Just hours after two men lost their lives to nighttime gunfire in Baton Rouge, a large group of crime-weary residents and law enforcement officials gathered Saturday at Howell Park to reaffirm their collective goal of quelling violence in the city.
The third annual event, called “Pack the Park,” featured barbecue, voter registration, free HIV/AIDS testing, and inspirational musical performances by gospel singers Anita Jarrell Robertson and Young Honore, and rappers T. Davis and “Chosen Child.”
The day also included speeches from Baton Rouge Police Chief Dewayne White, East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Lt. Troy Banks and Martin Carter, a former inmate who served 23 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for an armed robbery conviction.
As the community braces for the summer, which historically brings more killings than other times of year, “Pack the Park” aimed to be a rallying point to unite people in joining the fight against crime, said Durell Hamilton, one of the event’s organizers.
“We can’t get used to this violence,” Hamilton said. “As long as you accept it, it’s going to continue to get worse.”
Hamilton, 31, and his wife, Tarj, 35, organized the event because they know all too well the devastating effects of crime.
In September 2007, the Hamiltons, returning to their north Baton Rouge home from a concert, were sitting in their car listening to music when Durell noticed two armed men approaching, apparently attempting to carjack the couple.
He quickly grabbed his gun and a shootout ensued.
Durell suffered life-threatening wounds from the gunshot to his abdomen, and Tarj was left paralyzed after being shot in the back.
No one was ever arrested in the incident, Durell Hamilton said.
“You don’t think it could ever happen to you, but it can happen to you,” Durell Hamilton said.
“It opened my eyes to what was going on around me,” Tarj Hamilton said Saturday, seated in her wheelchair.
Tarj Hamilton said events such as “Pack the Park” serve to remind everyone that if they truly want to stop the violence, they need to help law enforcement.
“This whole ‘no snitching’ thing needs to stop,” she said.
Tarj’s friend, Tammie Foster, 37, said the event was “very important to let people know we’re trying to make it better.”
Foster’s 21-year-old nephew was killed two years ago, and her 14-year-old daughter and 15-year-old niece were injured in a drive-by shooting on M Street in October, causing both teenagers to miss the past year of school.
“They just don’t realize the hurt they’re causing,” she said. “They don’t understand. They don’t care. It’s just senseless.”
A group of young teenagers wearing T-shirts that read “stop the violence” agreed that, hypothetically speaking, if any of them wanted to acquire an illegal gun, all they would have to do is make one phone call.
“Getting guns is easy,” said Thomas Haynes, 15. “All you got to do is talk to older people.”
The youths said they tried to stay out of trouble by avoiding getting into “beefs.”
“You might get labeled as a coward,” Haynes said, “but it doesn’t matter.”
“The violence is pitiful,” said Tyrique Stewart, 13, “because so many of us are getting killed over little things.”
As police officers mingled with members of the community over burgers and sausages, Police Chief White said the event and others like it are instrumental in forging relationships that would ultimately bring down crime rates.
“It allows us to regain that public trust,” he said. “A lot of people have had either bad or indifferent experiences with the police. Now, in this type of setting, they can see police officers for what we really are — human beings.”
White said he wants people living in the city’s crime-ridden neighborhoods to start being able to go outside without fear, noting that the vast majority of residents are being held “captive” inside their homes by the small minority of criminals.
“I want to see retired people back out on their porches feeling safe,” White said. “They deserve to have it here as they have it elsewhere in Baton Rouge. Like in Bocage — it should be no different here. This department is committed to making that happen.”