East Orange vigil organizers remain vigilant on call for action against gun violence

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EAST ORANGE, NJ — On Monday, Oct. 24, the East Orange City Council held its regularly scheduled meeting at City Hall — the same day marking three weeks to the day that 16-year-old Letrell Duncan, a good student and standout basketball player at East Orange Campus High School, was murdered. To keep the focus on this tragedy and to ask what the council’s plans were to address youth gun violence, a couple of the organizers of the Peace Vigil for Letrell Duncan held on Oct. 10 attended the meeting. 

The Oct. 10 vigil had been convened by Dr. Cynthia Lewis in collaboration with the Mayor Ted R. Green office, the People’s Organization for Progress, and many anti-violence activists from the East Orange and Newark areas. It was hosted by Newark peace activist and Weequahic High School history teacher Bashir Muhammad Ptah Akinyele. In his career, Akinyele has lost more than 40 students to community violence. 

Family members of the student-athlete were in attendance at the Oct. 10 vigil, including Pierre Duncan, Letrell Duncan’s father, and Pamela Courten, Letrell Duncan’s grandmother. At the vigil, Courten expressed unimaginable pain over the senseless death of her grandson, saying “It hurts to my core. I can’t sleep at night. I’m not the only one. It’s all over the country. How do these kids get guns?”

Two of the organizers of the peace vigil attended the council meeting on Oct. 24 to ask questions similar to the one posed by Courten. During the open hearing section of the meeting, Lewis, a board-certified adolescent medicine specialist, stated that “gun violence is a public health emergency” and asked the council: “What is being done about the bodies that keep lining the streets of East Orange?” She also queried “In addition to the police, are there anti-violence prevention groups that work with teens and go out like peacemakers do?” 

Lewis also asked: What evidence-based curriculum was being used in the schools from K-12 to teach youth about resilience, healthy relationships and conflict resolution? What city, state, grant or private funding was being allocated for violence prevention programming? And, with parental consent, is districtwide depression screening being offered to students using the validated PHQ-9 screening tool?

“If we had a trauma doctor that wasn’t able to stop the flow of (blood from) gunshot wounds, he would be terminated, and, if the chairman of the department could not turn the department around, he would be terminated,” Lewis said. “So I would like to know, what does accountability look like, specifically for the guns still coming in the streets? If they are not being stopped, who is being held accountable?”

City Council Chairperson Christopher Awe thanked Lewis for speaking and responded. Awe stated that he had had a false sense of security in terms of East Orange’s close-knit community and Duncan’s murder was a wakeup call. 

“A lot of the programs you spoke to we implement already,” Awe said, citing the award-winning peer mediation program, done in conjunction with City Hall, and the State Opioid Response program, which he stated was one of the best SOR programs in the state. Additionally, in real time, Awe was notified and able to announce that East Orange had won an international film festival award for an anti–gun violence movie created by East Orange youths.

Awe also spoke of the relationship the council shares with East Orange youths, saying, “We are very in tune with our youth here to the point that our youth know they can reach us on the phone.”

Nevertheless, Awe said the town’s government is still looking at what more can be done to address gun violence and that Mayor Ted R. Green is meeting with constituents on the issue. Awe invited Lewis and others with a background in youths and/or violence prevention to work collaboratively with city officials.

Photos and text courtesy of Dr. Cynthia Lewis