked with more than 100 children, charging about $50 a program for some of her basketball, baseball and track leagues. She has brought them to high school football games, basketball games at Madison Square Garden and events like the New York Knicks Poetry Slam.

And on Aug. 28, two weeks after being confronted with the dead body, Montgomery created the Stop the Violence Basketball Tournament. WABC-TV donated $1,000 and Bronx State Sen. Pedro Espada, Jr. came out to watch part of the six-team tournament that included 84 participants ranging in age from 8 to 21 years old.

Montgomery’s effort may seem small in comparison to the enormity of the problem in the Bronx, but experts who study the effects of violence on children say grassroots programs can make a crucial difference. Jim Garbarino, a psychology professor at Loyola University and author of “Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them,” said exposure to community violence can be associated with mental health and behavioral issues if children do not have an outlet to process the trauma.

“Any of the normalizing experiences of childhood adolescence can help,” Garbarino said, “after-school activities, sports, going to church, any of those positive experiences.”

According to Garbarino, one of the biggest distinctions in a child’s ability to cope with violence is the amount he is exposed to. It is easier for a child to rebound from a single incident of violence than from an ongoing pattern in the community.

But violence is hard to avoid in Montgomery’s neighborhood. At 6 p.m. on Oct. 11, police responded to a report of a 21-year-old man being shot multiple times on Morris Avenue, around the corner from Montgomery’s apartment on Walton. Alfonso McClinton was pronounced dead on arrival at St. Barnabas Hospital. Just before 9 p.m., 17 days later, 26-year-old Eric McMillian was also found on Morris, with gunshot wounds in his head and torso. He was dead before he made it to Bronx Lebanon Hospital.

“It’s difficult up here,” Montgomery said, as she sat at her desk in her living room last month. Although the heat is on, she wears layers: a maroon track jacket with yellow block lettering for Cardinal Hayes High School, where her 14-year-old son Tajae attended before it became too expensive (he now attends John F. Kennedy); navy blue sweatpants, and thick socks. All that’s missing is a winter hat to top off her cropped brunette coif. She’s restless, fidgeting in her computer chair. Her left foot squirms. “I want to say stop the violence because we shouldn’t have shooting like that. We shouldn’t have it in broad daylight in front of kids and all, and it’s not fair if you can’t walk the streets. You shouldn’t be a prisoner in your own house.”

Montgomery stops. Her large, dark brown eyes glaze over, and her toothy smile fades. She’s conflicted.

“But this history of the person who got killed, it’s not a good history,” she said of McClinton. “He’s known by cops. Do you defend somebody like that or do you defend the cause? It’s very difficult.”

Montgomery isn’t a stranger to violence. Growing up in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, she said she witnessed bodies with guts spilling out, “like liver in a supermarket,” tumbling onto the street. She used sports to escape.

Her hair braided in pigtails, she ran track with the boys at Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School – the 50-yard dash, the 100-yard dash and relays. She advanced to the semifinals in the Colgate Women’s Games, now the nation’s largest amateur track series. She is in the process of training eight girls to try and participate in the same series this month, including Genisis Millan, 12, who lives five floors down in Montgomery’s building.

“Track makes me feel good,” Genisis said. “When I tell people that I do track, it makes me feel like I’m doing something with my life and not just sitting around.” She has trained with Montgomery for about four years. She said sometimes they run laps at Bronx Community College. On other days, they do hall-length sprints in their building or hustle up and down the stairs. “It keeps me motivated,” she said.

Montgomery ran for a different reason.

“I ran to get away from trouble,” Montgomery said. “I ran to get out of trouble. I ran from seeing things, so it was running I liked. I always ran to the store, ran to school, so I just kept running.”

She easily could have gotten wrapped up in the wrong crowd. Montgomery had friends who turned to the street, but she went in the opposite direction. She decided to move to the Bronx in the 1990s and began working for Xerox in the World Trade Center, before switching to work for a package delivery service. When Tajae was little, Montgomery decided to use the very outlet that helped her cope with her unstable childhood to help with children in the community: sports.

“I’m a sports person,” Montgomery said. “We watch football; we watch baseball; we go to the games. It’s something I like. You work with something you enjoy working with.”

Montgomery has lived in her current Fordham Bedford Housing apartment for about eight years, and it reflects her passion for her work. Her back closet overflows with bases, uniforms, sneakers and exercise mats. Her bathroom includes toiletries, baseball bats, basketballs and food coolers.

On the walls hang photo collages of the children in her program. In one they’re at a boxing ring in Brooklyn, in another at a Knicks game, and there’s a large black-and-white picture of one group in track shirts.

Verna Montgomery standing in front of her certificates of merit.

Verna Montgomery standing in front of her certificates of merit. Photo: Amara Grautski

There are also reminders of her accolades throughout the years, including a “certificate of merit” from the United Cerebral Palsy Association of New York State for participating in a 1999 jamboree. Others like it and an expired Little League umpire license are mounted above her computer. But she views her greatest accomplishment as the effect she has had on children who may have strayed from the right path. The children she guided to the football field or the basketball court instead of letting them wander to the uncertainty of the street.

Some who become derailed still return. Manny Reyes, 17, had trained three times a week with the U.B.A. track league a year ago before he decided to stop. Reyes began acting out; his mother thought he was too much to handle and asked him to leave. He moved in with his father in Hunts Point, then in with his girlfriend’s mother, before moving back home.

“Ever since I got out, I’ve been doing the wrong things and making the wrong choices,” Reyes said of leaving Montgomery’s program. He decided to join her indoor basketball league this winter. “I just came back not too long ago, and I started being with Verna again and my life’s getting actually better.”

Montgomery knows she won’t have that effect on every child, but the ones she helps make her financial sacrifices worth it. Montgomery has sent her U.B.A. Sports Club 4 Kids proposal out to politicians and community members in the hopes of getting more financial backing for her program, but her packet hasn’t yet drawn any contributors. Councilman Fernando Cabrera sent a return letter asking for more information about how U.B.A. reaches out to the community. Montgomery continues to attend committee meetings, like the one at her local police precinct, to try and solicit food and beverage donations. But the non-profit has taken a toll on her bank account.

“Really, I lost,” Montgomery said, sounding somewhat defeated. In 2009, Bronx Assemblyman Nelson Castro had promised he would donate $5,000 to her program, and although Montgomery said she filled out the proper paperwork, the donation never came through. Castro said he had allocated funds for Montgomery to receive a legislative grant, but the New York State Office of Children and Family Services never received additional information from her when the office had requested it in September 2009.

“In 2009, she should have gotten the money and if she didn’t it was because of her own negligence,” said Castro, whose 13-year-old son Christopher played in Montgomery’s baseball league last summer. On Sept. 15, 2010, the funding was lost when Governor David Paterson vetoed the re-appropriation of last year’s grants.

Montgomery insisted she provided the last bit of information that was asked of her. “We had a meeting at his office,” Montgomery said of Castro. “He said the only thing that was missing was my phone number.”

The largest amount Montgomery has received was $2,000 from New Yankee Stadium Community Benefits, Inc. in May. Still, Montgomery tries to remain positive. “But I’m not losing, because I’m gaining in heart. So I’m not looking at it like I’m losing.”

When she takes a group to watch the Knicks play at Madison Square Garden and every child but one has money for food, it’s another $6 out of Montgomery’s pocket. And so far many parents haven’t been that supportive with their donations or time.

One who has is China Montilla, Genisis’ 33-year-old mother. She used to assist Montgomery with the track league before she gave birth to her son Alays, now 1. Montilla hopes to become more involved again.

“She does what she has to do for the kids,” Montilla said of Montgomery. “A lot of parents that want to drop off the kids; they don’t seem to pay for the program. We’re not a babysitting corps here. This is not a babysitting thing. We’re trying to get your kids to be healthy, active and, on top of that, give them something to do not being in the corner smoking weed.”

Montilla doesn’t think the $50 fee is expensive. She believes for the services Montgomery provides, it’s worth it.

“She does a lot of things for these kids out of her pocket. She’s doing it by herself, but people don’t see that. And the fact that she’s handicapped and does all of this…,” Montilla’s voice trails off.

As vocal as Montgomery is about violence prevention, she’s just as reserved when it comes to discussing her physical problems.

On Aug. 21, 2001, Montgomery slipped on a wet day inside the delivery truck in which she worked. While carrying a package, she stepped with her right foot but lost her gripping as she fell, injuring the left side of her body. She felt excruciating pain from her hip down to her toes, but the extent of the damage went unnoticed by doctors for years.

In 2006, she had her first of eight surgeries. According to Montgomery, her doctor told her she has tarsal tunnel syndrome, the compression of the tibial nerve, in her left foot, as well as a bone infection. A suggested option was amputation.

The usually permanent smile on Montgomery’s face diminishes when she talks about her prognosis. When asked about it, she stares blankly at the TV, but it’s not on. The autumnal cold only makes it more painful, she said. To compensate she always wears layers. She’s not ready to lose her foot.

“I love the kids too much,” Montgomery said. Amputation would mean losing her chance to spend time with the children. Although she gives back through her non-profit, it is also what keeps her going. She knows she has a job to do. “I think if I didn’t have this, I’d be in a very, very deep depression.”

Montgomery has been on worker’s compensation and disability since her fall and hasn’t had another job. She’s been deemed a “high-risk” worker because of her injury, she said. Still, Montgomery presses on. She knows what can happen when she’s not an influence in children’s lives.

About a year ago, Montgomery had a set of twins enroll in her basketball program. One of the two was particularly obnoxious and rude. She couldn’t deal with it anymore. Both children ended up leaving the program.

“Now one of them has a record, and he has to report in to a parole officer,” Montgomery said. “This year when I saw him, he said to me, ‘Wow, Ms. Verna, I should’ve stayed with you. I probably wouldn’t have gotten in trouble.’ ” He was 12 years old.

A brief wave of guilt may have hit Montgomery, but she tilts her head back and gazes toward the collection of merit certificates – the reminders of all she has done for the Bronx – hanging on her wall.

“I have to look around me and really see all that I’ve accomplished,” she said. “I’ve got a lot to lose.”

Whether she slows down or not, Montgomery has already left her mark on the community. She certainly has had an impact on 15-year-old Markis Faucette, and Markis in turn has on his friend Paul Eromosele, 13. Markis decided to use what Montgomery taught him and pay it forward.

Paul was headed for trouble. His teachers told him he could not be a professional athlete unless he brought his marks up, but regardless, Paul was still failing his classes in the sixth grade at M.S. 279. The aspiring football player who often towered over his classmates never thought much of his height advantage until he met Markis.

Jon Warchol, Paul Eromosele, Markis Faucette and Evraldo Benros (from left to right) standing in the gymnasium at M.S. 447. Warchol and Benros, who have mentored Faucette, are physical education teachers at the school. Photo: Amara Grautski

Jon Warchol, Paul Eromosele, Markis Faucette and Evraldo Benros (from left to right) standing in the gymnasium at M.S. 447. Warchol and Benros, who have mentored Faucette, are physical education teachers at the school. Photo: Amara Grautski

Markis was two years older and a basketball lover who had spent a few years playing in Montgomery’s sports program. A couple years ago, he convinced Paul to give shooting hoops a try, and the now 5-foot-11-inch 13-year-old is hooked and plays for his middle school’s team. Paul loves to follow the Oklahoma City Thunder, especially the team’s star and his favorite player Kevin Durant. He wants to be a power forward in the NBA and credits his increased involvement in sports for his turnaround.

“Sports basically helped me express myself and have fun,” Paul said. “My parents thought that I probably got in trouble, that’s why I started doing my work, but I told them actually it was sports and that sports was changing me. And now they’re actually supporting me to do what I want to do.”

Now in eighth grade, Paul is currently helping Markis to establish the Young Boyz Basketball League. Inspired by Montgomery and her message to keep children away from violence, Markis is in the process of finalizing his own sports program with her guidance.

One of the underlying themes of the program, Paul said, is to show people who might be involved with gangs that they don’t have to hate one another. He hopes that children and teens from different parts of the Bronx will realize they actually get along. Paul doesn’t worry anymore about personally getting wrapped up in gangs, but he does worry about his friends and classmates.

Violence is prevalent, even at a young age. Members of the Latin King Goonies were allegedly behind the Oct 3. anti-gay hate crimes in the Bronx. Five of the 11 initial suspects were only teenagers. (Four of the five were later cleared of charges.)

“I worry about the people that surround me, because people are killing people,” Paul said. “I think if they had something in the community that actually changed them, it could change everything that’s going on.”

Markis’s league was created last summer when he produced his first successful basketball tournament. On Aug. 21, he gathered 64 people of all ages to play at Grand Park in the Fordham area of the Bronx. His former basketball coach Jon Warchol contributed trophies, Markis’s grandfather chipped in for uniforms, and Councilman Fernando Cabrera donated $250.

“He was actually surprised because of my age,” Markis said of Cabrera’s reaction to his financial request. “He said there are no other 15-year-old boys trying to do something like this.”

This winter, Markis hopes to have 64 participants again for an indoor league and has been negotiating gym time at M.S. 447. But to try and receive funding, politicians and Montgomery both advised Markis to start the paperwork to create his own non-profit. Legally, he has to be 18 to do that so he is asking his mother for help. “I see myself doing more,” Markis said. He has an idea for a year-round program. “Soon I’m going to do a fitness club with running and basketball drills.”

Montgomery has a vision of her own. On a November night, she gingerly makes her way out of her apartment and down the street to enter 2287-89 Jerome Ave. To the naked eye, the address is the home to the Liberty Dollar Super Market. But as Montgomery slowly makes her way across the red-and-white tiled floor, she doesn’t see aisles of paper products and candles. She sees potential.

The two-floor building is Montgomery’s dream location for her program’s home base. The first floor could be space for an after-school program, and the top floor could house a gymnasium. Aside from the fact that the bottom floor is very much occupied by the dollar store, she said the monthly rent is out of reach. But her goal keeps her focused and her mind off of her injury.

After moving up and down the aisles, Montgomery exits the store. She stands on the sidewalk, gazing up at the building one more time. Her imaginative juices are still flowing.

“I just need somebody to look at my dream,” Montgomery said wistfully. “I need somebody to say, ‘Here, I’m going to invest and help her. I think what she’s doing is cool.’ ”

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, Crime, Northwest Bronx, Southern Bronx, SportsComments (2)

Proposed Law Would Criminalize Drunken Gun-Toting

Article by Astrid Baez, Video by Shreeya Sinha

In a press conference today in the Bronx, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Sen. Jeffrey D. Klein announced the introduction of a law that would forbid New Yorkers from carrying a gun while intoxicated.

“If you’re too intoxicated to drive a car, you are obviously too intoxicated to be carrying a gun,” Bloomberg said.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and State Senator Jeffrey D. Klein proposed ban on “Carrying While Intoxicated”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and State Senator Jeffrey D. Klein proposed ban on “Carrying While Intoxicated”

Hailing the law as “life saving” and “common sense,” Bloomberg called on legislators and Gov. David Paterson to support the initiative, stating that New York is hardly the first state to enact this law. If passed, the law would make New York the 21st state to prohibit carrying a gun while intoxicated, citing it as a Class A misdemeanor punishable by one year in jail and a $10,000 fine. According to the mayor, the law would apply the same standards and tests that are currently in place to prevent and punish drunken driving.

Bloomberg and Klein denounced the mix of guns and alcohol as deadly. “The time is now for us to get serious about penalties for those who choose to carry a gun while intoxicated,” Klein said.

The announcement comes a little over a week after the mayor touted the success of the guns-for-cash program in the Bronx. Gloria Cruz, the Bronx chapter leader of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, praised the mayor’s announcement, calling it a step in the right direction. Cruz, whose 10-year-old niece was killed in 2005, left her job in corporate America and devoted her time to getting guns off the streets.

Some Bronx residents agree. Tony, a car-washer at Hand Wash in Bronxdale who refused to give his last name, shares Cruz’s sentiment, stating that anything that can be done to restrict the use of guns was good for the Bronx. “It’s logical,” he said of the mayor’s plan. “You can’t drive drunk, you shouldn’t be carrying a firearm when drunk either.”

Tom King, president of the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, opposes the plan, saying that New York State has enough gun-control laws. “Legislators should worry about enforcing laws that are already in the books,” he said. King described the mayor’s crusade as cracking down on legal and lawful gun owners, rather than cracking down on gun violence. “This is just another move on the mayor’s part to get his name in the papers,” King said.

Officials assured New Yorkers that the bill would not be in violation of their Second Amendment rights. Instead, these rights would now come with greater responsibilities. “This has nothing to do with the Second Amendment and everything to do with public safety,” said John Feinblatt, the mayor’s criminal justice coordinator. “This is a way to prevent accidents from happening that can’t be taken back, or a death that should’ve never happened.”

When it comes to guns, Bloomberg’s message is simple, if you’re going to drink, don’t leave home with it.

Posted in East Bronx, PoliticsComments (0)