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Boston residents try to call attention to street violence

Posted by  December 9, 2013 02:07 PM

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By Elizabeth Gillis, Globe Correspondent

I met Jacob Leidolf at the Stony Brook T Station on the border of Jamaica Plain and Roxbury. We walked across the street to talk, past kids playing ball and across a pathway, lined with fall flowers. 

“This basketball park right here, there was a killing,” Leidolf, 24, said. “Some kid who lived right on Boylston Street.”

That shooting occurred in 2008. Jamaica Plain experienced an uptick in street violence during one particularly warm April break. One of the most shocking incidents was when 20-year-old Luis “Mata” Troncoso was killed in broad daylight on the Southwest Corridor Park basketball court. 

Leidolf has lived in this community his entire life. He is now an artist who works in community organizing. And he is a walking database of the area’s violent crime and knew many of the victims personally.

These days, he’s expressing that knowledge in his art. Just after the Boston Marathon bombings, he made an artistic statement that away from the headlines in more affluent Boston, on the streets of neighborhoods like Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, Mattapan and Dorchester, is still being heard, and still being talked about.

For most people around the city, the Marathon’s terror was a time of communal mourning and a moment to come together. But for Leidolf it was something more. He said even after the bombings, too many in the city couldn’t see what was happening just south of Boylston Street. 

“If you look back, the day after the marathon, there was a shooting,” Leidolf said. “And the week after was an incredibly violent week, almost a shooting every day that week. And there was absolutely no media coverage of it.”

The violence that too often shakes the streets of Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, Mattapan and Dorchester is too often invisible to the rest of the city, says Leidolf. 

He was discussing this with his roommate, and long-time creative partner, Jamarhl Crawford just after the bombing when they decided they needed to do something to demonstrate this imbalance in attention to violence in the city. 

Their goal was to put on display a simple fact with complicated origins. Crimes in upscale, white neighborhoods make the front page while crimes in poorer, black neighborhoods rarely get noticed, they say.  They were going to start counting local shootings, starting the day after the Boston Marathon. 

“We were kind of watching this thing,” Leidolf said of the marathon attack. “Every news agency from across the country pulled up to Copley Square and was parking there and all the local papers covered that. But nobody really cared that there were shootings happening in Roxbury.”

Crawford runs an online local news site, the Blackstonian, so the two men already had a public outlet for their project. What they needed was a design to catch people’s attention. 

The result was an illustration identical to the numbered “bibs” marathon runners wear pinned to their shirts. Only the number on this illustrated bib rises every time a shooting is reported in Boston. Their count started the week after April 15, the day of the marathon bombing. By December 6, it had reached 173. 

Every update includes a blog post detailing which shootings were fatal and where they took place. The newest shootings are then added to a Google Map kept up by the pair and linked to the blog post. 

“We didn’t expect the shootings were going to stop or something,” said Crawford. “We just used it to point out what we viewed as hypocrisy and a discrepancy that was just too easy to point out. And then hope the public would chime in at that point.” 

The community did speak out. But for a long time, city officials seemed not to notice, said Crawford and Leidolf. After requesting meetings with Mayor Menino and former Police Commissioner Ed Davis throughout the summer, more than 100 community members took the message to City Hall on August 6 for the “Rally for Solutions to Violence.” They delivered a letter, but still were unable to meet with Menino.

"It is unfortunate that the same misguided and misinformed rhetoric continues to enter the discussion,” said Menino’s Deputy Press Secretary John Guifoil in response to the criticism. “Mayor Menino has a 30-year record, as mayor and city councilor, of responding to the needs of the communities of Boston."

Law enforcement and a number of politicians did respond on Oct. 7 at the Kroc Community Center in Dorchester. Community leaders, political candidates, BPD representatives, officers, residents and victims’ families met for hours in an open forum to discuss an approach to incidents of violence in the community. 

Attendants spilled out into the halls of the cafeteria style room. And those in attendance included some of the most influential community leaders in Boston, including John Barros, Charles Clemons, state Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry, District 7 City Councilor Tito Jackson, and then mayoral candidate Marty Walsh. It was organized by State Rep. Carlos Henriquez and the Boston Police Department.

Reporters at the event were asked not to record or quote exactly what was said so that participants could speak freely. But the passion in the room was palpable. Speaker after speaker talked about specific incidents that they had personally witnessed. Some residents ended their testimony in tears and hysterics. Councilors stood by with tissue boxes and a comforting embrace. 

Bill Linksy, superintendent-in-chief for the Boston Police Department, was one of the main speakers at the event. He addressed questions from local residents and victim’s families. 

Many members of the community expressed the same sentiments as Leidolf and Crawford. They felt there was disconnect between officers and the community. Linsky said bridging this gap is one of the most important steps in combatting crime. He handed out his card, stressing that his personal cell phone number is available to everyone.    

“Unfortunately, there are times when we need people to come forward and tell us what happened,” Linsky said following the forum. “And part of what we’ve been trying to do for the past seven years is build trust with the community to make sure that they feel comfortable that they can come to the police, give that information, and that there’s not going to be negative repercussions for their family.”

Sentiments in the room were conflicted. Most attendees asked for more from their representatives in the same breath that they thanked specific officers and councilors for the work they had done. At times it seemed as though a community relationship with the department had potential, despite its weaker links. 

But Leidolf stresses that the work isn’t done, and that’s why he and Crawford will continue the project.  

 “The marathon really kind of crystallized it and showed that wow, this city really can react to violence and tragedy when it happens,” Leidolf said. “Well if we can in forty-eight hours muster 10,000 officers and a massive manhunt and close the city down can’t we pay a little bit more attention to this violence that’s already happening?” 

Many community members at the forum said that they still feel disenfranchised, like their police force does not belong to them or properly represent them. 

Meanwhile, Leidolf and Crawford are keeping up the pressure. 

After the August rally, they created a second graphic. In it is a picture of Mayor Menino and Ed Davis, with a sign counting both the number of shootings and shooting fatalities since the community visited City Hall. 

Recognizing that change is coming to City Hall, Davis and Menino have since been replaced with a third graphic that shows Mayor-elect Marty Walsh behind the number of shootings and killings since the August City Hall visit. This sign ends with a question “They never responded. Will Mayor Elect-Walsh?” 

Walsh’s press secretary, Kate Norton, suggests the answer will be “yes.”

“Mayor-Elect Walsh discussed public safety extensively throughout the course of the campaign, specifically about not just addressing violence but also dealing with trauma in our neighborhoods,” said Norton. “After he is sworn in on Jan. 6, his very first meeting as the Mayor of Boston will be around addressing violence in Boston, bringing all of the stakeholders together to map out a comprehensive approach to keep our kids and communities safe.”

Leidolf said he’s not sure where his campaign will go from here, but he and Crawford will keep trying. On Dec. 4 Boston Police reported gunfire at 8:30 p.m. on Munroe Street in Roxbury. The victim was taken to the hospital with a grazed leg, and the count rose to 173. 

The chill of an early winter has had one apparent benefit. While the shootings have not stopped, they have certainly slowed. 

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and Emerson College.

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