Last month, five people were shot in Rochester in three separate shootings in a matter of four hours. Two of them died. Two days later, there was another gun-related homicide.
There's no single explanation for gun violence in Rochester, any more than there is in other cities. But the Reverend Lewis Stewart, president of United Christian Leadership Ministry, says we are dealing with a sickness of the human spirit, and its end stage is a disregard for life. Stewart is calling on religious leaders throughout Rochester to wage an all-out assault on gun violence.
"In this awful environment of bloodshed," Stewart said in an interview last week, "people tend to become numb, paralyzed by fear, or not know what to do to address the problem. Residents should not have to live in fear of being shot by emboldened criminals. This is not normal."
Stewart said he frequently hears from people who are afraid to leave their home. "One man said he's so afraid that when he arrives home from work he shuts himself in his house," Stewart said. "He fears what the night brings." An elderly woman told Stewart that she places pillows against her windows and walls, hoping to stop stray bullets.
City Councilmember Adam McFadden, like Stewart, has seen the effects of gun violence on family members and close friends. Something has happened to our culture and our values, Mc Fadden said last week.
"Trauma is so prevalent and it's causing so much pain that people don't have a respect for life," McFadden said. "That is the bigger issue. It's bigger than where the guns come from, and it's bigger than coming up with new legislation."
McFadden said someone emailed him a video of a recent street fight and shooting, which he turned over to police. What was more disturbing than watching the young male shooter, he said, was watching the crowd around him. It was as if they were watching entertainment. And they were encouraging the fight.
"No one tried to stop it," McFadden said. But, he said, he's not surprised that violence has become normalized for some people.
"If I'm exposed to pain, hunger at night, a parent strung out on drugs: all these things matter," McFadden said.
Rochester does not have an inordinately high rate of gun-related homicides. At the moment, that distinction is held by cities like Baltimore and St. Louis. And homicides in Rochester, as in other cities, are highly correlated to areas with high concentrations of poverty, said John Klofas, professor of criminal justice at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
In addition, he said: "We know that about 80 percent of homicides are a result of shootings, because guns are so lethal. And most shootings involve identifiable interpersonal disputes that go on for some time, arguments that spin out of control."
Rochester police have found that some disputes can result in 16 to 18 shootings over time, he said.
From January 1 through September 23 of this year, there were 115 shootings, 15 of them fatal. Though homicides of all types have declined, from a high of 50 in 2007 to 29 in 2017, statistics don't tell the whole story, says Lentory Johnson.
Johnson's grandchildren are still traumatized three years after the loss of their father, she says. Her son, Johnny "JR" Johnson, was one of three people killed on August 19, 2015, at the Boys and Girls Club after a basketball game.
"He was a hands-on daddy to his children," Johnson said in a recent interview. "He went with them to the talent shows. He took them to the zoo. But he won't be there when they graduate. He won't give away his daughter if and when she decides to marry."
Whenever a family experiences the loss of a loved one, it's painful, and it's hard on survivors, Johnson said. But it's especially difficult for families when the death is a result of gun violence, she said, because it's unnatural. And it has a far-reaching, generational impact. The victim's family and children experience a long-term loss, and so does the family of the person who commits the murder, Johnson said. One of their loved ones is likely to be taken away, too, and incarcerated. It is a "horror show," she said.
"My child wasn't sick," Johnson said. "My child wasn't in a car accident. This is a hurt that you don't want someone else to ever feel."
Since her son's death, Johnson has been volunteering at community centers and other organizations, where she often talks with children about what is happening in their lives.
"I'll go into a room full of 6-year-olds, and I'll ask, 'How many of you know what the sound of a gunshot is like when you hear it?'" she said. "Almost all of the hands go up. 'How many of you know someone who has been shot?' The majority of them will raise their hand.
"That is a tragedy," Johnson said, "because there is rage there."
Late last year, Johnson began working on "The Mothers' Quilt," a 12-foot by 6-foot quilt with more than two dozen panels containing images of gun-violence victims. Most of the victims are from the Rochester area, and nearly all of them are young men of color.
Johnson came up with the idea of the quilt as a way to help the victims' mothers grieve and to increase awareness about gun violence in urban communities, where most of the homicides and shooters are young men of color.
A lot of media attention is given to mass shootings in suburban schools and on college campuses that often lasts for days, Johnson said. The coverage shows people are shocked in white communities. They can't believe it happened in their neighborhood or school because it happens infrequently, she said.
But media doesn't give the same type of attention to gun-related homicides that are happening in urban neighborhoods nearly every day, she said. And, she said, very few people in communities color don't believe the homicides have happened, she said.
While there is a consensus about the seriousness of gun violence and the suffering it's causing, there's less clarity about what to do to stop it. Johnson says state and federal politicians have failed to do anything meaningful to stop gun violence, and she favors more legislation. And, Councilmember McFadden adds, more legislation won't stop violence unless people's values also change. We need to identify people who need help before they hurt people, he says.
Some people have questioned what religious leaders can actually accomplish. It's not the first time they've tried to address gun violence, critics say.
That doesn't deter Lewis Stewart. He plans to invite all of the city's religious leaders to a meeting sometime in the next two months where they can discuss strategies and come up with a coordinated plan, he said.
"It's OK to doubt," Stewart said. "We have been paralyzed by this pandemic for decades, so I understand the skeptics. But as clergy, we have a lot of power."
Politicians, business, and community leaders will at least listen to religious leaders' recommendations, Stewart said. Clergy have more access to policy makers than most people, he said. County legislators need to pass safe gun storage legislation because so many guns are stolen, he said.
He would like to see clergy mobilize the residents in the neighborhoods near their churches to form block associations, make their churches and mosques centers for job training and individual counseling, and encourage residents to call the police and report crimes as they occur.
"I know that some people compare this to putting your finger in the dike to try and stop the flood, but I have faith," Stewart said.