The entire audience gasped when Lyndon Brown, a candidate for the West Ward city council seat, confessed he was twice a victim of violent assault.
“I was carjacked and beaten unconscious right on South 8th Street and Thirteen Avenue,” Brown told a nearly hundred attendees at a recent debate held at the Unified Vailsburg Services Organization on South Orange Avenue.
In a crowded field vying for a seat vacated by disgraced Councilman Joe McCallum, Brown is a familiar face in Newark, and not just because of his local mentoring program. Lately, he’s known for his mission to shine a light on the ever-surging gun violence that is holding the West Ward hostage.
Shortly after the police arrive at the scene of an almost-weekly shooting, Brown is at the crime scene to stream to his online audience. Part of his posts are informative, reporting street closures. Other are unconventional, like when he chased down a would-be thief on Humbolt Street.
Most of the time, though, he sermonizes on how to solve the timely problem of guns. In fact, gun arrests have increased by 360 percent in the 4th Precinct compared to last year, Newark Police Department reported.
As the founder and program director of the High School Academic Support Program, which has been offering services like SAT prep and college admissions counseling to Newark students, Brown’s background as a mentor has informed his approach to making his ward safer — giving children meaningful after-school pursuits.
“Doctors, lawyers, engineers, professional athletes have all come through my program,” Brown told Jersey Digs.
But there is still not a consensus on how to make the ward safer. When a question about public safety came up at the recent debate, six candidates had six different answers.
Dupré Kelly wants more police. Michelle Middleton, a former undercover officer, believes crime is a matter of recidivism. Chigozie Onyema blamed a lack of neighborhood code enforcement. Lavita Johnson, a former detective who lost a brother to gun violence, said she would meet with the police chiefs of neighboring towns because “crime travels.” And former South Ward Councilman Oscar James, who claims to have had the longest period in the city without a homicide in modern history, believes in strengthening block associations.
What makes the epidemic so complicated is that all of these candidates are correct in their own way, according to Daamin Durden, executive director of the Newark Community Street Team.
“I don’t dismiss any way that decreases gun violence,” Durden said. “Environment is a factor, as well as the social dynamics of a person’s upbringing — and all this has to be looked at.”
Durden’s philosophy about gun violence is that it is a public health issue. Food and housing insecurity created by the pandemic drove many Newarkers to criminal activity, he said.
The lockdown also killed off many community meetings that had been working, like the 4th Precinct Community Council, Brown said.
“Every month we met with the captain of the police department and we were able to share with them some of the concerns and challenges,” Brown said. “The community’s voice has been missing for a long time. Not just in the West Ward, but in the entire city.”
The NCST recently introduced outreach workers at two high-risk schools in the West Ward — KIPP Newark Collegiate Academy on Littleton Avenue and the KIPP Newark Lab High School. The organization will also begin outreach to the victims of gun violence, Durden said.
While the residents of the West Ward work to find the right solutions, social justice advocates caution against implementing wrong approaches, like over-policing and mass incarcerations, according to Yannick Wood, director at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.
“The key is not to have knee-jerk responses and reinstate policies that end up further oppressing communities and that don’t keep people safer in the long run,” Wood said.
His institute is fighting a bill being introduced to the NJ State Legislature that could result in more suspects being detained pre-trial on gun-related crimes.
“Our argument is that we don’t need to limit judges’ discretion and to increase the amount of people detained,” Wood said. “The law as it stands works without the new bill.”