Death in Newark
In the midst of a crime wave, Newark activists turn to prayer.

Violent crime is on the rise in Newark, N.J.


Eliana Johnson

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.