Statistically it may or may not be the case, but for Mokah-Jasmine Johnson, “over the summer it seemed like Athens had a crime spike—people getting shot, people getting Tased.”
The death two weeks ago of Auriel Callaway—a 24-year-old pregnant mother who was caught in the crossfire during a gunfight that broke out while she was walking with her son at an Eastside apartment complex—has spurred community members to get involved in stopping gun violence. For example, Callaway’s uncle, Bryant Gantt, held a gun buy-back where he paid $4,100 out of his own pocket to take 41 guns off the street.
But is getting guns off the street going to do any good? Some had their doubts at a town hall discussion Johnson organized at Broderick Flanigan’s East Athens art studio. Constrained by the Second Amendment and Georgia’s conservative politics, the ability to restrict guns is limited. Regardless, the mostly white people who keep expanding gun rights are “glorifying the gun,” school board member Greg Davis said. (The discussion took place before news spread of mass shootings in El Paso, TX, Dayton, OH over the weekend.)
Even when gun laws were stricter, Charles Hardy remembers “an artillery” on the streets. “The guns aren’t the issue,” he said. “The people using the guns are the issue.”
Hardy spent 22 years in prison—he said he was sentenced to life plus 20 and released in 2015 when the person who committed the crime he was accused of confessed. Six months ago, he and Hosea Foote formed Athens Alliances after a friend’s son was shot and killed. The group mentors children, but especially their parents, some of whom Hardy sees as irresponsible. Some even encourage their kids to sell drugs to help pay the bills, he said.
That prompted a heated response from Johnson and her husband, Knowa, who said that many of those parents have undiagnosed learning disabilities and trauma from growing up poor, stemming from slavery. Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Tim Denson said the solution is to address poverty, the root cause of crime.
Guns were everywhere when he was growing up in the Orlando projects, Knowa Johnson said, mainly sought after for protection. He recounted all the people close to him who’d been killed with guns: two aunts, an uncle, two friends and his 19-year-old son.
Hardy’s group is seeking neighborhood leaders who can help communities settle disputes peacefully and serve as liasons with law enforcement. The Johnsons are signing up volunteers to go door-to-door to talk about gun violence. For whites—and even some blacks like Mokah-Jasmine Johnson, who acknowledged she had a different experience than many African Americans growing up in an immigrant family—that work requires setting aside cultural biases. “You don’t really fully understand until you go into the community and get engaged and listen,” she said.