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Birmingham-Area Students Among Those at Rally Calling for End to Gun Violence

Praise dancers from Birmingham-based Rhema Word Ministries perform during an anti-violence rally hosted by the Birmingham Urban League on Saturday in Kelly Ingram Park. (Ryan Michaels, The Birmingham Times)

By Ryan Michaels

The Birmingham Times

This is another installment in The Birmingham Times/AL.com/CBS42 joint series “Beyond the Violence: What can be done to address Birmingham’s rising homicide rate.” Sign up for the newsletter here.

Dozens of Birmingham-area officials and residents – including high school students who performed and called for an end to gun violence – attended an anti-violence rally hosted on Saturday by the Birmingham Urban League (BUL) in Kelly Ingram Park.

Representatives of multiple local organizations were also present, including the offices of Sheriff Mark Pettway and Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, Jefferson County Family Resource Center, the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority and What About Us, an organization of mothers who have lost children to gun violence, among others.

Airella Williams, a sophomore at Pleasant Grove High School, who gave a spoken word performance and later danced alongside others from Rhema Word Ministries, was among those vocal about the impact of gun violence on young people.

“You’re killing off the future, the next president, the next vice president, the next preacher, the next teacher, the next basketball player” with the killings, she said, pleading with those in the community responsible for the crime. “Please, please think twice about taking someone’s life. The way to stop violence is to put the guns down,” Williams said.

William Barnes, BUL President, said it’s important to organize around gun violence the way the community rallied around Civil Rights 60 years ago and treat the loss of lives due to crime today as a health issue.

“We have to be sure that we are doing more as a community to try to solve this [crime] issue,” Barnes said. “I believe this has to be a community effort. We keep saying it, but I don’t believe that we have organized as we may have done in the 50s and 60s, when we were organized around Civil Rights, this is just that much of an issue. It is absolutely a health crisis. It is absolutely something that our community has to come together and do the work.”

Residents cannot get used to the killings and forget the families who are grieving, Barnes said. “It’s for the community to come out and support those that certainly have lost loved ones and just letting those that have lost loved ones, this year, and in previous years, [and let them know] they’re certainly not alone. Also letting them know that we will not allow this issue, allow the community just to become numb.”

He added that a lot of small groups and city officials are putting in work to reduce crime, “but it’s not a comprehensive way. It’s not as loud as it once was about making sure that we just don’t give up,” Barnes said. “I also feel like the community is being rocked asleep, and accepting that this is this kind of the way our community is.”

Dr. Mark Anthony Haynes Executive Director of Cure Violence, Birmingham, said he hopes Saturday’s event can have an impact from an awareness perspective.

“This is a day to observe what the effects of gun violence has on families in our communities,” he said. “We want to bring awareness, we can never bring enough awareness to this issue but, we want to keep it before the public … [nearly] everyday there’s shootings and murders and we just want to let the community know that we’re coming together to least address this issue because this is real.”

Angela Walker, Executive Assistant to COO of the Birmingham Urban League. said, “We are bringing a face to the pain to the reality that a bullet is forever once it’s released. It’s not coming back.  We’re just trying to reach the hearts of even those who are creating and doing the violence just to let them know that there is another way.”

Barnes said the efforts are not new for the Urban League. “This is work that we are very, very passionate about and that we continue to do. Hopefully the community is looking at the call to actions to join us or join others that are certainly still fighting and looking for solutions to save lives and our community.”

As of June 3, there have been 56 homicides in Birmingham in 2023. Of those, one was an officer-involved shooting by an outside law enforcement agency. Four others have been ruled justifiable and therefore aren’t deemed criminal.

In all of Jefferson County, there have been 76 homicides, including the 56 in Birmingham.

Last year was Birmingham’s deadliest since 1933, with 144 homicides taking place in 2022.

For more stories in the series, go here.

Updated at 10:13 a.m. on 6/5/2023 to clarify that the featured photo is of a praise dance performance.