Youth advocates are shining some light on how Wilmington teens feel about guns and violence on the city’s streets.
Just one day ago, a 19-year-old Wilmington man was arrested for allegedly robbing a local priest at gun point. In January, 16-year-old Ahkee Flonnory was the city’s first homicide.
Last year, 16-year-old Alexander Kamara, an innocent bystander, was shot and killed during a soccer tournament at Eden Park in the city’s Southbridge neighborhood during a gang hit.
While violent crimes are down in the city compared to last year, there’s been no shortage of juveniles and young adults getting mixed up in gun violence.
Davi Mozie, program coordinator for the Juvenile Gun Violence Prevention Program with the Delaware Center for Justice, said the feedback she’s heard from teens has been both alarming and insightful.
Mozie recently hosted a summer leadership gun violence protection class at Byard Middle School and said the students, ranging in ages from 11 to 14, talked openly about how much they know about firearms.
“These kids are seeing guns, they’re feeling guns and they’re holding guns. Some of them expressed that they carry guns because they’re fearful,” she explained.
Pastor Derrick Johnson of Joshua Harvest Church in Wilmington specializes in helping at-risk youth and young adults. He said the youth he’s met with echoed a similar belief.
“I had four town hall meetings with young people who are alarmed because, their position is, or their fear is, if they are not armed, then they are not safe, this is their feeling,” Johnson explained. “And that we as adults do not understand what is happening in their world.”
Besides fear, Mozie said adolescents carry guns to create an image and “fit in” with their peers in the neighborhood.
“The other thing is, they’re really just trying to fit into their community,” she explained. “A lot of it has to do with their false images of what manhood is. They see guns as giving them power. A lot of kids are dealing with bullying as well. We talked about that a lot this summer, especially at the middle school level.”
Amri Lyle, program partner with the Delaware Center for Justice, said guns seem to have become a cultural norm for youth.
“Everybody is scared of guns but they become comfortable in these conditions,” he said. “They see it as normal, even when someone gets shot and they see the blood stains and the balloons and the teddy bears and things like that, it becomes a ritual. Of course they’re scared but they have nowhere else to go.”
Youth advocates said the best way to keep teens away from guns and street violence is to provide strong leadership at home, in the community, at religious intuitions and in schools.
Mozie said she encourages teens to find at least three trusted adults to talk to. She also tells them to act as a positive leader around their friends.
“Really becoming ambassadors for violence prevention, that’s what we stress the most,” she said.
Lyle added that many of the teens he works with don’t want to spend their lives on the streets but have become a “product of their surrounding.”
“I try to tell them, don’t give up. They all have dreams and somewhere along the way they’ve lost their dreams or given up on their dreams. I tell them, you’ve got to work for it, it’s not going to fall in your lap.”
Wilmington City Council President Theo Gregory added that the community needs to continue to promote positive values while being tough on crime.
“We as a society, we’ve got to start changing values of our young people at an early age and we have to educate better and give them hope for success,” he said. “We have to create a culture where people do not turn to the streets to prove their worth and their value. That’s going to take a long time to do. In the mean time, you’ve got to lock folks up, you’ve got to be tough on crime. In the long term, we have to put intuitions in place and colleges in place that’s going to change the values of our young folks, and that’s giving them hope and education.”