When One Vision One Life Director Richard Garland spoke to the 30 or so gang members at the federal courthouse March 3, he told them about a phone call he got at 7 a.m. that morning after a massive police raid had yielded 30 arrests for guns and drug violation the day before.
“Manchester Youth Development called and said they had 23 kids who are now without parents. We’re going to be there all weekend trying to help,” he said. “Some of you have kids. You want that for them? Everyone here, the police, judges, the community—they all want you to succeed. This is your chance.”
The meeting was the first of two Pittsburgh Initiative to Reduce Crime call-in meetings held that day for gang members from across the city. All are on probation or parole, and all heard about the damage their lives of violence and drug dealing not only to their victims, their community and the city, but also to their loved ones.
Albert Dingle told them how he still had post traumatic stress disorder 16 years after his son Dorian was shot five times at a fast food restaurant. Pittsburgh police Chief Nate Harper said the community and his department has had enough of stories like Dingle’s.
“We had a 5-year-old killed up in Northview Heights. This has to stop,” he said. “I’m hoping you have open minds and will take that first, hard step.”
City Councilman Rev. Rickey Burgess, who helped bring PIRC to the city, told them how his aunt’s murder gave his mother a nervous breakdown, how he adopted his nephew after his brother-in-law was sent to jail for murder, and how he cleaned up the blood after his wife’s father had killed her mother, so she wouldn’t have to see it.
“My whole life has been a reaction to violence,” he said. “That’s why I and Mayor Ravenstahl designed this program.”
The call-in meetings are part of PIRC’s carrot-and-stick approach to reducing the gun violence that claimed Black lives last year. The young men who attend hear about how the city has resources and services available to help them turn their lives around.
The gang members also heard from people who had been sitting in those chairs last year and did just that. They also heard about young men who didn’t, like Herman Moore who sat there in July, was charged in federal court in September on federal gun charges.
“Yesterday 30 North Side individuals were arrested. One of them had two prior drug convictions. Because of those, he’s looking at life in prison. He threw up in court when he heard how much time he’s facing,” said U.S. Attorney Tod Eberle.
Allegheny County Assistant District Attorney Chris Avetta told them state sentencing can be even harder. For instance, he said, possession of even a small amount of heroin for sale is a mandatory two-year minimum. For third-degree murder convictions, 20-40 years. For first-and second-degree murder convictions, life.
But they don’t have to take that route, said Khalif Ali of Pittsburgh Community Services Inc.
“Once you call us, we’re committed to your success, your goals, your dreams, and we’ll develop a plan to get you there,” he said. “But you have to be committed, and patient. You’re here because of decisions you made over the course of time, so this new direction can take time. Take this message back to the hood. Here’s someone who did.”
Jeff Jenkins was wandering the South Side last year after a 10-year sentence in state prison when he saw a card with the PIRC hotline number. He called.
“Now, I’m a community coordinator for One Vision One Life,” he said. “It took a lot of leg work, writing resumes, travel, but PIRC helped with all of that. Ultimately, it’s on you.”
Sean Drummond, the chaplain at the Allegheny County Jail told them he also turned his life around, and if they don’t, their children will ultimately pay for it.
“I walked in the same shoes as everyone here, probably deeper. I’ve watched people sleep in these meetings, laugh. They won’t make it,” he said. “It’s time to stop making excuses. If you don’t speak life to your children, the street will speak death to them.”
The bottom line, PIRC Director Jay Gilmer told them, is you know what happens if you make the call, and what happens if you don’t.
“Put down your gun. Make the call,” he said, “Because you really are your brother’s keeper.”
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