St. Pete City Councilwoman Lisa Wheeler-Brown knows firsthand what it's like to lose a son to gun violence.
The first-term councilwoman was teary-eyed when she implored the group, which assembled at the corner of 22nd Street and 9th Avenue South at dusk to hear about a new initiative for at-risk youth, to look after their teenage and young adult children and keep them away from activities and associations that can lead to tragedy.
“As a parent, I'm going to beg you: know where your children are," she said. "Look at their Facebook pages. I know some of you see your children with the guns in their hand. With the money, with the drugs. And you ignore it. This is our city. These are our sons. And until you make it personal, we're going to keep losing them.”
For years, much of south St. Petersburg's predominantly African-American, largely lower-income southern half has been riddled with gun violence and gang activity, and parents and community leaders have struggled to figure out how to put an end to it.
On Thursday night, officials and local advocates launched a new effort to create greater parental involvement and communication among neighbors, and hope that this summer, they can make real change happen.
“Too often the promises made in this community are broken," said St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman. "This time, it's different, and I'll tell you how: because I'm not asking you to help me. I'm asking you to help our sons. This particular initiative focuses on our sons. Because right now in St. Pete, they're the ones picking up the guns to solve problems and settle scores. They're the ones killing each other. And that's just the reality.”
Mayor Rick Kriseman calls for a community effort to prevent violence Thursday evening.
As a campaign, "Not My Son" will involve a weekly door-to-door canvass in the community to spread awareness of the problem (and how to prevent it). In particular, the program takes aim at the major factors that cause violent tendencies to show up in many African-American males between the ages of 12 and 24.
“I think the biggest part of it is that now we're reaching out to the community," said St. Pete Police Chief Anthony Holloway. "City Council can't do it. The mayor can't do it. Law enforcement can't do it alone. So it's now reaching out to say, you know what? Let's all get together, let's all solve the problem.”
Holloway said in most cases of young kids with considerable potential for turning violent, a major factor is lack of a positive influence at home.
“I think the biggest common denominator right now is parent involvement," he said. "Because we can put them into schools, we can do everything we can but the kids have to go home, and what is the home environment like?”
Kriseman also decried easy access to guns as a reason for a recent rash of deadly violence.
“It is time to say enough. It is time for it to stop,” he said. “After more than 20 children died in Sandy Hook you'd think our country would do something about guns. After the largest mass shooting in our country's history, less than two hours from here in Orlando, our federal and state legislators would do something about guns.”