Gun Violence in Rochester: We All Suffer

Sirena Cotton discusses her son, Christopher's, death in 2007. His murder inspired her to create Roc the Peace

Sirena Cotton discusses her son, Christopher’s, death in 2007. His murder inspired her to create Roc the Peace

Sirena Cotton couldn’t eat, shower or even comb her hair. She missed her son, Christopher Jones, too much. Shot in 2007 in front of her on the corner of Pierpont and Lexington, she said Christopher was the youngest of four boys, loved to play sports and never gave her any trouble.

But that didn’t stop the strange feeling in her stomach the evening he died. She said she knew something was wrong when he left multiple times near his curfew. Finally, she told him that if he wanted to see the girl he claimed to be visiting, she’d have to come over to their house. So she did and Cotton stayed in the house while they sat outside.

Suddenly she heard a ton of commotion and ran outside in nothing but her nightgown, just in time to watch him get shot.

“I saw the look on his face,” she said, dredging through the memory. “He said, ‘Ahhhh!’ All of a sudden he started running so I’m right behind him, and it’s two guys behind him. All of a sudden, Chris just dropped. Like his legs gave out…and when he did, the one with the gun went to kick him. By this time I was there. I grabbed them and we all just flew back. And…I looked in the guy’s face that shot my baby and he saw me and was like ‘oh shit,’ and then they ran back to the truck…That’s when I got the license plate number and I just started saying it over, and over, and over, and over. By this time, I ran back over to Chris… He was talking and everything. I could see the bullet hole right in his side, but it wasn’t no blood. And I didn’t think at the time, if there’s no blood outside, well where is it? It’s in the inside…”

Christopher seemed well, though, even asking Cotton’s husband to help him up off the ground. But he wouldn’t make it through the night.

“He said, I love you, mom.’ And I said, ‘I love you too, baby. You’re gonna be OK.’ And then he put up his hand, to like say bye and then they wheeled him in,” said Cotton recounting the last moments she saw him alive in the hospital as they prepared for surgery and triage.

Hours later, around 10 p.m., she learned he wouldn’t make it.

The depression swallowed her up immediately and while she would later turn this grief into Roc the Peace, an organization that promotes peace in the city, she is one of thousands in Rochester traumatized by the city’s high rates of gun violence, which many experts say not only adversely affects the loved ones of these victims but the entire community.

“Fear sits like a blanket on the community,” said Melanie Funchess, Director of Community Engagement at the Mental Health Association. She discussed how living in a dangerous area changes how how you participate in the community. She used an anecdote of a child not being able to play near windows or doorways because of fears of a stray bullet- so from very young, children live in fear of their immediate surroundings and this has a ripple effect. From not playing outside and honing social skills to never being truly part of this community. The result is the loss of community as a whole, which only makes it easier for crime to take root in our neighborhoods.

“There is a ripple effect,” she said.

Healing from this ongoing trauma is going to be difficult, said Funchess who said that losing a loved one is already jarring. For significant others, it can mean a loss of income or support system to raise the children with. For children, it means a loss of a parent who can help guide them to adulthood. The result: children reaching adulthood with very little understanding of what adulthood means or entails.

However, in our community this pain of losing someone is often coupled with a number of other traumas, she said, compounding the grief.

“When we look at trauma, there is the violent act itself but also the response of people that is the secondary trauma,” said Funchess, adding that many in the community face bias from their social standing. Often, there is a perceived failing on the parts of the victims and their parents, especially if any past crimes, mistakes or other “transgressions” are discovered in the past. It can also simply be how they were killed; if a young man of color is shot late at night in a rough neighborhood, it’s more likely people will assume he was involved in criminal activity or with the wrong people. Instead of blaming the shooter and gun violence, some of the fault will almost always lie with the victim as well. For example, the death of Larry Morales, a 22-year-old shot to death Monday evening. When rumors began to leak throughout the community that he was involved in drug dealing, many began to speculate on the nature of his death.

“It’s like addition through subtraction,” said Dr. Irshad Altheimer, a Criminal Justice professor and the Deputy Director of the Center for Public Safety Initiatives. He questioned the mentality that getting rid of someone would make the community better; it’s a one-dimensional way of viewing a three-dimensional community resident, he added. They’re not only drug dealers, or “criminals”, he said. They’re also friends, sons, parents. And for those who aren’t engaging in these behaviors, they rarely escape this public scrutiny.

“It’s taking all of our young men away from us,” -Ali

“The story I did with Ohio news, it was up on Facebook,” said Warda Ali, who lost two of her brothers and her cousin in a shooting in Ohio last month. The three men, Omar Abdulkadir Ali, 25,Ali Abdulkadir Ali, 23, and 22-year-old Mohammed Deq, originally from Rochester, were in Columbus for a soccer tournament when they were shot at 2 a.m. Ali said they were coming from a party and dropping a friend off, who was able to go in his home unscathed. Both Omar Abdulkadir Ali and Mohammed Deq died and she said Ali is facing another surgery but will live. She said she was shocked by the vitriol directed at her family.

“I’m reading the comments and they were even saying things about me. They were like ‘oh her tears are fake,'” she said. “This is my brother. How are you going to say my tears are fake?…Then there were some people saying it must have been a drug deal gone wrong, drug scheme. I had to comment, ‘these were young men that loved soccer. They were always in Ohio for soccer.’ My brothers weren’t involved in that. Because he’s black and because he’s young, they think he’s always after drugs, after violence. He’s not in these streets. Every young black man is not in these streets doing the wrong thing. it just happen to be the wrong time and that’s all it was….You’re being stereotypical and you’re being discriminating, but, hey, welcome to America.”

The City of Rochester and state of New York have been working avidly to decrease crime. From Project Exile in 1997 to Gun Court, which sees hundreds of cases per year, the city and state has tried a number of initiatives. Yet the homicide rate has stayed roughly consistent since 1996, according to an RIT report created by Altheimer and John Klofas of the Center for Public Safety Initiatives.

“By any way it is measured, Rochester has a serious violence problem and has had it, uninterrupted, for nearly 50 years,” the report states. “The uniformity of the trend means that no city administration or associated law enforcement agency has fared better or worse, and there is no justified criticism of one more than another.”

Altheimer added that crime has been decreasing since the mid-1990s regardless, meaning we have to be skeptical of how officials see the success of initiatives, especially those he said aren’t approached with true research in mind. He said the lack of control groups, gathering true data and the analysis of it is lacking and as result taxpayers often fund programs and ideas that never operate to their full potential, use more money than they’re worth, or are scrapped before they can even work.

Shanika Williams holds her son, Pierre, and discusses the loss of her brother, Red.

Shanika Williams holds her son, Pierre, and discusses the loss of her brother, Red.

“I do think it’s playing a part in reduction of crime,” District Attorney Sandra Doorley told 13 WHAM last year of gun court, pointing to a 21 percent decrease in shootings and shooting victims, as well as a nine-percent decrease in murder victims from this time last year. Many local officials hailed gun court as the answer, but research experts questioned the analysis of the data.

Altheimer said the gun assault rate fluctuates 20 percent per year, citing research from the Center, meaning this 21 percent decrease is largely already accounted for. And stated that if we credit the gun court with crime reduction, will it look less effective when gun violence invariably rises again, no matter how much?

“We should be skeptical of oversimplified solutions to this problem,” said Altheimer, who stressed again and again how complex gun violence is; it’s the result of many aspects in our society from poverty to access to gun.

“It’s taking all of our young men away from us,” said Ali of the violence. “Our brothers, our fathers, our sons. And it’s just sad. It’s like you’re losing two men. The one in front of the gun and the one behind the gun. At the end of the day it’s young black men. That’s what we’re losing out here.”

“You need to sit down and talk with these men, give them opportunities, people need to talk to them and understand them,” said Ali. She added that we should be attacking the issue from the root, before they ever even pick up a aun.

“The hardest part is he isn’t there,” said Shanika Williams of her brother, Red, who died in 2006. Red was shot on Genesee Street more than a decade ago and she said the blood splatter is still there. She motioned to her son, Pierre, and said he’s missing out on his nephew.

“People won’t get it, they won’t understand it until it happens to them,” Williams added. “That’s just my personal thoughts on it. You can say I understand how you feel, I understand what you’re going through but until you’ve been in my shoes, in my spot. You won’t understand to where you can say OK I’ve lost my sister or brother. They died from cancer, heart attack but it’s different than saying my brother was murdered in the streets and left there. It’s not the same.”

Cotton agreed thinking about the moments she’ll never share with Christopher and had advice for those going through this pain now.

DSC_6665“I have to continue, no matter how much I want to quit. It’s not just me,” said Cotton. “Don’t let someone discourage you; everyone heals their own way. I’d tell another mom to deal with it how you deal with it and don’t let someone make you deal with it the way they want you to deal with it.”

Cotton created Roc the Peace, an annual festival that brings the community together  in remembrance of Chris and other gun violence victims. This year’s will take place on July 22. For Cotton and many more, it’s a pain the community not only understand but many feel themselves. And for those who feel untouched by gun violence, it still hovers above us all, dictating how  and when we enjoy our very own environment.


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