Brian Rushing was browsing a liquor store with some friends when he heard the news:“some guys were just shooting on May Ave.” Then he heard the sirens. Rushing and his friends jumped into their car and followed the red and blue lights to the house where he’d left his nephew mere minutes before. Pushing through the crowd, he ran to the porch. And there lay his nephew, bleeding and dying.
On July 28, Tyshawn “Tink” Lemon, 18, became the third Syracuse homicide victim within that week and the 19th this year. Later that evening, he would be followed by the 20th.
While Syracuse crime rates have continued to drop over the past decade, gun violence has defied that trend in the last three years. According to the Syracuse Police Department, fatal cases of gun violence have jumped from eight in 2014 to 14 in 2016, as of Sept. 4. Non-fatal cases have also increased from 27 to 75.
While the exact cause of this increase can’t be proven, the police department cites gangs and drug sales. Rushing, however, believes the shootings are simply how young men try to prove themselves. "[It's] like a right of passage or a badge of honor," Rushing says. "They end up participating in it to set themselves apart, so that they don't become the hunted ones.”
Lemon didn’t participate. A recent high school graduate with plans to move to Maryland, he attended a career fair the same day he was murdered where he received potential job offers. So far, the police have found no official suspects or motives behind the killing. When he was shot, he was just sitting on his girlfriend’s porch.
"He was a truly good kid," Rushing says. “He was one of those kids with that personality that everybody got along with. I know people say that a lot, but he really did…He was good with people. A lot better with people than I was.”
Lepa Jones, president of the Syracuse organization Mothers Against Gun Violence (MAGV), echoes his sentiments. Jones, with a solemn voice, nearly tears up at the mention of Lemon’s name.
“I had the pleasure of knowing this handsome, amazing, energetic young man,” she says. “That [shooting] touched me.” Lemon’s death “took her back,” reminding her of her own son, Chuck, who was stabbed to death when he was 17 at a Halloween party in 2013.
Jones remembers a day when the death of a young person was “stunning, shocking or unbelievable,” as opposed to the “rapid” or even common occurrence it has become. Like others in the city, she has used her loss as a catalyst to fight increase in violence.
In addition to MAGV, Jones runs a foundation in memory of her son, called Chuck Season 365, which gives scholarships to seniors graduating from Corcoran High School, where Chuck attended school.Though she speaks often about Chuck and honors him always with a tattoo above her heart, her work reaches much further than her son's memory.
“My voice of reason is for all who can’t talk anymore,” she says. “For mothers who might sit silent because they don’t have nothing to say. Chuck Season is because Chuck was my child, but the organization is for all of us. For mothers, siblings, our losses.”
Wearing a custom-made T-shirt celebrating her younger son Lameik’s birthday, Jones believes in celebrating the living as well as the dead—she is enthusiastic when talking about MAGV and what the organization does. She refers to the group, which services both mothers and fathers of violence victims, as her “spiritual sisters.”
“[Losing a child] is not an experience that you want to take on,” she says. “But being that you have no other choice, I want to say it's a beautiful thing to have these other women there. We are strong. We lift each other when we’re down, we support each other, we come out for other families.”
The group also supports similar organizations, such as Team A.N.G.E.L., Avoid Negative Garbage and Enjoy Life, a project created and run by Syracuse resident Eddie Mitchell to help mentor youth. Mitchell, a passionate and charismatic man who grew up in the city, started Team A.N.G.E.L. in 2010.
Mitchell fills his office in the Southwest Community Center with boards plastered with photos depicting victims of violence from the past few decades. He, like Rushing and Jones, has personally lost family and friends “to the streets, to the jails, and to the grave.” Mitchell grew up seeing shootouts and other acts of violence, but being shot in the leg himself was his wakeup call. The bullet missed his artery, and he considers himself blessed to be alive.
“I could have been a memory,” he says. “I could have been on one of the boards I create. I could have been on a T-shirt. People would come see me when I’m dead on my birthday.”
The experience prompted him to help the youth and keep them away from the path toward violence. He created programs for a target age range, 13 to 17. Mitchell puts on special celebrations for holidays—especially Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. He also regularly provides services, like free haircuts, rides to school, and resume printing. On a personal level, he tries to mentor the youth.
“My thing is, life is raw and uncut…when you’re outside, there’s no boundaries there,” he says. “There’s no cutoff of what can happen to you in the street and this community. Once you’re dead, you’re dead. Once you’re gone, you’re gone. I tell kids all the time—this is no Pacman game. This is no Grand Theft Auto. This is real life.”
Mitchell calls himself a “one-man army,” funding the entire operation out of pocket from two part-time jobs and T-shirt sales. This leaves Mitchell with little for himself, but he doesn’t mind. "You can’t put a price on something a kid needs or a price for a kid to succeed," he says.
Mitchell doesn't need to shop for clothes; instead he wears a Team A.N.G.E.L. shirt every day to advertise the group. He recently added a custom-made hat to his ensemble, emblazoned with shiny, inch-high letters spelling out the name of the organization that defines his life.
Mitchell’s reach has extended past Syracuse. He prizes photo collages of celebrities, from Flo Rida to Bill Clinton, and activists, like Trayvon Martin’s mother, wearing his shirts. Mitchell has worked with Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner to get shirts to new, influential people.
“I’m a movement for real,” he says. “I’ve got everybody wearing [my stuff]. Kids, babies, grown adults… Anyone that comes to Syracuse has to meet me.”
Mitchell also attributes much of his work to God, citing prayer and his faith as the driving factors behind the creation and success of Team A.N.G.E.L. In a biblical way, he refers to himself as a “light when there’s darkness.”
“You see so much negativity in the media,” he says. “but they won’t highlight the positive or highlight what’s good… So that’s my thing. You see so much negativity in the community and in the streets that I’m trying to be that light. It’s a struggle.”
Faith in God is a main pillar of Jones’ life too, as well as something that helped her deal with the loss of her son. Although she wishes to know the reasoning behind brutal actions, she is free of anger. “God has the final say in all things,” she says.
In addition to the work of groups like Team A.N.G.E.L. and MAGV, SPD is taking measures to decrease the violence. According to an emailed statement, the department marks specific areas where violence has noticeably increased and sends more resources and officers to them. When the violence is specifically gang related, they use TRUCE, a program partnering with other agencies like social services and probation officers. They target the specific gang and its associates “in an attempt to pressure them into stopping their actions.”
Jones, however, thinks the end of violence will come from a place of kindness and passion. Though many don’t believe it’s possible, Jones is hopeful about a future without senseless murders.
“We must keep giving out positive energy over the negative energy, just hugging and loving on whoever we see…” she says. “We have to control it, we have to stop it, and we have to keep saying enough is enough. We have to be visible. We have to be visible. We have to stand up and stand tall.”
And, as Jones pointed out, this issue spreads far beyond Syracuse. According to GunViolence.com, the number of gun-related deaths and incidents of gun violence in the United States both increased from 2014 to 2015. This year alone, there have already been 10,613 gun-related deaths in the United States.
“We are all faced with violence in our own communities,” Jones says. “It’s not just here, it’s worldwide. We are dealing with the same violence, the same pain, the same heartache, the same agony as so many other people."
Despite noble actions in the Syracuse community, no actions can reverse Lemon's fate.