Candidate drops out of primary after her son is shot and killed

Photo by Chris Sykes
Pallbearers carry Rashawn Simmons’ casket out of Vailsburg Assembly of God Church on South Orange Avenue in Newark, near the border it shares with East Orange, on Thursday, March 28, following his funeral service. Simmons was the son of Passion 4 Purpose non-profit charity founder Naimah Hall and, according to the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, he was shot and killed on Main Street on Sunday, March 17, making him the city’s second official homicide of 2019.

EAST ORANGE, NJ — Naimah Hall, founder of the Passion 4 Purpose nonprofit organization and a former East Orange Recreation Department employee has decided not to run for one of the two available 2nd Ward City Council seats in the June Democratic Party primary following the shooting death of her son, Rashawn Y. Simmons, on Main Street on Sunday, March 17.

“I’m the mother of Rashawn Simmons, who was gunned down in the city of East Orange. I have been strong in this community with My Brother’s Keeper, My Sister’s Keeper, Passion 4 Purpose Community Outreach, the Dean Britton Jr. Community Center, on to the East Orange Public Schools speaking to the kids. I’m always willing to go above and beyond for my community,” said Hall on Friday, March 29, at Rashawn’s repast, following his cremation earlier that day. “My son, Rashawn Simmons, always called me the Oprah Winfrey of the city, because he always felt that I was helping and doing for everybody. I got a thousand petitions, but I lost my 19-year-old son. I feel like, while I was busy trying to save everybody else, I didn’t save my own boy.”

On Monday, March 18, acting Essex County Prosecutor Ted Stephens and East Orange Police Chief Phyllis Bindi announced that Simmons’ fatal shooting is being investigated by the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office Homicide-Major Crimes Task Force, which includes detectives from East Orange.

“At approximately 9 p.m. yesterday, Simmons was discovered in a motor vehicle, suffering from an apparent gunshot wound, in the 400 block of Main Street in East Orange,” said Stephens on Monday, March 18. “He was pronounced dead at University Hospital at 10:15 p.m. The investigation is active and ongoing. No arrests have been made.”

Simmons’ funeral service was in the Vailsburg Assembly of God Church on South Orange Avenue in Newark, near the border it shares with East Orange, on Thursday, March 28, thanks to support from Newark and Mayor Ras Baraka. Hundreds of people of all ages came to pay their respects.

Although no cell phones, cameras or video equipment were allowed inside the church during the funeral service, the space was filled to capacity, forcing hundreds of mourners to wait outside for hours, before they could go inside to view the body.

According to Hall, 1st Ward Councilwoman Amy Lewis helped her organize her son’s repast, getting permission to host it in Fellowship Civic Center.

According to the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office and city spokeswoman Connie Jackson, Simmons’ death was the second homicide of the year in the city. Hall is a veteran community organizer and charitable service provider who has been involved with a number of notable initiatives in the city, including serving Thanksgiving dinner at the YMCA; organizing an anti-violence march featuring the Rev. Al Sharpton in 2017, after Irvington Neighborhood Improvement Corporation Director Deborah Simpkins’ son, Dyshawn L. Simpkins, and Keeayre Griffin, both of Newark, were shot and killed June 9, 2017; co-hosting the Joi’s Angels annual Holiday Dinner and Toy Giveaway; launching the Dean W. Britton Computer and Community Center in the public housing complex in the city’s Dodd Town section, and other events.

Britton was the son of current 1st Ward Councilwoman Amy Lewis. He died during a visit home for the holiday break from his studies at Cheyney University of Pennsylvania. Hall collaborated with former Mayor Lester Taylor, the City Council and Recreation Department, Carthage Realty Advisers and the Dodd Town Apartments complex to open the community center in his honor.

Lewis said that when she learned Hall’s son had been killed, she immediately took steps to reach out to her. Hall said she spoke with Lewis on Friday, March 22, and the councilwoman hugged her and expressed condolences for her son’s death.

“I love Naimah. So sorry for her loss,” said Lewis on Friday, March 25.

Hall thanked Lewis and other city officials, including 5th Ward Councilwoman Alicia Holman and City Clerk Cynthia Brown, for their support. Initially, on Thursday, March 21, during an interview with the Record-Transcript, Hall said she had not been contacted by Mayor Ted Green, and Jackson admitted she had been aware of the identity of the city’s second homicide victim on Monday, March 18, when asked for a comment about it by the Record-Transcript.

“Yes I did know,” said Jackson on Thursday, March 21.

According to Hall, Green eventually reached out to her Tuesday, March 26.

“May God guide and comfort you and your family,” said Green in a text message to Hall on Tuesday, March 26. “All praises are due to God. We are here for you. Keep the faith.”

Hall said her loss is too raw for her to continue trying to run for the 2nd Ward council seat this year. According to Brown, the reason there are six seats being contested in the 4th Ward is because former Councilwoman Tyshammie Cooper was selected to fill Timberlake’s old seat on the Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders in last year’s November general election.

East Orange Democratic Committee and Essex County Democratic Committee Chairman Leroy Jones selected Garret-Ward to fill Cooper’s old 4th Ward seat and she was officially sworn in at the annual City Council Reorganization Meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 1.

“The 4th Ward Councilwoman is Tameika Garrett-Ward,” said Brown on Wednesday, Jan. 2. “She was selected by the Democratic County Committee … she will have to run at a special election at the June primary election.”

But Hall said she’s officially out of the running for Cooper’s former 2nd Ward seat.

“I’m stepping out. I am officially out of this race. I will still help those who need me until I go, because I will be leaving this city, because that’s just what I do and who I am. But my heart is heavy,” said Hall. “I don’t think anybody will ever understand what I feel. I don’t think anybody will ever know what I’m going through, because anything I did for the city, my kids supported it. We were going to do a ‘Ball Up and Guns Down’ charity basketball tournament, which we were not able to do, because the city would not allow it. Here we were, bringing awareness about guns, but my son was gunned down.”

“This case is still under investigation,” said Jackson on Monday, March 18. “We are working with the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office to gather details related to the shooting.”