Last Friday night, huddled together at the corner of 111th street and 5th Avenue in Harlem, a circle of about thirty individuals held hands. Their eyes were closed in prayer. The orange glow of the headlamps formed neon smudges against the black night sky. Two NYPD officers stood nearby, arms crossed, waiting. Opposite a church on the corner of 129th Street and 7th Avenue, a similar crowd looped around a stage, surrounded by blue lights and peace signs painted gold. Some youths lined up to perform raps and songs, which they had written themselves.
This was the last weekend of Occupy the Corners, an initiative created in response to the recent wave of shootings and organized by National Action Network (NAN), a not-for-profit civil rights organization. For the past four weekends, community activists, politicians, church leaders and local civilians have stood in solidarity at the most dangerous corners in New York, watching for any signs of violence.
On Friday, NAN founder and president, Reverend Al Sharpton, joined the campaigners.
“It’s important that our presence establishes that we are not going to give our corners to the hoodlums and the thugs,” Mr. Sharpton told the hushed crowd. “I’m glad to see the response. We had no idea we’d get to sixteen corners every weekend from 11 PM to 1 AM, but we’ve done it… Tomorrow night we’re going to spread national.”
“Amen!” chorused the locals.
“This is our last week of Occupy the Corners but this is not our last week of working together,” assured Tamika D. Mallory, the national executive director for NAN.
“Young people don’t have to live the way that they are living, ducking bullets,” chipped in Iesha Sekou, the executive director of Street Corner Resources.
Reverend and anti-violence activist Vernon Williams told The Observer why he was supporting Occupy the Corners.
“I know that people in this particular area say, why are you standing in that corner right there, and I say, because I know what goes down on this corner,” he declared. “When we leave here, like last week when we left here, there was a shooting. The week before that there was a fight. We know that our presence makes a difference.
“Unfortunately, I’ve done a hundred-plus funerals of young people in the community,” Mr. Williams added, his voice shaking with anger. “This is my nephew’s mother, Reggie Andrews. He was murdered right here, in front of his house on his birthday, and that’s why I’m on this corner.”
A number of parents were present whose children had been killed in shootings. Nathan D. Allsbrooks’s mother and father set up a charity, the Nathan D. Allsbrooks Foundation, in memory of their son, whose life was cut short at fifteen. They were wearing T-shirts with a photograph of Nathan printed on them.
“My son was killed in 2008, just walking by. Someone senselessly came by and…” Cherise Smith trailed off, her eyes glistening with tears. “I see a lot of stuff on the news… It’s all in close proximity, you don’t know until it hits home, how horrific it can be. It ran on the news the whole week.”
Professional basketball player, Jayson Williams, who served an 18-month prison sentence for the manslaughter of Costas Christofi, offered a few words of comfort to Nathan’s father as he made a speech to the crowd.
“Dad, I can feel your pain, I’ve caused a lot of pain in my life and I’m here to try to make as much amends as I can,” Mr. Williams said softly. “I don’t pretend to have all the answers here, I’m still learning as I go, but I can assure you that I want to be a part of this, and anything I can do to reach the young people, and not-so-young people, to help stop the violence in our community, please call on me on me whenever.”
Basketball coach, Chez Williams, was present on behalf Taylonn Murphy, the father of Tayshana “Chicken” Murphy, who was murdered last September.
“She played basketball for me,” Mr. Williams explained. “Apparently, she was out late. Her brother got into a fight with another kid… and they came back after the fight to retaliate, and instead they shot Chicken, because she was outside. Chicken was eighteen. She had offers from all types of colleges.”
Over the weekend, NAN campaigners gathered together all over Manhattan, Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island, lighting up the darkest corners of New York City.