The common pitch among leaders of the Group Violence Intervention speaking at a Tuesday evening town hall was that its solutions to violence will work in Pine Bluff.
Inside a filled, sectioned-off ballroom of the Convention Center, the words were not minced and often emotional. The message was the same, however: Something has to be done to curb the violence in a city of less than 40,000. Much of it has allegedly been committed by or taken away teenagers this year.
"About 95 percent of violence in the schools come from the community," Watson Chapel School District Superintendent Tom Wilson said. "That's why we've got to have a great relationship with GVI. We've got to know what the problems are so that we can be proactive. We want to be preventative, but most of the time, we're reactive, after an event happens."
Wilson's message grew more emotional when he reminded the audience of an on-campus homicide at the junior high campus in March 2021.
"We're going to have to work together on this program," he said. "We've got to do something to protect these kids. This year -- this year -- we've got eight students that would be graduating, but they're dead. Six of those kids have been murdered. That upsets me."
The town hall, hosted by Pine Bluff GVI Director Leanita Hughes, gave citizens an opportunity to learn from her counterparts and law enforcement officers in York, Pa., and Philadelphia how they reduced the rate of violent crime in their communities and what can be done in Pine Bluff, a city MoneyGeek.com recently rated as the least safe city with a population between 30,000 and 100,000 in the United States. MoneyGeek based its ratings on how much crime impacted the local economy -- to the tune of $9,071 per resident in Pine Bluff. The report was published on Newsweek.com earlier this month.
David Kennedy, GVI developer and criminal justice professor at New York's John Jay College, cited a statistic from the FBI that the national average of homicides per 100,000 people in the United States is 5. Kennedy also stated that the rate among young Black males is 600 homicides per 100,000.
"If you are in the special world of the highest risk, your risk of being shot or killed every single year by a gunshot can run up to 3,000 per 100,000," Kennedy said. "The increase is an increase of what we're used to. This is not OK."
America is in a "new era of civil rights," Kennedy submitted to the audience, because of the disparity in violent crimes among African Americans.
Representatives from York, a town of 44,834 (as of 2021), visited Pine Bluff about two months after Pine Bluff's city leaders visited the small city 83 miles west of Philadelphia to learn how York reduced gun violence in the city by 80% since its implementation of GVI. Michael Muldrow, York's police commissioner, gave that statistic during Tuesday's town hall.
"What I see in Pine Bluff is a community full of heart," Muldrow said. "What I see in Pine Bluff is a town full of people who care. What I see in this room tonight is all the answers. You don't need someone to come in from out of town with a bigger position, bigger title than yours to come in and say, 'We're going to fix you.' You have everything here to fix yourself."
Pine Bluff has seen 16 homicides in 2023 -- 10 of which have claimed the lives of those 18 or younger. Among them was 14-year-old Vaniya Bennett, who was inside a house when she was killed by a bullet in a drive-by that happened on West 17th Avenue and South Hazel Street on July 16. Another juvenile, standing outside the house, was also killed. Another teenager was wounded but survived.
Tiffany Lowe, who directs York's GVI initiative, alluded to the 14-year-old's death and told the Pine Bluff townspeople that everything to tackle group violence in this city is available.
"Back in Pennsylvania, that tore me up inside," Lowe said. "Still tears me up."
Lowe likened law enforcement, support and outreach and community to the three legs of a stool, calling the latter the strongest leg.
The problem, Lowe said, is that politics tends to get in the way.
"Resource-rich plus collaboration-poor equals less graduations and more funerals," she said. "I'm trying to have more graduations and less funerals."
Lowe and others at the head table even sold T-shirts reading "More Graduations and Less Funerals" after the town hall.
Kimberly Burrell of Philadelphia, one of the speakers, lost her 18-year-old son who she said was shot 17 times in the back while "running for his life" from a confrontation in 2009. Reaching out to youths, she said, comes down to basic needs.
"We have to get in touch with our humanity and give these young men a chance," Burrell said. "They don't come here to kill, but we have to show them what to do."
For further details on Pine Bluff's Group Violence Intervention, contact director Leanita Hughes at (870) 510-0386.