Flint, MI— Volunteers gathered around Pastor Jeffrey Hawkins and his wife April Cook-Hawkins’ black BMW in the small parking lot at Ballenger Park Aug. 13, awaiting instructions on how they could help stop gun violence in the city.
The couple had organized a 24 hour ceasefire event across Flint in response to the five shooting deaths in the city in the past week, which included the death of a fifteen-year-old. Hours before the ceasefire started, a sixth body had been found at Grand Traverse and Seventh Street, though no further details were available from police at press time.
The ceasefire event included volunteers visiting participating businesses across the city to talk to residents about gun violence. Volunteers also posted outside locations where young people might gather, like liquor and party stores, to talk with them about the city’s growing gun violence and how the community might help to end it.
Hawkins called Flint Police Chief Terence Green, and, through car speakers, Green told the roughly 20 person crowd that law enforcement really needed the ceasefire and their support to help break “the cycle of violence we’re under at this time.” He gave tips to keep people safe—remain non-confrontational, for example—and told them to call the police if necessary.
Cook-Hawkins emphasized that volunteers needed to express empathy, not frustration, in their conversations with youth. She listed locations to check in on throughout the evening, including places where volunteers were already positioned.
One volunteer, Bill Downer, said he and the rest of Head Turners Car Club would just be cruising the city, landing at one of the designated event spaces, Skateland.
“We’re here because on the news media… we’re seeing that one of the increases (in gun violence) was due to cars: fast cars. We’re fast cars,” he said, “but we don’t carry guns. My whole thing is if we can catch someone’s attention for five seconds—just five seconds—their attention changes the whole the rest of the night.”
Antoine Smith, a deacon at Prince of Peace, prayed over the crowd before the volunteers began to make their way to postings at liquor stores, bars, churches, and barbershops throughout Flint.
Tarnesa Martin, a trauma nurse at Hurley Medical Center, passed out pamphlets on the hospital’s trauma recovery center and reminded other volunteers to withhold judgement when speaking with young people. She reminded volunteers thay they don’t know what brought a young person into violence.
“No one wakes up, no one is born saying, ‘I want to be a killer,’” she said to another volunteer. “It’s circumstances that put them there.”
A few hours later, across the street from Liquor Corner at McClellan and Saginaw on Flint’s north side, volunteers from the House of Capernaum held signs reading “PRAYER” while cars passed by and honked.
The area has been the site of multiple instances of gun violence over the past few years, including a shooting on Juneteenth just one block away.
Pastor Lessie Lee and his family, along with church elder Michael Richard, said they volunteered for the ceasefire so they could pray with the city’s young people.
“We’ve had people stop in for prayer, and it’s very rewarding,” said Richard. “You’re not even judging, you’re just trying to be a help, trying to make a difference in a person’s thought process.”
“This is the only thing that’s going to change the people’s heart,” added Pastor Lee. “We got a lot of politicians, you got everybody wanting to change people’s behaviors. But if you don’t get them to change their thought process and their heart first, then their behavior is not going to change.”
Lee said volunteers from the Church Without Walls would be taking over from his team at 10 p.m. Those volunteers were meant to stay onsite through 7 a.m. on Aug. 14.
Inside the liquor store, residents were supportive of the ceasefire and talking to young people, though they weren’t convinced it would make the difference.
Brandon Watt, 35, said he used to be one of the kids the volunteers were trying to speak with tonight. The youth today, he said, “are doing a whole different thing, though.”
“Back when I was growing up, my O.G.’s, man, if it was anything about shooting, it was a real reason. Somebody shot a rival, somebody was trying to kill him, somebody was trying to hurt his family. Now I can go on Facebook and say ‘fuck you’ and you’re going to want to knock my head off,” Watt said, gesturing a shooting motion with his hand.
He said kids need more activities to do and the city’s infrastructure on the north end should reflect that.
“They need more opportunities out here,” Watt said, “They’re tearing everything down and not building the right shit.” He added that more places to help Flint’s youth with literacy would be a good place to start.
Hawkins and Cook-Hawkins spent the night stopping at the various event locations, making announcements about the ceasefire over dance club speakers and shaking hands, talking, and hugging people in parking lots around Flint.
One of their last stops of the evening was Rube’s Bar and Grill on Flint’s west side. After an effort to quiet the crowd of revelers, Hawkins made his final announcement of the evening at around 11:30 p.m.
“If we don’t talk about this, and deal with these issues, we’re going to keep burying our babies, and it’s got to stop,” he said. “I don’t care what we’ve been through, nobody wants to see a 16-, 15-, 14-year-old die from gun violence.”
He said that Rube’s Bar and Grill would be hosting a forum, including free food, at 12 p.m. Aug. 21 in order to have a greater discussion about how the community could “increase the peace.”
The 24-hour ceasefire event is ongoing until 7 p.m. today, Aug. 14. There will be closing remarks and a balloon release at Ballenger Park at 6 p.m., according to Cook-Hawkins.