Death in Newark

by Eliana Johnson
In the midst of a crime wave, Newark activists turn to prayer.

Every day this month, activists are meeting on a different Newark street corner at 5 p.m. Each marks the spot of a different murder, and they are trying to drive away the “murderous spirits” they believe have taken hold of their city’s young men.

It wasn’t any particular event that spurred them to action, but their month of prayer is aptly timed. Newark saw a murder every day from August 26 to September 3; this week, five men were gunned down in just 72 hours. The violence was mostly gang-related but has left innocent victims in its wake: among others, a 24-year-old woman struck by stray bullets as she chatted with friends and a 20-year-old pizza deliveryman killed in a robbery gone awry.

“We think all of this violence is a public-health issue,” says Cassandra Dock, who, along with her fellow activist Donna Jackson, is organizing the effort. Dock wants the ills of her community treated holistically. “We request the help of our elected officials, but we also are smart enough and wise enough to know that this is going to take some divine intervention, that spirituality needs to be brought back into our community.”

Sometimes, the prayer group is small: just the activists themselves and the pastors who have teamed up in their effort. At others, a few dozen residents climb off their front stoops or emerge from inside their homes to take part. On one Wednesday evening, the young men milling outside a corner store joined those who had come to pray. Men, women, and children stopped traffic, linking hands to form a circle in the middle of a busy intersection.

Inside the circle stood Donna Jackson. Holding a bullhorn, the heavyset Jackson bellowed her prayer: Please God, let us stop killing one another. Drive the evil spirits out of this city. Stop the violence.

Jackson vaulted to national attention last month when her impassioned denunciation of the city’s mayor, Cory Booker, went viral. She told the radio station 1010 WINS, “The crisis for us right now is that everybody’s so worried about Booker that . . . we are forgotten. The people of the city of Newark, we are hurting here.” Of the media, she said, “You guys are going to have to come out in the community and meet with us because unfortunately what has been asked of you is for you guys to cover up what’s going on in this city, and you have done it well, to let this man become a national figure while the people in Newark die off slowly.” Jackson perhaps could have predicted the outcome: 1010 WINS never aired her interview and, on Wednesday evening, Cory Booker was elected to the U.S. Senate.

In Newark, Jackson is a ubiquitous presence. Since the mid-Nineties, she has taken her bullhorn to every corner of the city, protesting the corruption of local officials, state budget cuts in education, the introduction of charter schools, overcrowding in the city’s jails — and the list goes on. In 2003, Jackson and two others led an unsuccessful effort to recall then-mayor Sharpe James, who would eventually serve time in federal prison for conspiring to rig the sale of city real estate to his girlfriend. Jackson doesn’t like Booker, whom she refers to as “Mayor Hollywood,” or Governor Chris Christie much better.

Both Jackson and Dock are full-time activists, and they work for free. Dock is the more soft-spoken of the two, but she is equally distressed by the status quo. Since the time when she grew up in the city, she says, “I’ve seen it going from being a community of caring for one another, from looking out for one another, from parents committed to involvement, to education being of importance, to all those things becoming unimportant.” Like Jackson, she dates her activism to the mid-Nineties, when she saw drugs tearing families apart. “I knew I had to do what I could to try to intervene and prevent that,” she tells me.

On this night, Dock is part of the prayer circle. Inside, Jackson handed her bullhorn over to Pastor Lewis Collier of Newark’s Macedonia Pentecostal Church. He sounds more like a Republican politician than one would expect in this one-party (Democratic) city. “We’re doing this to ourselves,” he says of the violence and the conditions that breed it. “We can’t blame the government or the politicians, the problem starts at home. Our kids don’t have fathers; our young men aspire to be leaders but they have no role models. Gangs have supplanted families.”

I ask Collier how he got involved with the daily prayer. “A young lady was killed down the street from my church,” he says. He heard gunshots when leaving his office on September 3. Bullets intended for somebody else had struck 24-year-old Dejaa Edwards as she talked with friends on a playground. One of the friends frantically approached Collier. “We went and we called the police and they were going to all of the wrong spots. We said no, the shooting came from the playground.” On the scene later that evening Collier found, among others, Jackson, who enlisted him in her effort.

“The reason why these kids are doing what they’re doing and why evil has erupted the way it has is because families are not structured the way they were in the Forties and Fifties and early Sixties,” Collier says. “Babies is having babies. The gentlemen that are impregnating these girls are in jail. They can’t raise families from jail. It’s not the order in which God intended it to be.”

The daily prayer vigils attract an eclectic crowd. There’s Tyrone Muhammad, the leader of Morticians That Care, who one evening placed an open coffin, with a dummy body inside, on a busy street corner. Microphone in hand, Mohammad urged blacks to stop killing one another — and to unite against whites. “How many more black men are going to have to die? How many more black women are going to have to die?” he asked. He invoked the one-time leader of the Nation of Islam: “Elijah Muhammad said that the white man is the devil! The white man is the devil,” and accused the whites of “stealing our organs” for “some cracker in the damn suburbs.”

On another night, I met Earl Best, who introduced himself as “Street Doctor.” He emerged from his car one evening wearing blue medical scrubs and a mask and, another evening, outfitted in army fatigues. I introduced myself; he told me to Google him. I did: Best is a convicted bank robber who spent 17 years in prison. Now, he tries to prevent Newark’s kids from making the mistakes that landed him behind bars.

Members of the Newark chapter of the New Black Panther party have showed up, too — Jackson chastised one young man for not having come sooner — and, after the prayer vigil, blocked off an intersection with police tape and held a rally.

Despite the efforts of Jackson and Dock, the murder rate has ticked up. After plunging in 2008, it has risen each year since, even surpassing the sorry statistics of the Sharpe James era.

But for the rest of the month, you will find Jackson and Dock on a Newark street corner at 5:00 p.m. They wrap the same way every day, with the song “Break Every Chain” streaming from a cell phone to Jackson’s bullhorn and out into the neighborhood. And they sing: “There is power in the name of Jesus, there is power in the name of Jesus, to break every chain, break every chain, break every chain.”

— Eliana Johnson is media editor of National Review.

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