Nineteen young men with criminal records who topped the current list for most likely to be shot or of shooting someone else were ushered into a room of standing community members, service providers and law enforcement and then seated in the center-front rows. Eight people stood opposite them and once everyone sat, the Bridgeport Program Lead addressed the men with the basic messages for the meeting:
- Violence will no longer be tolerated in our community and must stop
- Individuals involved in group/gang activity are encouraged to become productive, positive members of the community
- A range of services will be offered to them if they make the choice to transition from the group/gang lifestyle
He then turned it over to the panel who, one by one spoke to the men from their perspective.
This was the sixth “call-in” for the Bridgeport, CT Project Longevity program and it was both moving and powerful. SODINA was invited after meeting with the Bridgeport Lead and another team member in the Bridgeport office to learn about the program and share information about SODINA. Their brochure reads, “Project Longevity is a research-based, three prong strategy to reduce group/gang related homicides and gun violence in the cities of Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport. Researchers from Yale University, University of New Haven, and John Jay College working with law enforcement help to identify violent Group/Gang members throughout each city. These violent Group/Gang members are called into a neutral location and given a consistent anti-violence message by community members, law enforcement and service providers.”
The Bridgeport Chief of Police, Bridgeport Deputy Chief, CT State Attorney, and Assistant US Attorney all conveyed a caring but tough message in an effort to save these men’s lives and the lives of others within the community. “Put down the guns, stop the violence.” They wanted these men to bring a message back to their groups; that if a member of their group “drops a body”, the full force of law enforcement would come down on their whole group. This full force includes the local police, drug and gang task forces, state police, FBI, DEA, ATF, and the Department of Justice. They gave specific examples from those previously warned in a call-in of the tactics they would use, including pictures, charges and sentences. After receiving this message, they made it clear that on top of applying the full force of resources, they would seek maximum sentences.
Three more people offered alternatives to the lifestyle they were living as well as a woman who shared what it is like to lose a child to gun violence.
A man and woman talked about the turning points in their lives where they chose a different path. It was not an easy path, but one that allowed them to sleep peacefully at night without fear of bullets coming through windows or a police officer knocking on their door.
The mother whose son was murdered shared the pain she has endured since his and his girlfriend’s murder. She asked the men to consider not only her situation, but also that of their own mother’s if they are murdered or go to jail for taking the life of another.
The final person, a Director from The Council of Churches of Greater Bridgeport asked the service providers seated in the last rows to stand and for the men to turn to see them. They were there to help them start the process of leaving the group/gang life, whatever their individual challenges were, i.e. substance abuse services, ID assistance, education, housing, among others. He offered the analogy of the upcoming Halloween rituals of young people putting on masks and costumes and suggested it was okay for them to shed their masks as the tough person in a group or gang and to rejoin the peaceful community.
If these young men were willing to take a step forward toward the project members, the service providers, community members and law enforcement would take two toward helping them.
In 2015 to date, Project Longevity in Bridgeport has facilitated 48 jobs for individuals and obtained permanent housing for ten and temporary housing for six clients. They have also provided temporary housing for a night or two for people in need or in circumstances where their safety was in question.
It is unclear if some of these people can make the whole transition out of group or gang life, but even if they make strides, it is better than where they had been and if only one succeeds, it has saved at least one life and probably others.
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Sodina | Voices to Stop Violence
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