The Miami Times: “South Dade Woes: Community members, as well as local, state and nationally elected officials, address the rash of shootings”

What was supposed to be a reunion of old and new friends at Naranja Park turned tragic when shots were fired and a young, Black man was killed in the evening of Saturday, Feb. 23. Alston Heath, 21, lost his life after a group of teenagers deliberately opened fire seemingly without reason, witnesses say. Heath’s death is the latest of a rash of shootings that have rattled the South Dade community.

Following Heath’s death, local, state and nationally elected officials addressed the rash of shootings happening in South Dade, as well as the need for common sense gun reform laws.

Last Monday, Miami-Dade County Commissioner Dennis Moss, along with state Rep. Kionne McGhee, held a town hall meeting at Naranja Park to address gun violence at the local level. Last Friday, Congresswomen Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Donna Shalala, of Districts 26 and 27 respectively, shared their efforts to further gun reform legislation in Washinton, D.C.

The rampant violence, mostly propagated by younger individuals, is affecting the Naranja, Richmond Heights, Goulds and Perrine neighborhoods, said Moss.

Elected officials, police officers, pastors, activists and community members convened at Naranja Park, where the shooting took place, to urge individuals to come forth with information about Heath’s death. Tension, frustration and heartfelt testimonies of victims of gun violence abounded at the town hall meeting, the second in less than a month to address issues of violence in the community.

Moss, along with McGhee, answered questions from community members, updated them on Heath’s case, and taught those present how to anonymously provide information to the authorities through the Crime Stoppers of Miami-Dade and The Florida Keys’ system and app.

While speaking about Heath’s death, McGhee noted that most of the violence in the community is propagated by teenagers and young adults.

“The crimes that we are seeing are committed by kids,” McGhee said. “That is the generation we need to reach.” McGhee said he will continue to advocate for the needs of South Dade, but the community needs to be involved at the local level to leverage much-needed change.

“We cannot allow teenage kids to run us out of a community that you built. You built this,” the said.

In the same fashion, Moss opened the floor for community input, but more than open a dialogue, Moss pinned personal accountability on the community members as he heard their concerns. “What would you do?” he asked them.

‘What Would You Do?’

The open floor served as a platform to vent, complain, as well as share resources, information and take responsibility. Community members agreed that the perpetrators are teenagers and young adults at the same time alluding an apparent lack of after-school programs for children and teens.

“It seems like in the south, our kids are getting left behind,” said Romania Dukes. A victim of gun violence herself, Dukes runs Mothers Fighting For Justice, a nonprofit focused on educating the community on the dangers of gun violence.

Like many in the town hall meeting, Dukes pointed out that many of after-school programs fail to meet the unique needs of communities like Naranja, in which many children come from low-income, single family homes, where parents may work long hours. The programs that appeal to the kids the most, those that feature activities such as music production, art and technology-based initiatives, barely extend past the city of Miami and, as a result, the children in South Dade have limited options, most of which revolve around sports, she said. “It is a lot happening in Miami,” she said, “but there is a lot going on here as well.”

Others expressed the lack of community action, saying much is said during the town hall meetings but little change materializes.

Following Moss’ question, Dukes proffered a few possible solutions. She advocated for weekly meetings where people can continue to share information about what is happening in the community.

“I think that we all should just to continue to have weekly meetings, not just do it when someone dies,” she said. Dukes said knocking on doors to let people know about gun violence and the community support available would be helpful as well.

But the most vital thing Moss, McGhee, police officials, Dukes, and other community members said needs to change is the reluctance to share information that may lead to an arrest or a break in an investigation. They say fear and loyalty to an outdated code of street ethics motivate community members to stay silent.

An Outdated Code

“Everyone in this room knows someone who knows someone who committed this crime,” McGhee told the community members at the town hall as he implored them to share information with police officials. “Help us, help you.”

The culture of anti-snitching is big in the Black community, explained Naranja native, Kenny Fountain, 51, as he spoke at the meeting. He made an important distinction between snitching and providing useful information to officials.

“If you see something, say something. A lot of people think that is snitching, but no that is not snitching,” he said, “Snitching is when a criminal tells on another criminal.”

When a concerned citizen, who is worried about the community getting better, sees something happening, he should call the police, Fountain said.

“I am not a snitch; I am a concerned citizen. That’s one thing that a normal everyday citizen needs to understand,” he said.

Like many victims of gun violence, Heath’s mother, Shirlera Goimbert, has not received any useful information that may lead to the killer of her son.

“I have been watching stuff like this happening in the news for years and nobody gets justice, no family gets justice,” she told The Miami Times. “Something’s got to give!”

Dukes, who actively talks to the young people of communities like Naranja, Goulds and Richmond Heights, says that they do not like each other based solely on where they live.

“They are so stuck up on this code,” she said. “These kids don’t know what they are fighting or shooting each other for.”

And though young people may engage in violent acts against each other, parents or adults have the responsibility to come forth with information that can lead to an arrest, Dukes said. “Why would you want to be quiet about someone getting shot or killed?”

Heath’s death is an example of the senseless killings and fear that afflict South Dade’s communities on a daily basis. It is so bad that shots were fired during a vigil held in his honor, according to witnesses. “You can’t have funerals or wakes because everything is getting shot up,” Dukes said.

Moss understands the fear that looms over Naranja and other parts of his district.

“We have these meetings and it is the same thing heard over and over again,” he told The Miami Times. “At the end of the day it is on us, the community has to step up.”

He brought Crime Stopper’s representatives to last Monday’s town hall meeting. The representatives assured the community members that all recorded information is private and kept anonymous. The representatives also walked the people throughout the process of providing information and even how to collect the reward money that is possible to obtain if the provided information leads to an arrest or conviction.

“We have to step forward and identify the individuals that are shooters in the community,” Moss said. “I understand that they are fearful, but you can still call Crime Stoppers and report anonymously. It is in the community to make sure that these young people are not running around with these guns.”

Possible Change Coming

On Friday, Mucarsel-Powell, who is a member of the Judiciary Committee and Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, announced the passage of two major common-sense reforms to curb gun violence in South Florida at a press conference in Goulds Park. The two bills, HR 8 and HR 1112, seek to require universal background checks and close several gun purchasing loopholes, respectively.

“Last week, we lost Alston at 21 years old, a member of our community to a senseless act of gun violence,” Mucarsel-Powell said at the press conference. The bills, which Mucarsel-Powell and Shalala are advancing, could provide “an opportunity to slow down the spread of gun violence that has swept across our country and our communities,” Mucarsel-Powell said. “This is the first step to addressing the epidemic and beginning the healing process.”

Shalala described the legislation as historic; it is the first of its kind in 25 years, she said. “Right now you can walk in and buy all the guns you want with no background checks,” Shalala said. “We can slow down the process.”

Both bills were made their way through the House and are now making their way to the Senate.

Dukes, who has worked personally with Mucarsel-Powell, Moss and McGhee believes in their efforts to improve the gun violence situation of South Dade and is hopeful change will come to that community. “We have seen the worst of the worst,” she said “but they fight our community. They fight hard for our community.”