USA: United By Painful Losses, Mothers Continue Fight Against Violence

02 January 2009

This club doesn't recruit, and the membership dues are steep. In fact, most of its members would pay anything not to belong. The club is called Mothers United Against Violence and, as its name suggests, it's made up largely of moms.

But these women share a bond on the opposite end of the spectrum from the joy of childbirth. Many know the unfathomable sorrow of burying their children, taken by the all-too-common gun violence on Hartford's streets.

And every time another person dies in the city as a result of that gun violence, whether young or old, man or woman, the mothers visit the victim's family to offer support, and take to the streets to pray and protest against the ongoing cycle of violence that claimed 31 lives in the capitol city in 2008.

Pamela Joiner, whose son Jumar, 25, was shot to death in May, and whose younger brother Anthony, 43, was stabbed to death on Christmas Eve, is among them.

"Before my son even got killed I should have been out here helping," said Joiner, who joined the club immediately after Jumar's death. "From day one, I was out there handing out fliers and petitions. I'm fighting for my son."

Mothers United Against Violence was formed in 2003 by a group of about 10 city residents, some of whom had lost family members to gun violence.

"At first, we were just brainstorming about how we could help the community," said the Rev. Henry Brown, a city activist who has become known for his bullhorn-led marches on the state Capitol and rallies decrying the apathy toward the situation in Hartford, which, since 2003, has recorded more than 170 homicides, including a nursing home arson fire that killed 16 people.

Brown has not lost a family member to violence, but he was moved to get involved in reducing violence in Hartford after the horrific shooting of 7-year-old Takira "Missy" Gaston on July 4, 2001. Takira was riding a scooter at a family picnic in the North End when she was caught in the crossfire of gunshots between two rival drug dealers. A bullet entered her jaw, went through her tongue and uprooted several teeth before shattering the opposite jaw. Takira survived and has had numerous surgeries to rebuild her jawbone and eliminate facial scarring.

"When that little girl got shot, that changed my life," Brown said. "I asked God, 'What do you want me to do?'"

Brown got involved with HOPE Street Ministries, another anti-violence group that spreads its message using the power of a mother's grief. He met several of those moms, and Mothers United Against Violence was born.

"HOPE Street is a big part of what we do," Brown said.

The group grew quickly to nearly 20 active members, and on occasion as many as 50 people affiliated with the group turn out for rallies. But the core membership has dwindled as the years have passed and the violence has continued.

Club member Angie Sutton, whose stepfather, James Washington, was shot to death in his North End market in February of 2002, said she understands that not everyone has the endurance to stay active.

"It's been six years, and people up here still don't have streetlights or [operating police] substations," Sutton said recently as she sat in the Johnson-Stewart Community Center in the North End. "They're waiting for something dynamic to happen, that one thing that's going to give them hope."

Brown said the mothers who have continued to visit the families of new victims and continued to march at rallies and prayer vigils holding pictures of their sons give him the strength to keep preaching the message of stopping the violence.

One such inspiration is charter member Henrietta Beckman, whose 20-year-old son, Randy, was shot to death in 2002. Beckman provides a calming influence for newer members such as Joiner, who can still break into tears when the subject of her son comes up, or Carmen Rodriguez, who is still reluctant to discuss the death of her 16-year-old son, Carlos Garcia, who was shot to death in December of 2002.

"It took me a long time to speak, but they're like a family to me," Rodriguez said of the other mothers.

Beckman also brings stoicism and the deep empathy of really knowing how it feels into the homes of families dealing with the sudden, violent loss of a loved one.

"You don't even have to say anything," said Beckman, who prepares for a visit by listening to a favorite gospel song.

Faith, along with having the support of each other, also keeps the mothers going to the nearly weekly vigils in homes or parking lots or on sidewalks where victims were found.

Joiner admits it is difficult at times, but said that with God's help and the memory of Jumar she wills herself to keep going. She also admits to having a more selfish reason to keep pounding the pavement to deliver the group's anti-violence message.

"I get scared," Joiner said. "I've got an 18-year-old out there."

United by the painful loss of children to gun violence in Hartford, these women pound the pavement to deliver an anti-violence message.

The Hartford Courant