ALTON - On June 15, the area’s first “Stop the Violence” event addressed recent gun violence and solutions. Several other community leaders were in attendance.
C & K Community, a new organization sponsored by C & K Banquet and Party Center, hosted the event at the C & K Center. The mayor, the Alton Chief of Police and a Southern Illinois University sociologist opened the night with presentations and data, followed by speeches from community leaders and people who have been personally affected by gun violence.
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“My city is changing,” Kendra Stiff, the co-founder of C & K Community and the Center, said. “Alton used to be a place that you felt so safe.”
Stiff explained that C & K Community organized this event following a phone call from her daughter, who expressed fear about the recent shootings and raising three boys. She invited any community members who wanted to speak to do so.
“We need to hear from the community and the people that are actually living this thing, going through this thing, these parents that are raising these boys and girls, and that are just trying to figure out, what can we do?” Stiff said. “So it’s a beautiful thing that everybody is here, letting them know that, hey, we’re all here to help.”
The speakers covered a variety of topics related to gun violence, but almost everyone touched on the glorification of guns and the need for more parental involvement. The main focus was on gun violence among young people.
“One of the reasons why I ran as mayor is because I love this community and I want to see this community thrive. We can’t thrive when our young people are taking guns and they’re killing each other,” Alton Mayor David Goins said. “We cannot just be reactive. We have to be proactive.”
Alton Police Chief Jarrett Ford noted that gun violence rates in Alton have been relatively steady for the past several decades, though these numbers are still “way too high.” But he said that the rate of gun violence between people aged 17 and younger has increased “drastically” in the past two years.
“We can’t arrest our way out of this problem,” Ford said. “I’m tired of talking to [people] about losing a loved one too soon. I don’t want to do it anymore, and I don’t think we have to.”
Ford added that the Alton Police Department solves gun violence crimes at a higher rate than the national average.
He also presented crime, mental illness and drug use statistics for children who are raised in fatherless households, and he noted that many Alton residents don’t finish school beyond eighth grade. Ford encouraged social change that emphasizes “faith, family, morality and a focus on education.”
Dr. Anne Scheer, an assistant professor in the SIU School of Medicine, is a children’s sociologist who has studied Alton and the surrounding area. She presented graphs that showed most kids aged 17 and younger who are involved in gun violence are male and roughly 14–17 years old; these children are most likely to be both suspects and victims of youth gun violence in Alton.
“It’s easy to look at it [as] the individual making a choice. But it’s not that simple,” Scheer said. “Individuals don’t exist in a vacuum, right? They don’t exist in a vacuum in the present. They don’t exist in a historical vacuum. There’s a whole history for each community, for each neighborhood, for each city and for each country that we carry with us…It is important to understand that it is both. It is individuals that need help, that need support. But it’s often the systems that need to change.”
Scheer noted that people under age 25 make up 30% of Alton’s population, and about half of the city’s children under age 18 are non-white. She encouraged leaders to engage these young people in the conversation, and she added that to not do so “would just be foolish.”
She also explained that Alton rates very low on the Child Opportunity Index, a scale that measures a community’s resources and conditions like poverty and crime rate. High scores indicate that children have a higher chance of healthy development in their community; Alton’s low score indicates major lacks. Scheer went on to show the discrepancies in unemployment, poverty and education rates between Black people in Madison County and the rest of the population.
“We need to really look at what’s going on, what the kids think, what they want, what they need, but also how everything interacts with systems and the opportunities that some people are given and others are not,” Scheer said.
C & K Community also invited people who have been personally affected by gun violence to speak. Kietra Caldwell said she has been “on both ends of the violence.” She has lost several people to gun violence, and her son has served prison time for shooting someone else.
“I’m here for all the families,” Caldwell said. “Some people say it starts at home. It does start at home, but sometimes the homes are the problem. The kids around here need role models.”
She suggested increased youth programs, community service opportunities and curfews as possible ways to decrease gun violence. Caldwell added that you can be “the perfect parent,” but other influences or the urge to fit in can lead kids down a darker path.
“Sometimes you can instill everything in the world in your son and in your daughter. And when they get out here, it's almost like they forgot everything they were taught,” Caldwell said. “I see them, and I look at myself when I was young, and it’s like a revolving door. It’s a cycle, and it has to stop.”
Other speakers included Alderwomen Rosetta Brown and Stephanie Elliott, local charity founders and volunteers and Stiff’s daughter. Roughly 40–50 people were in attendance, including several parents.
While “Stop the Violence” was C & K Community’s first project, Stiff said they have ideas for future events that will continue these conversations and provide outreach and activities for teenagers.
As the night continued, community member Meiaka Brown said that the actions of leaders and normal residents alike are the best way to reach young people. She encouraged everyone to play a part in combating gun violence and improving the community. Her comments received a strong positive response from the crowd.
“Sometimes, we give ourselves passes because we say, ‘Someone else has got to do it. Somebody needs to do something…Each and every person in here, I want to say that you are it,” she said. “We know the problem. Some of these problems have been generational. But the question is, what is your part of the solution today?”
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