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Kalamazoo Marches Against Gun Violence

Leona Larson

Citizens, community leaders, and law enforcement officers took to the streets Saturday, July 11, in the first of three “Marches Against Violence and Peace Smoke” to raise awareness of the recent increase in gun violence in Kalamazoo.

About a hundred people in baby blue t-shirts chanted “hands are meant to heal not to kill” and “peace smoke not gun smoke” as they marched down East Main Street through Kalamazoo’s Eastside neighborhood, ending with a community “peace smoke” barbeque.

“We want to be a part of keeping the peace and keeping it safe here,” said Pastor James Harris of Trenches Community Church, who led the march. “We want our young people to know that the hand - this is my phrase - the hand is meant to heal and not to hurt or to kill, and a lot of conflict can be solved most of the time just by conversation and talking it out.”

There were 13 gun-related homicides in Kalamazoo in 2020. So far in 2021, there have been eight. Concerned churches partnered with members of the Urban Alliance Group Violence Intervention (GVI) team and Kalamazoo's Public Safety Department to organize the marches in neighborhoods across the city.

Credit Leona Larson / WMUK
Participants in the march against gun violence in Kalamazoo hold signs as they walk down East Main

“We’re going to march through the community and try to create some more awareness and let the community know that we need their help,” said Jordan Watts, a support coordinator and GVI street outreach worker. “Afterwards we are going to come here, we’re going to eat. We’re going to enjoy the day, and then we’re going back to the building 'cause we need to come up with more strategies because the statistics show that the number is going up.”

Watts described his job as “chasing people down.” He says increased community awareness will help the GVI team identify at-risk youth before they get into trouble.

“I’m supposed to go into the community and do everything I can to deter people from using gun violence,” said Watts. “We’re out here trying to stop people from committing acts of violence. They’re children and we need your help. We need everybody’s help. It’s going to take the whole community to do it. And we need to love on people and show them that their lives matter and that they’re worth living. They’re worth being alive and free.”

Kalamazoo Public Safety Chief Vernon Coakley and Deputy Chief David Boysen took part in the march along with other officers.

“We want them to see law enforcement as community members because, at the end of the day, they are just members of the community,” said Watts. “I asked them to come in regular clothes today so they are giving us an opportunity to introduce them so the community can see them as regular citizens that want the community to be safe. We want people to see them beyond the badge.”

On the front of many event t-shirts was a photo of Aaron Harris, who was killed by gunfire in May. Crystal Harris is Aaron’s mother.

“Everybody put down the guns," Harris said. "Let’s love one another and put down the guns because people are dying for no reason. Aaron was robbed and they shot him. They could have robbed him without killing them. The things that people are arguing and fighting over or trying to take, it’s not worth a life. So, if our community can keep on marching, keep on showing people love, show people love that need love so that they don’t want to pick up guns because hurt people hurt people. If you are loving the hurt people, they won’t hurt other people.”

Harris' pastor James Harris (no relation) said, “I think when things like this happen, we struggle as a community by keeping silent. And I think we have to step up and let our voice be heard because our voices are powerful.”

The second march will be held on Saturday, July 24, at 1:30 p.m. It will begin at Progressive Deliverance Ministries, 1527 N. Edwards Street in Kalamazoo’s Northside neighborhood. It will end on Woodbury Avenue with a “peace smoke” community barbeque. The final march on Saturday, August 7, at 1:30 p.m. will be at the Urban Alliance, 1009 E. Stockbridge Avenue. The Southside neighborhood march will end back the the Urban Alliance for the final “peace smoke” cookout.

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