A scarlet red electric guitar would normally seem out of place at a youth violence forum, but Monday evening the bloodstained instrument served as a symbolic reminder of a young man’s life cut short.
Eighteen-year-old Blake Jimerson clutched it in homage to his fallen friend Katerius “Terry” Moody throughout the “Just Squash It” Emergency Town Hall Meeting, an event prompted in part by the murder of the Benjamin E. Mays High School graduate on June 26th at an East Point block party. The 18-year-old crooner was fatally shot during an impromptu performance; four other teens were wounded.
“This is the last thing Terry had on him before he died,” Jimerson, a recent Washington High School graduate, told the audience of more than 100 about his friend who had planned to enlist in the U.S. Marines next month. “The blood is still on it.”
The meeting at B.E.S.T. Academy, an all-male middle school in Northwest Atlanta, was touted as an opportunity for Metro Atlanta youth — and those who work directly with them — to come together to propose solutions. Nearly two dozen young people sat on the stage alongside adult panelists, a mix of representatives from the court system, government agencies and non-profit youth organizations. Organizers took comments and questions from the audience. Attendees also had the opportunity to share their thoughts via short survey forms that organizers say will eventually be compiled into a report to be shared with local policy makers and elected officials.
Fourteen year-old Kasadera Todd says the event lived up to its billing.
“I think it turned out great; everyone’s voice got heard,” he said. “I hope the politicians are listening so that they can go back to their office with ideas on ways to help the community.”
Byron Watkins could relate to the topic. Watkins, now a Boy Scout at B.E.S.T., says he and his mother relocated to Atlanta from California to evade violence.
“I’m only 14 years old and I was stabbed,” said Watkins, “People don’t believe me when I say that I have been stabbed before but it’s true. I learned a lot tonight about how parents should act. Parents need to take the lead more with their kids.”
Parent Margaret McBride, who attended with her daughter Sydnee, was equally pleased with the outcome.
“I think this can be the start of a movement to protect our kids from violence,” she said, “I was moved by what I heard; specially the passion I heard from the kids.”
More cohesiveness among youth organizations, implementing strategies to improve communication between parents and children, expanded mentoring programs and brainstorming on ways for well-meaning adults to become more approachable to the youth they serve were among the many solutions suggested at the event that lasted more than two hours.
Untreated mental health issues and limited educational opportunities were among the reasons cited as the root causes of youth violence, along with unaddressed emotions related to chronic poverty, lack of parental involvement, physical/mental abuse and an overall lack of community support.
“Violence is the same as teen pregnancy, teen abortion and low educational attainment – it’s just a symptom of a bigger problem,” said panelist Dr. Eddie Morris, founder and president of Men of Destiny, a non-profit organization that enhances the educational experiences of African-American children. “A lot of these kids [who are violent] are angry because they’re born into poverty; some of them are angry because they don’t have a relationship with their parents, some are angry because they were molested. We need to talk to our kids and tell them that they were born with a purpose in this world.”
Panelist Ruby Thomas, a juvenile judge pro tem in DeKalb County, feels video games contribute to the problem.
“Video games desensitize you from the reality of injuring somebody, never to be seen again,” she said. “We can’t control our kids, but we can support them.”
Organizer Tanya Culbreth, the home-school parent liaison for B.E.S.T., says she coordinated the event as a follow up to the town hall meeting Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed called, following a recent outbreak of teen violence during the popular Screen On The Green event at Atlanta’s Piedmont Park. She felt that forum did not include the voices of enough young people and adults who run youth organizations.
Culbreth says she’s optimistic that Monday’s event will help mobilize and inspire members of the community to get more involved with preventing youth violence. “This is not the end [of the dialogue],” she said. “This is only the beginning.”
Chandra R. Thomas is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Atlanta Magazine and Fox 5 Atlanta. She has also served as a Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow at Atlanta’s Carter Center and as a Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow at The Ohio State University.