by Kaara Baptiste
Shootings in the NYPD’s 60th Precinct, covering Coney Island, Brighton Beach and Gravesend, jumped nearly 85 percent last year, spiking to 24 incidents from 13 in 2012. The incidents included two fatal shootings in Coney Island within 48 hours of Christmas Day. Community leaders soon met to discuss collaborative anti-violence efforts, including a “violence interrupter” program, modeled after ones in Chicago and other parts of Brooklyn, to keep feuds from erupting into bloodshed.
The so-called “interrupters” stay close to the streets to diffuse conflicts and steer youth toward a productive path. The Coney Island Step Up program, as it is tentatively called, just received a $15,000 grant from the city.
Ronald Stewart, a Coney Island resident since 1955, is one of these interrupters. Stewart, 63, is a New York State parole officer, serving in Brownsville since 1992. He founded Men United for Change, a mentoring program for adolescent and teen boys. Here, he shares his thoughts on Coney Island’s violence and why intervention is crucial.
Coney Island has long had a reputation for crime. What’s different about the latest spate of shootings?
Coney Island is a unique place. Crime happens everyday here, like other places. But because Coney Island is so small, the deaths are really magnified. The violence happens in intervals, not consistently. It’s mostly young people. They might have a beef; it may be drug related. But ours is much different than other parts of Brooklyn, like Flatbush, Brownsville, because those are bigger places and crime is more consistent. So we’re trying to take some of what [organizations such as Man Up!, in East New York, and Chicago Interrupters] are doing and develop it to something that fits Coney Island.
Violence interrupter programs rely on relationship-building to reach at-risk youth. Why would the young people in Coney Island listen to you?
[These young people] will talk to me before they talk to their mother. As we developed Men United for Change, I realized that we don’t talk to our youth. Other cultures have communication between young and old. But we’ll walk by our young people and not say anything to them. We feel intimidated. We see their pants sagging down; they look tough, they look mean.
I have developed a certain amount of respect among them because I never talk down to them. James Baldwin, the great writer, once said young people don’t listen to what you say, they watch what you do. This generation is quick to tell you, “Don’t preach to me!” They want you to communicate with them.
What kind of intervention does the team of interrupters have in mind?
We’re going to concentrate on doing street walks. We will target the different places where young people congregate – street corners, lobbies in project buildings, McDonald’s, the Chinese restaurants. We’ll pass out fliers with imagery and a few bullet points about what violence does to the community. The message is: “This is your community.” But we also plan to talk to them, just “What’s up? What’s going on, man?” Black males feel so vulnerable because no one talks to them. Then we want to go into the junior high schools.
Why target junior high schools?
These are the age groups where beefs are starting to happen. They’re at the crossroads of their life. They’re very impressionable and easily distracted. We’d like to do assemblies, even bring in former gang members, to let them know violence is not the way to go.
How did community work become such a consistent theme in your life?
In my adolescent years, Coney Island was in transition due to urban renewal. My mother was involved in community work and would take me to the meetings. There’d be a lot of shouting, people organizing protests, making sure people were involved. I was involved with Coney Island Youth Development program, and I became a member of the Nation of Islam in 1965. At the time, the Black Panthers and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were active. Then Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and that caused a movement! And I was part of all that. It gave me a sense of consciousness and activism. And it was a lot of fulfillment for me.
Why did you become a parole officer?
I saw the ad in the Amsterdam News [in 1990] and read the description and qualifications. It talked about dealing with ex-offenders and bringing them back to the community, helping them be better citizens and making the community safe. That’s part of what I did anyway [as director of the Carey Gardens Community Center, at one of Coney Island’s housing projects], so I said “Ohhh…”
How did Men United for Change start?
I thought that young black males are at risk. They are, all over the country, whether it’s violence against each other or from others. So I felt we needed to have a program that addressed the needs of young black males; that’s how Men United for Change started.
In your opinion, why are black males at particular risk?
[Many are] raised in families where they see a lot of fighting but no crisis intervention. Sometimes they take that anger out on their peers or people around them. They must see themselves as being valuable in society. But they don’t see that, so they feel outside. In school, the curriculum is not about them and most of their teachers [white females] have no idea how to relate to them. So they carry a lot of pain and disillusionment. That translates into lashing out in anger and they’ll fight quicker. Even the ones [who are] going to school, trying to navigate society without conflict, feel afraid because they don’t fit in anywhere.
You plan on retiring as a parole officer this spring. What are your plans for retirement?
I want to devote more time to Men United for Change. Plus, I want to travel. I never had the chance to travel, believe it or not [outside of parole duties]. I want to visit Mexico, Brazil, Arizona, to see the Hubble telescope. I love science. I’m writing a memoir about growing up in Coney Island. It’s called The Other Side of Dreamland: Growing Up Black in Coney Island. I want to put more time into that.