‘There’s more to this community’: Trenton reels after shooting at arts festival

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Art All Night-Trenton, a popular 24-hour arts festival put on every June for the last 12 years, has been a bright spot for New Jersey’s long-struggling state capitol — a “joyful” event, as one attendee put it, that celebrated the region’s arts and culture scene.

But around 2:45 Sunday morning, a dispute among area gangs turned the festival into a crime scene as multiple suspects began shooting at each other. The spree left one suspect dead and 22 people injured, some critically.

The Art All Night festival is organized by the nonprofit Artworks Trenton, and features live mural painting and graffiti art, a “silent disco,” galleries, musical acts, food trucks, and a film festival.

Last year, the event drew about 30,000 people and 1,500 artists, according to Artworks, including people from the city, as well as the more well-heeled suburbs of South Jersey.

The festival is held in the former factory building, where workers once manufactured the giant cables used for many of America’s major suspension bridges in the first half of the 20th century, including the Brooklyn Bridge, the George Washington Bridge, and the Golden Gate Bridge.

“We wanted Art All Night to be CNN breaking news. We didn’t want Art All Night to be CNN breaking news because of this,” said James Peeples, a former Artworks board member, who also used to be head of security for the event.

At first, volunteers simply monitored the crowds. But as the festival became more popular, Peeples says local police began helping them deal with the occasional drunken squabble.

“There’s never been a problem,” Peeples said.

But neighbors say something was different this time.

Sharon L. lives in an apartment building just feet from the old Roebling Wire Works factory, where festival was taking place. We agreed to withhold her last name to protect her privacy.

She was outside her building minutes before shots rang out, when she decided to turn in for the night.

“When I got up on that third floor, all I heard was pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop,” Sharon said. “And I looked up at the window and people was all over the place just literally like running all over.”

Sharon has lived in the building for five years, and she normally attends Art All Night, but this year, she had a bad feeling about it.

“This year it was not meant for me to go inside of that building because the atmosphere to me just, my spirit wasn’t right,” she said. “I said, ‘I am not going in there.’”

Other neighbors echoed the feeling of something in the air on Saturday night. Sharon says what is normally a peaceful event started to get rowdy after midnight, and neighbors agreed it was turning into a powder keg.

After the shots began firing, Sharon saw people begin running out into the parking lot. Police said about 1,000 people were inside the Roebling Wire Works building at the time.

Hip-hop artist and Trenton resident Dioh Williams said he injured his knee when he fell and was trampled by the crowds.

Speaking outside St. Francis Hospital after he was released Sunday morning, Williams and his girlfriend, Ashley Anderson said gun violence is common in the city.

“I’m surprised, but not shocked,” said Anderson. “I mean, this is Trenton.”

Community advocates like Peeples have been hoping Art All Night could dispel that sentiment and propel Trenton into the trendier ranks of Brooklyn, Asbury Park, and Philadelphia.

“One of the things we’ve been hoping to use has been the arts community,” Peeples said. “And so now more than ever, I think this city is going to have to rely on its arts and creative community to be a driving force and to be an engine to change those opinions of other people around the country.”

Mohammed Wiswall, who has lived in Trenton most of his life, agreed the city seems to be on the upswing, despite years of poverty and high rates of violent crime.

“It’s just been up, up, up,” said Wiswall as he manned the counter at his family’s business, Trenton Coffeehouse, located just blocks from where the shooting happened. “A lot of the immigrant communities opening up small businesses, which brings population in and brings business in.”

But he worries the shooting will be a black mark on Trenton, especially in the eyes of people who don’t live there.

“It’s not like this doesn’t happen quite often here,” Wiswall said. “You know, growing up there’s been drive-bys by our house. I know people who have been shot and killed by gun violence.”

Peeples has been working hard to get people to see another side to the city. It’s why he became involved with Artworks Trenton, and it’s why he’s now pleading for more positive exposure for the city he loves.

“My community is broken,” he said.

While some residents like Ashley Anderson doubt the event will return next year, festival organizers issued a statement on social media Sunday morning that seemed resolved to move forward.

“We’re very shocked. We’re deeply saddened. Our hearts ache and our eyes are blurry but our dedication and resolve to building a better Trenton through community, creativity and inspiration will never fade. Not tonight. Not ever,” they wrote.

Members of The Trenton Circus Squad, a program that trains young people from divergent backgrounds in trapeze-swinging and other circus arts at the Roebling Wire Works building, performed Saturday night before the shooting occurred. The organization said no one was harmed.

“The reason that Trenton Circus Squad exists is to provide inspiration for young people to choose a positive path, to serve others and to take great leaps in life themselves,” said executive director Zoe Brooks. “We sincerely hope that our work will help to reduce violence in Trenton.”

“We’ve got to get the media to realize that there’s more to this event, that there’s more to this community, there’s more to these people, than what somebody else decided to do last night,” Peeples said.

WNYC’s Karen Rouse contributed reporting.

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