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Hundreds Of Hartford Residents Turn Out Against Violence

Down the hill from the state Capitol, Cheryl Lawrence stood in a cluster with her family, her nephew's face staring out from the shirt on her chest.

Joel Hightower. He was celebrating his 20th birthday when he was shot dead 10 days earlier, the city's 12th homicide victim of the year.

"Our family is still grieving," Lawrence said. "We needed to be here for my nephew."

Bushnell Park on Monday night filled with people around them - the audience for a vigil that was part outdoor concert, part neighborhood rally, part solemn, part hope.

"Hartford Cares," organized in the wake of high-profile violence of the past month, drew several hundred people to the sprawling lawn as musicians and dancers performed, speakers offered stories of lives transformed in Hartford, community groups solicited volunteers and more than a few visitors offered their own prescriptions for change.

"We need to teach kids about love, teach kids about the value of life," said Lawrence, of Bloomfield. "There are ways to deal with violence without pulling out a gun."

She didn't know whether showing up at the park Monday night would change a thing. But she did know that doing nothing wouldn't make a difference, either.

"Just to see all of us together - black, white, Puerto Rican, Asian - and you can see each other's faces," she said. "I don't know if this will make a difference, but you have to start somewhere."

Ted Carroll, who organized the event at the request of Mayor Eddie Perez, said Hartford Cares is meant to begin conversations about the city and commitment to it from those in the area. But first, the city needed healing, said Carroll, president of Leadership Greater Hartford.

Many of the concerns are hardly new. For years, young people in the city have been killed - over turf, over drugs, over nothing at all, Carroll said.

But in recent weeks, two high-profile cases have brought a renewed sense of anguish about the violence and everything that feeds it. On June 2, former Deputy Mayor Nicholas Carbone, 71, a longtime city activist, was beaten and robbed on his morning walk. Days earlier, one of two cars racing up Park Street hit 78-year-old Angel Arce Torres, leaving him paralyzed. Neither driver stopped.

A video clip of the hit-and-run, showing onlookers who seemed to do little to help as Arce Torres lay in the street, captured national attention. Police Chief Daryl K. Roberts said the crimes illustrated the city's "toxic" relationship with itself.

And the crime numbers continue upward. A 21-year-old man shot in the abdomen on Thursday became the city's 13th homicide victim. One hundred people had been shot in the city this year as of June 21, one-third more than during the same period last year.

"These sort of things are happening throughout our city, and it's causing people to live in fear, and it's causing people to lose hope," Carroll said. "It's causing mistrust to permeate a lot of our relationships."

"While most of us know that's not all of who we are as a community and that we are far better than that, we still have to acknowledge that these are real issues and they cause great pain, and they can't be solved by any one person," he said. "It requires the entire community to find a way to get involved."

So on Monday evening, community groups set up under two large tents to pass out fliers, spread the word about what they do, maybe snag some new volunteers.

"A lot of people just want to put their hands up and say, 'What can I do?' Well, this is what you can do," John Hayes said, pointing to the booths of nonprofits. "Here's where you can make a difference."

Hayes lives in Lebanon, but teaches at Hartford Public High School; in the fall, he will be the dean of the school's new law and government academy. He sees the way the city is perceived in how his students see themselves, the protests he hears if he gives a tough assignment - "What do you expect? This is Hartford" - or the discomfort students feel when they leave the city for field trips, worried about being seen as bad kids from Hartford.

His class talked about the video of Arce Torres' hit-and-run during the last week of school.

Almost instinctively, they seemed to recognize that there was more than the video initially showed - people probably called 911, it probably was not as bad as it looked.

He tries to counteract the negative, remind his students that they're just as smart as students from Glastonbury or anywhere else, that they can change the world for the better. As he scanned the crowd, he took a measure of excitement from what he saw: his students, coming out on their own. "That's hope," he said.

Nearby, at a table advertising the city's Neighborhood Revitalization Zones, Dore Thomas was also hoping for a new perspective for her fellow city dwellers. "I think we get down on ourselves," she said.

Thomas has lived in the city for 18 years, and perceptions haven't changed in that time. In part, she says, it's the media, always telling the bad stories that overshadow anything good. But she wonders whether it's also ingrained. Perhaps people get frustrated waiting for big changes, such as new city services or a dramatic increase in the number of police on the streets.

Thomas, vice president of the West End Civic Association, said things might be better if people appreciated the smaller improvements that happen in every neighborhood. "The more positive we are, the better it will be," she said.

Many visitors expressed their hopes for Hartford on a "Wall of Commitment," poster boards set up for people's thoughts.

One person, named Rita, pledged to pick up garbage and smile at everyone who crossed her path.

"I care for Hartford and the people in it please stop all the violence!" 11-year-old Jaileene Arriaga wrote, punctuating her message with two hearts.

Kelvin Lovejoy handed out photocopied fliers for his group, Hartford Youth Empowerment, with a large stop sign amended to read "STOP KILLING." He appreciated everyone coming together, but he was not sure what it would mean. "The question is, what happens after the events?" Lovejoysaid.

Lovejoy said he would go back to working with young people, trying to reach out before more violence occurs. But he questioned what the powers of the city - the corporations, the city council, the mayor - would do to help.

To Lovejoy, the mindset of the city seemed to be "very developed downtown, a very undeveloped out-of-downtown." It must be one community, one neighborhood, he said.

Astrid Robitaille came from an hour away, but with a similar hope. A Winsted resident, Robitaille brought her husband, 11-year-old daughter and dog to the vigil, an event she had anticipated since she first saw it advertised. She administers an adult education program in West Hartford and knows many people who have been affected by violence in the city.

"After a tragedy, there's always a sound bite," she said. She hopes that in the future there will be more. When a tragedy occurs, she said, people in one neighborhood tend to become outraged.

Robitaille hopes people will start to recognize the city as one - for violence that affects one part of the city to resonate elsewhere, for residents to feel part of one city.

"I hope this is the start of it," she said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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