CLAXTON — About 60 people gathered Thursday night at Claxton’s First African Missionary Baptist Church to say “enough” after the deaths of two young black men in gun violence nearby in the past two months.
In fact, the mobile home outside of which Elon Green, 26, was shot Oct. 18 is about three blocks up Church Street from First African and just beyond the city limits.
Green was shot during what Evans County Sheriff Randall Tippins described as a late-night gathering where drugs and alcohol were present. That same day, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation charged Levi Kennedy Jr., 27, of Claxton, with murder.
In an unrelated incident, Bryan Mobley, 30, was shot and killed around 2 a.m. Dec. 2 inside a house on Claxton’s Oak Street. Claxton police detained a “person of interest” in the shooting, but so far no one has been charged with the homicide.
“As pastors and leaders of this community, we just don’t want to wait for the third killing to do something,” Pastor Eddie Ball said. “I know both sides, the families of the victims and the families of the suspects. We all suffer because it’s a loss to the neighborhood.”
Ball, who organized Thursday’s event as an NAACP mass meeting, is the pastor of New Hope Baptist Church near Jesup. But he also serves as an associate pastor of St. Luke Baptist Church in Claxton and is a Claxton resident. He noted that the meeting would not deal with details of the shootings. Members of both victims’ families attended.
Instead, the meeting focused on gun violence as a local and national problem and related it multigenerational poverty and a lack of positive futures.
As lead speaker, Georgia NAACP President Dr. Francys Johnson placed the Claxton deaths in the context of the February 2012 death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., and the numbers of young Americans killed in shootings each year. Attorneys for George Zimmerman acknowledged that he shot Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old, but a jury in June found Zimmerman innocent of murder, based on a self-defense claim.
“I think our outrage against George Zimmerman was true and correct, our outrage against the Florida judicial system is true and correct, but our outrage must be directed at gun violence,” said Johnson, a Statesboro lawyer and pastor. “That was a culprit that was not mentioned as often as it needed to be mentioned.”
A National Association of School Psychologists fact sheet circulated at the meeting included data from the Centers from Disease Control and Prevention. CDC reports showed that 2,711 infants, children and teens died of shootings in the United States in 2010.
Not all were murders. But of 1,982 Americans ages 10-19 slain that year, 84 percent were killed using firearms, according to the school psychologists association. Annual statistics, Johnson said, add up to more than 116,000 American children and teenagers dead in gun violence since the year he was born, 1979.
“Gun homicide is the leading cause of death among black teens between the ages of 15 and 19, and when you look at white teens the same age, they’re more likely to die of accidents in automobiles, and then gun homicides,” Johnson said.
So, he said, gun violence is “not a black or white issue. This is an issue that plagues all of our communities.”
When organizers asked Claxton residents affected by gun violence to speak, one who stood up was Verna Joyce, an Evans County NAACP Executive Board member and relative of both the late Bryan Mobley and the man jailed after his shooting.
“In the last recent shooting, I’m on both sides of the family,” Joyce said. “I hurt for my nephew and I hurt for my son’s second cousin. There are things that we need to do, and it’s sad that it took two within months to get to this point.”
Jerome Woody, a former Claxton City Council member, said that an approach to systemic violence should work on issues such as the high school dropout rate, teen pregnancy and a lack of jobs.
When asked to speak about what can be done, Claxton Police Chief Edward Oglesbee Jr., an ordained minister, said that Christian teachings, directed at changing lives, hold the answer.
“If you want to change Evans County, then it starts with Jesus first,” Oglesbee said.
Johnson asked Oglesbee if Claxton and Evans County have a gun buy-back program or other efforts to encourage people who shouldn’t have guns to give them up. They don’t, Oglesbee acknowledged. But he said he does not believe guns are the problem.
Instead, Oglesbee suggested a program to teach young people how to use guns properly “and to respect other people’s lives.” This could provide an opportunity for positive interaction between youth and law enforcement officers, Johnson suggested. But he also advocated a buy-back or turn-in program.
“Some of these young people don’t need no firearms,” Johnson said. “The firearms they have are illegal, and they need to have some safe space where they can surrender their guns without fear of prosecution.”
Oglesbee agreed that many of those who commit gun violence have been convicted of previous felonies and so cannot legally possess firearms. Claxton police welcome any information from the community about crimes and illegal weapons, he said.
In a follow-up interview, Oglesbee said that, if advised by the district attorney’s office that they could do so legally, Claxton police might accept weapons surrendered by felons without arresting them. But he said he does not believe a buy-back program would work.
Other speakers talked about programs that deal with educational opportunities, such as after-school and summer programs at the nearly Evans County Community Center Inc. Johnson encouraged the Evans County NAACP Branch to form a Youth Division and participate in the NAACP’s ACT-SO, or Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics, for high school students.
Johnson announced an ongoing effort, with assistance from the state NAACP, to deal with gun violence and its underlying causes in Evans County. He appointed Ball to lead the local task force and said he would be assisted by NAACP Area Coordinator Carlos Brown Jr.
A march against violence is being planned, and neighborhood watch efforts are being considered, Ball said.
Meanwhile, as of Friday morning, nobody had been charged with Bryan Mobley’s killing. Larone Omar Williams, 24, of Reidsville, was arrested after the shooting on a parole violation warrant and remains in jail. Oglesbee identified Williams as a person of interest in the shooting, as previously reported by The Claxton Enterprise.
The GBI had a warrant pending to charge Williams with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, GBI Special Agent-in-Charge Catherine Sapp said Wednesday. However, the agency at that point had no homicide charge filed or pending. Oglesbee said the case will be presented to a grand jury.
Sapp declined to disclose the number of bullets that struck Mobley or the type of gun used, citing the ongoing investigation.
Investigation into the Oct. 18 gathering where Green was killed led both to Kennedy’s murder charge and the arrest of another man on drug charges, Sheriff Tippins said.
Reginald Hayward, 34, was arrested Nov. 1 at a Claxton residence, on River Street, on charges of possession of cocaine, possession of MDMA (Ecstasy), intent to distribute marijuana and felony marijuana possession. He was not involved in the shooting but was reported to have brought drugs to the gathering, Tippins said.
Tippins was unable to attend Thursday’s meeting, but said he would welcome a neighborhood watch or similar efforts to prevent violence.