Edward Funches spent most of his young adult life on the streets in Harlem with friends who were involved in criminal activities. In 1994, he got into an argument with a close friend who later shot him. Mr. Funches, 45, has been paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair since.
“It’s been a blessing to me being in this wheelchair because I lived in the streets,” he said. “I look at it as God’s plan. He has my attention now because I could still be in the streets now if it never happened.”
Mr. Funches, an anti-gun-violence advocate, and dozens of community activists and local elected officials held a vigil on Wednesday evening outside the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building to kick off the start of Gun Violence Awareness Month across New York City. Activists and the New York Police Department said the number of shootings and murders tends to increase after Memorial Day, as summer draws near.
But while activists pleaded for an end to the killings, they said the city and state governments should provide more financial support to grassroots organizations that work to prevent outbreaks of violence and to create employment opportunities for at-risk young people.
“What we have to do is to provide young people with employment and things that lead to changing their minds about who they are,” said Iesha Sekou, founder and chief executive of the Harlem-based anti-violence group Street Corner Resources and co-organizer of the vigil. “So if someone is on the corner for most of his life, we have to be engaged so he can change his behavior and circle of influence.”
The vigil comes days after a Memorial Day weekend that left 16 people injured and one dead in the five boroughs.
Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said the city has achieved a record-low crime rate this year. He and Mayor Bill de Blasio said street gangs are responsible for most of the killings. In a recent radio interview before the Memorial Day weekend, Mr. Bratton said his department would continue to team up with other agencies to crack down gangs.
“We’re taking down two or three gangs every week,” he said. “We will have a number of new gun-suppression initiatives.”
Jackie Rowe-Adams lost her 17- and 28-year-old sons to gun violence in 1982 and 1998. Since then, she has been working with others who have lost loved ones to gun violence through a support group she started called Harlem Mothers Save.
“My experience has strengthened me,’’ she said. “Since I can’t bring my two back, I want to help another mother and child. I get calls every day to consult a parent or go to a school to talk to a child. We’re constantly on the front lines, on the battlefield to make sure that if we can save at least one life, our living will not be in vain.”
Whenever Mr. Funches, the anti-gun-violence advocate, talks to young people in Harlem, he said, he uses his past as a testimony to show them the real danger of street and gang violence. But he realized that is not enough.
“I participated in it, so it’s easy for me to understand exactly why people are doing it,” he said. “Only some of them listen. But you have to give them resources. If you have nothing to give them, a lot of them on the corners will continue selling drugs to make money. Kids need something to do.”