People of different age groups, ethnic backgrounds and faiths joined forces last week to convey a single message– peace.
More than 100 people, including children, adults, faith-based leaders, community advocates, city officials and law-enforcement representatives, assembled in a peaceful protest along Atlantic Avenue in north Long Beach on Thursday, July 31 in response to a string of shootings and violent crimes that have occurred in west and north Long Beach in recent weeks.
The event, called a “Peace Walk,” was organized through a collaboration of local nonprofits, including Centro Community Hispanic Association Inc. (C.H.A.) and the newly formed One Long Beach Alliance for Better Communities and Schools.
The walk began at 52nd Street and headed north on Atlantic Avenue, ending at Houghton Park with a “Cultural Friendship Celebration,” which included speeches by community members, cultural performances and information booths.
During the march, participants held up colorful, hand-painted signs while walking along the business corridor and chanting “1-2-3, peace on the streets!” as drivers honked their horns.
Reached by phone, Jessica Quintana, executive director of Centro C.H.A., told the Signal Tribune that the event was “very successful,” adding that it brought people of different ethnicities and cultural backgrounds together through a message of peace.
Quintana said events like the Cultural Friendship Celebration, which converged with the City’s Be S.A.F.E. (Summer Activities in a Friendly Environment) parks program, provides a safe strategy for deterring young people from becoming involved in criminal activities and ending up in the juvenile-justice system or jail later in life.
“We know summertime is a peak time for violence,” Quintana said. “We’ve been having high incidents of shootings, and it’s important, as a community, that we create these safe places that are appropriate for families and communities to engage.”
Throughout the past two months, there has been a handful of shootings and incidents of violent crime in the area. An incident on July 25, for instance, resulted in the fatality of 26-year-old Long Beach resident Olatag Filemoni, who was shot and killed by gunfire in the 3200 block of Baltic Avenue in west Long Beach, according to a police statement. Police stated that there was no indication the incident was gang-related.
Additionally, one of the incidents involved an alleged hate crime, spurring the community to host a forum of interfaith groups at a local church last week as well.
Quintana said that, according to statistics, the city of Long Beach has the highest rate of adult and youth incarceration in California, behind the city of Los Angeles. She said Long Beach also has a high rate of recidivism, or people returning to jail.
Before the march commenced, various faith-based community leaders spoke to the crowd of participants, encouraging them to spread the word of peace and love.
“We have come together to let everyone know that we’re united, we care for each other, [and] we love our city,” said Rev. Leon Wood, founder of the North Long Beach Community Prayer Center, as participants bowed in prayer. “We’re going to walk together to let everyone in north Long Beach know that we want the shootings [and] the problems to stop. We want to join hands and build a fantastic city.”
Laura Merryfield, a local volunteer who works for the nonprofit Building Healthy Communities: Long Beach, said she attended the event to support efforts to keep youth in Long Beach on a positive path.
“I think the message is clear that we’re tired of violence in our streets, [and] we’re marching together to show our support for a better and safer Long Beach and the future of all our children here,” she said while marching. “I wanted to really support that message of unity against violence… I think it’s incredible what these guys are doing here.”
Speaking during the cultural celebration, Jermaine Harris, a member of Black Family United, said he helped found One Long Beach this year as a “new alliance” of nonprofits and community-action groups to work with the Long Beach Police Department and the city prosecutor’s office to come up with ways to reduce crime among youth.
“If we can’t coordinate as one organization and come together, how can we ask our community to do so?” Harris asked the crowd. “So, we’re coming together… to make sure none of our community members fall through the cracks…We can’t let the abnormal become the normal because it regenerates itself. Now our kids are doing the same things that we’re doing… We all have to look inward and fix ourselves and heal ourselves. Sometimes we can’t do that by ourselves, but we can do it together. That’s what One Long Beach is all about.”
Newly elected 9th District Long Beach Councilmember Rex Richardson highlighted the fact that businesses along the corridor on Atlantic Avenue have started investing in their properties through a new business-improvement district while launching a new Uptown Clean Team and Uptown Safe Team.
Richardson encouraged residents to empower themselves and “be the change that you want to see in your community,” adding that local businesses should employ local children to keep the community safe and clean.
“Violent crime is never a good thing,” he said. “We have to work together as one city to address the root of the issues.”
Eighth District Councilmember Al Austin called some of the recent criminal acts “unfortunate” and “cowardly,” adding that, despite the recent rash of crime, “positive actions,” such as business improvements and youth programs and mentoring, are taking place in Long Beach.
“We’re here to take back our community,” he said. “We’re here to send a loud message, loud and clear to the rest of the city, that we’re going to stand for peace and unity.”
Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell, who is running in the November election in a bid to become the next Los Angeles County sheriff, said the City celebrated a more than 40-year low in violent crime last year, adding that violent crime is, so far, down “dramatically” this year from last year. However, he acknowledged that there are “pockets” of the city currently experiencing high incidents of violent crime. He added that the “vision” for Long Beach should be one centered on educating young people to deter gang activity and crime.
“Anybody who gets injured in violence in this city is one too many,” McDonnell said. “We’re seeing people get hurt… Every one of you is a leader, and you have the ability to influence other people, and some of those people might be the ones, who, at the wrong moment, can hurt someone else… Think about the responsibility you have to reach out in your neighborhoods and to be able to touch the hearts of other people… A crime against any one of us is a crime against all of us, and I think too often we forget that piece.”