A bigger issue than just Newport Mall

Gang-related shootings are part of larger problem

Activists gathered on the steps of city hall to raise awareness of gun violence.
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Activists gathered on the steps of city hall to raise awareness of gun violence.

Despite claims that crime is down in Jersey City over the past year, including shootings and murders, several high-profile incidents have raised the fear level and the call for action.

A gang-related shooting in Newport Mall on Jan. 11 created a panic among shoppers as many believed that this might be a repeat of mass shootings elsewhere in the city.

Among those at the mall during the shooting were a number of students who founded the Jersey City chapter of Students Demand Action (SDA) and organized last year’s March for Our Lives in Jersey City.

“I’m not a survivor, I was just a witness to gun violence that happens not only in Newport Mall, but on the south side of our city every single day,” said Jai Patel, an organizer of the local SDA.

Patel was in the mall at the time of the shooting and described panic as people fled from the sound of gunshots. He thought this could have been a mass shooting and ran with many others toward escalators and eventual escape, pausing only to help a woman and child whose stroller had overturned in the panic.

The incident resulted from a conflict between rival gangs, stemming from a confrontation earlier in the week elsewhere in the city that spilled over into the mall.

Jalil Holmes, 19, has been taken into custody by Jersey City Police after being treated at Jersey City Medical Center for wounds suffered as a result of the shooting. Although he is one of two victims of the mall shooting in the food court on Jan. 11, Holmes was wanted for charges related to another incident elsewhere in Jersey City which included aggravated assault and weapons-related charges, according to city officials.

Police said they are seeking a second suspect in the Newport Mall shooting, who they believe is someone who had been released from state prison in March, according to city officials.

Anyone with information is asked to call the Jersey City Police Department at 201-395-4000.

Fighting fire with rallies

Those gathering in front of City Hall for a rally on Jan. 14 said while the mall shooting was unusual, it’s part of a pattern of violence that has been going on in the south side of the city, relatively unnoticed.

“This has always been personal,” said Effram Muogeta, leader of SDA. “We’re not unconscious of the fact that when you hear a gunshot, you might be blown away.”

This is a local issue with national implications.

Four students from Jersey City high schools have been murdered since the school year began in September. While vigils were held in their honor, most media, rally organizers said, did not pay attention until the violence spilled over into the mall. Kids are dying in the streets, but it took a shooting at the wealthy waterfront mall to get the public’s attention.

Systemic problem 

While some public officials have raised concerns about violence spreading into areas where it had not previously been prevalent, organizers for the Jersey City chapter of SDA say the problem is larger and more complicated. They say the community needs to take action to control the spread of illegal guns as well as help deal with the social factors that have led many of the city’s youth to join street gangs.

The rally organized by SDA, which took place on the steps of City Hall, included school officials, city council members, and many activists already involved with issues of gun violence, all raising their voices for common-sense federal gun legislation as well as social reforms and investment in programs in areas of the city in desperate need.

In many cases, incidents of kids killing kids rise from lack of family or other support, fear of other gang members, and lack of upward mobility and jobs.

Patel said SDA is an outgrowth of a movement started in Jersey City last year in reaction to the Parkland school district shooting in Florida.

While Parkland raised concerns, local incidents have made it clear to Patel and others that gun violence is close to home.

Safety in gangs

Many kids are not in street gangs because they want to be, but because they are afraid and see gang membership as a kind of protection.

“Jailing people is not the answer, and it isn’t just a matter of legal or illegal guns,” Patel said. “Bullets don’t discriminate. If you’re shot, you’re most likely going to die. This has been going on in the south side for years.”

The group said there are a number of programs that can help reduce the retaliation factors often associated with gun violence.

One of these is a healthcare program called HVIP which offers counseling and support for victims of gun violence while they recover in the hospital. The program is a collaboration among local hospitals that provides trauma care for gunshot wounds. The program is designed to discourage the need for retaliation, so typical in gang-related incidents.

Legal protection 

New Jersey has implemented red flag laws, which activists say need to be implemented on a national level. These laws allow public safety officials to identify people who might be at risk of becoming violent, and to temporarily remove their weapons until their condition changes.

A number of red flags relating to the Parkland shooting were largely ignored. The tragedy might have been prevented if such laws had been in place at the time.

SDA member Arlette Huesca said that while SDA started as a reaction to Parkland, it has become focused locally. The gathering on the steps of City Hall was organized to send a message to government and the community that something has to change.

“Fourteen states including New Jersey have red flag laws,” she said.

“If a 14-year-old is shooting a 16-year-old, we have a problem.” – Pamela Johnson

Weapons and awareness 

Hoboken Councilwoman-at-Large Emily Jabbour, who founded the Hudson County chapter of Moms Demand Action, said she was motivated to get involved when she learned that pre-k students were undergoing life-shooter exercises at their schools.

Citing numerous statistics about gun violence, and associated deaths, she said the most effective tool at the moment is proposed federal legislation that would mandate background checks for people seeking to purchase guns.

School officials such as Jersey City Schools Superintendent Dr. Marcia Lyles, school board President Sudhan Thomas, and Trustee Mussab Ali said awareness is part of the solution.

Four students, Angel Cruz, Jaden Fondeur, Jane Saunders, and Judane Holmes, have been murdered in shootings since September.

According to Pamela Johnson, executive director of the Jersey City Anti-Violence Coalition Movement, gun reform is only part of the answer.

“The bottom line is we’re not addressing the societal and socioeconomic issues on the south side, including poverty and disparity,” she said.

Johnson, who has seen shooting victims and has had to comfort the families, said that until the economic issues are addressed, the south side will continue to see this kind of violence.

“Gun reform won’t help,” she said. “There are community guns that pass from generation to generation. If a 14-year-old is shooting a 16-year-old, we have a problem.”

Ward F Councilman Jermaine Robinson has seen the problems firsthand.

“I lost my first best friend who was 14 years old,” he said. “I lost my second best friend who was 16. I’m tired of attending rallies for kids who are dying. This is something that we as a community need to come together to change. We can do it together.”

To comment on this story online, go to www.hudsonreporter.com. Al Sullivan may be reached at asullivan@hudsonreporter.com