Healing Syracuse: Where to Begin?

Aug 3, 2015

Marchers gather for prayer before walking through the East Side of Syracuse as a part of the "Light the Night 315" march
Credit Amari Pollard/WAER News

Imagine you’re barbecuing at the park with family and friends during Fourth of July weekend. The sun is beating at the back of your neck and right as the burgers barely start to sizzle on the grill, you hear a gun shot. Then another, and another.

Violence is no stranger to the streets of Syracuse; but after a crime spree over the Fourth of July weekend left 10 people shot and two dead, people have had enough.

Syracuse resident and parent Stephanie Dreher says the community needs to do a better job of coming together to raise their children.

“I have a son that made it out of Syracuse, and it saddens me that there are so many young men dying at the hand of violence. It starts at home with the parents. Our mothers, our fathers, we need to get into our children’s rooms and sit down with our kids to see what’s going on with them.”     

With the shootings still fresh their minds, locals flooded the streets in protest. The vehement voices of demonstrators echoed through the troubled streets of Syracuse as they marched in the hope of mending a community overwhelmed by violence. More than 100 people joined hands for the second installment of the Light the Night 315 march on July 13th. Marchers gathered at Lexington Park before making their way through the East Side, two days after Syracuse witnessed its 13th homicide this year.

Marchers peacefully walking through the streets of Syracuse
Credit Amari Pollard/WAER News

March organizer Victoria Coit says that what separated this march series from others was its departure from speaking about what people are tired of seeing in their community.

“We choose to speak about what we do want in our community, and to speak positively through affirmations while we walk through the streets together. For example, ‘We are a community,’ and ‘We have everything in this community to be prosperous;’ things like that.”

Coit and her team are making solid steps towards fixing violence in Syracuse by initiating various programs.

According to FBI statistics released for the 2013 calendar, Syracuse has one of the highest crime rates per capita in America. The assault rate is more than twice that of the national rate, and the murder rate is more than three times.

Crime Rate According to Neighborhood Scout

Syracuse Crime Rate Per 1000

  1. Murder .15                                    
  2. Rape .77                                         
  3. Robbery 2.79                                                               
  4. Assault 4.86       

United States Crime Rate Per 1000                                                                    

  1. Murder .04
  2. Rape .34    
  3. Robbery 1.09
  4. Assault 2.29 

When asked about the recent violence in Syracuse the police department declined to comment. Some officers say crime generally rises in the summer. However, Syracuse Common Council President Van Robinson who attended the march refused to stay silent on an issue that is hurting a place many call home. He says these marches are taking him back to the earlier days of the Civil Rights Movement, when people began to gather in churches and homes.

“What we’re saying is, look, we have another enemy out here. It may not be an enemy that says black or white or colored . . . they are victimizing the people who live here. And we’re saying, no more. We’re stopping this right now. As you look you see young, you see old, you see white, you see black; and the only thing they have in mind is that we have to come together as a group of people.”

Two young marchers holding up their signs
Credit Amari Pollard/WAER News

Along with those marching, the Southwest Community Center is looking for ways to help eliminate violence in the city and restructure how people respond to it. Director of Community Service Valerie Hill believes educating the youth is key to alleviating violence.

“We have various programs that touch on the issues. One is Pride, the other is IYM which stands for Intelligent Young Minds, and Adolescent Youth that starts from age 11 up until age 14. That program focuses on alcohol, drug and tobacco prevention. As well as gang violence, bullying, racism, equality and those type of things.”

The Media Unit recently performed its original musical, “From the Back of the Bus” for the kids at the center to teach them about racism, violence and intolerance. The musical was first performed in 1996 in Syracuse and has been staged in Jackson, Miss., Louisville, New York City and Portland, Maine.

Technical Coordinator Gorge Stroman says the show is a creative approach to help kids better absorb crucial information.

“I just feel like we’re so segregated and we don’t even know it. So I feel like putting the issue out there, younger folks of their age can receive it better, and being that it’s a little bit comedic they take it in.”

After the performance Gabriel Wade said he enjoyed the show and understood the message.

“I think the message was about, you got to be grateful and treat everybody equally the way they are, not by the race of their color.”

The Media Unit is now touring Central New York and hopes to bring their act on the road to Ferguson, Missouri in September. The group hopes the show could help Ferguson in its efforts to recover from the police brutality and rioting.

Actors in the performance of "From the Back of the Bus"
Credit Amari Pollard/WAER News

City residents often wonder whether those living in the suburbs and towns surrounding Syracuse feel removed from the violence it’s facing. Though many may not feel it is their problem, Hill thinks the high level of violence should concern everyone.

“It’s not just the people on the South Side or the people on the North or the East Side of Syracuse that needs to really get involved. It’s everybody in Syracuse that needs to get involved. It’s effecting the entire City of Syracuse, and if somebody doesn’t realize that then they’re in trouble — there’s a problem because their brain is not allowing them to open up enough to see what’s actually going on around them. And whatever’s going on around you will eventually effect you if you don’t get involved.”

Some tend to feel violence increases during the summer months, and credit nice weather and idle minds for the surge in shootings. Dr. Elijah Anderson is one of the leading urban ethnographers in the U.S. and the William K. Lanman Professor of Sociology at Yale University. He says violence in urban areas often stems from the complex systems of culture and economy within the community. 

“One has to face up to the idea of structural poverty; the fact that jobs and opportunities are just not there for people. And this encourages people to deal with the issues in a much more direct way.”

Syracuse residents agree with Dr. Anderson. Kenyon Black and Chris Markward believe the violence won’t decline when the summer heat does.

The people of Syracuse are marching, educating our youth and using the arts as approaches to eradicate violence. But there are still many questions remaining when it comes to mending the violent state of Syracuse. Can violence be reduced when the system it stems from continues to marginalize people? As of now, no one really knows; but many don't plan to stop until they do.