Don’t look for a lot of places to sit at this summer’s Stop the Silence community cookouts in Atlantic City.
“I’m trying to force people to talk,” said schools security Chief Dewane Parker. “We need to bring back a time when the residents trusted each other.”
Stop the Silence is about making sure the community speaks up about crime. But people aren’t only wary of the police — many don’t have that sense of community, Parker said.
So, five summer cookouts were planned to allow residents to interact with police — and one another. Uptown Complex hosted the inaugural cookout Tuesday.
“I think it shows the kids there’s more to life than just walking the streets,” said Alan Jones, 18, who graduated high school last month and already has signed a contract to do music for the Hip Hop Nation World Collegiate Tour.
He and friend Dontae Bryant, 17, say they have stayed away from the problems that plague a lot of Atlantic City by focusing on music. Unlike some musicians in the neighborhoods, Bryant said, Jones’ songs are positive.
“Their music is about the guns and the drugs and everything,” said Bryant, who will be a junior in high school. “We do a different thing.”
Tuesday’s event was a little different too, they said.
Rather than seeing police as the “enemy,” as some music videos do, “this shows you can come up to the police officers and talk to them.”
Children piling into an Atlantic City Police Department cruiser had no problem with that Tuesday.
“It was cool,” said Julio Lugo, 9, wearing a cardboard police officer’s hat placed on his head by Sgt. Monica McMenamin after he got to see inside the car.
He and his 12-year-old brother, Jose, already have been taught that police are their friends. In fact, Jose’s godfather is an Atlantic City detective.
The preteen who lives near Uptown said he doesn’t worry about violence. But his mother does.
“Every day,” Liz Joga said. “Especially with sons.”
In the past, it was girls who caused the most worry for parents, said Joga, 31. But in the city’s it’s the young men who are getting shot and dying.
“This is very important, especially to our community,” she said of Tuesday’s event. “There’s not a lot for kids to do, so anything like this brightens their horizons.”
Dana Lathan took pictures as her 5-year-old stepson, Jerrell Lathan, played basketball with some other boys.
“I think this is a good thing for them,” she said. “It teaches them the police are your friends.”
Board of Education member Shay Steele said this was in the planning stages for about a year and a half, and hopes this is just the beginning. He’s not sure what can help, but is glad to see people trying.
“It’s so out of control right now,” he said. “We’re just shooting arrows in the dark, hoping we’ll hit something. Maybe something will hit a switch with these kids.”
The city is on pace for a record year in homicides. Three people have been fatally shot in the past three weeks.
The latest violence touched the school board personally. Christon Hargrove, 21, who died Sunday night, was the brother of board member Ed Cooper.
But the violence always seems to impact the board, Steele said, as the victims often are recent students.
Some of the outreach appears to work. As Officer Robert Berg was showing the police car to some kids, a teen came up and gave him a big hug.
“I kind of miss him,” said Sienna Wilson, 13, who was in Berg’s Drug Abuse Resistance Education class.
“This is tremendous,” Berg said of the gathering. “It gets everybody together at once. It opens up communication.”
Police Chief Ernest Jubilee said he was surprised by the huge turnout.
And the entertainment was provided by police as well, with Officer Kevin Francis as DJ.
“Today is the day Atlantic City takes back the city from gun violence,” Parker said. “It starts today.”
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