Like cities all over America, Trenton continues to suffer from an epidemic of violent crime. Recently as of this writing, SeQuoya Bacon-Jones, a nine-year-old girl, was tragically killed in the crossfire of a fight that at the Kingsbury Square apartments near Broad and Market Streets; and in April a fireman was injured by a stray bullet in a firehouse on Calhoun Street.
The question that dogs communities across the country is “Why? Where is the violence coming from, and what can we do to mitigate it?” There are no easy answers, but Stacy Heading, Youth Services and After School Program Manager at Isles, Inc., works to address the causes. He sees a multi-layer complex of issues in which some youth react violently because it’s all they know, and fighting is a badge of honor; many murders occur out of revenge for a real or perceived wrong. Mr. Heading believes that some youth can be saved from violent behavior when they are shown constructive outlets and when they become invested in the community. His program engages them with life skills, preparing them for college or careers. He introduces them to team building and outdoor activities, such as a challenge course at the Westward Community Center on Prospect Street — often with a debriefing exercise of looking at their strategies in meeting the challenges and asking, “How can we use what you learned here?” The young people in his program are encouraged to build self-esteem with trips to volunteer at the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen and local nursing homes, along with an annual spoken word event at Passage Theater with the TASK A-Team artists and band. The program offers trips to Broadway plays and dinner in New York, and a Sixers game in Philadelphia, where young people receive a tour of the facility and learn about different careers in the sports industry. Isles’ youth groups visit Black-owned businesses like Big Easy or Ila Mae's downtown, “to see what community looks like” and develop an understanding of the importance of working together. Stacy's favorite saying is, "We must offer our youth extraordinary opportunities.” He is in the early stages of ramping up his program with more publicity and the tagline “Increase The Peace,” while building partnerships with local churches, organizations, and businesses to get the word out and reach more young people. The first “Increase The Peace” project, in conjunction with nationally acclaimed artist, Leon Rainbow, will design a peace mural led by youth on the side of Isles Youth Institute located on 33 Tucker Street.
Teska Frisby, now a City Council candidate from the West Ward, has been active for over eight years in Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a national network that works to stop gun violence and support families who have suffered loss due to violence. Ms. Frisby has two sons, ages 19 and 20, one of whom has special needs. Although she has not directly experienced a gun-related tragedy herself, as a mother of two young Black men she has long been aware of how her own life could easily be turned upside down by violence. When Moms Demand Action gave a presentation at the YMCA years ago, Ms. Frisby decided she needed to be proactive. “I didn’t want to wait for tragedy to come knocking on my door. I wanted to help not just myself but other mothers, fathers, and families in the area who are dealing with grief. I didn’t know what I could do, didn’t feel I had a solution, but felt if I asked other members of the community, I could be part of helping to bring about a change. Gun issues continue to be prevalent here. I want to stop the crime, stop the bleeding here in our city. I just want to do something.” The greatest need among gun violence survivors is in grief counseling and the support of other members of the community, many of whom have suffered similar tragedies. Survivors also need to know that perpetrators will be held accountable so that others may be spared a similar tragedy. While law enforcement does not represent all the answers, Teska sees the need for the City of Trenton to rebuild its police force after its massive layoff of 2011, while also rebuilding trust between police and the community. “That’s going to take communicating with police, maybe getting them out of their uniforms and in situations where people can see them as other human beings, not just law enforcement officers. . . . People today have a sense that if you have a problem, the last person you want to go to is an officer. We have to change that. . . . We have a new police director now who is making progress.”
Moms Demand maintains a Serenity Garden at Prospect Street and Bellevue Avenue, where survivors are invited to go and reflect in a supportive atmosphere. “The Serenity Garden is just that: a serene place where people can go and talk, play chess, plant flowers to honor their loved ones, or just sit and cry. People need to talk about their loss, they can’t just ignore it or keep it bottled up.” It’s a peaceful place dedicated to recognizing and honoring survivors’ loss. The organization has also hosted demonstrations of solidarity with survivors.
Teska says that Moms Demand is “not anti-gun, but pro-gun safety.” The organization recognizes circumstances where individuals may have a legitimate need for firearms. The new addition of “ghost guns” compounds the problem of straw purchases and presents a serious challenge. Moms Demand promotes common sense safety measures, such as ensuring that guns are securely locked up and kept separately from ammunition in their owners’ houses, and safe from unintended or accidental use by children and others. When asked about the recent nationwide increase in gun violence, Teska identifies the Covid pandemic, with its social and economic impact, as significant factors. Recent years have not been normal times, and the pandemic has contributed to the country’s overall sense of hopelessness and chaos. Teska notes that therapists are in short supply, for survivors of gun violence as well as others; depression and anxiety are at the root of much of the current social malaise.
Regina Thompson-Jenkins and her husband John are part of Everytown USA for Gun Safety and began the Tre’ Devon Lane Foundation in memory of Regina’s son Tre’ Lane, who was killed in September 2012. Tre’ was 19 years old, a student at Mercer County Community College. Regina and John had been married three years when Tre’ was killed. Regina tells her story: “Tre’ was sitting on a neighbor’s porch with his friends on a Friday night as teenagers do. It was the same porch I sat on as kid too. Someone came around the corner and shot into a crowd of people. My son sacrificed his life by saving two young ladies.” His death drew attention both locally and nationally. As part of their work in their foundation, Regina and her husband both mentor young people to build their self-esteem in hopes of directing their lives away from violence. They give out scholarships to support students starting college. They invite donations to the Foundation, and host fundraisers that double as community events, such as their basketball tournament that Tre’ would be proud of: he was 6’4” and loved basketball. Regina continues: “Children were my life for so long, because I’ve always been an educator. I’m always, always going to love the children.” Regina joined a grief support in Hamilton called Compassionate Friends, but because there was no such group in Trenton for survivors of gun violence, in 2021 she started her own, now held at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral on West State Street. Their next meeting is Saturday, May 14 at 10 am. “For me, if something I need isn’t there, I create my own. . . . It’s been a healing journey for a lot of people in the city. I’m grateful that I have the strength and the courage to facilitate the group, because I’m still a grieving mother as well. I thank God that I’m able to do it.”
After Tre’s death, Regina started writing her book, After the Storm: Our Journey Through Grief. “I started writing that book in memory of my son, and how the grief took a toll on me. I was broken. I felt like a hurricane had come in my house and destroyed my life. I didn’t know how to put my life back together. I felt like it was destroying our marriage, because I felt that my husband couldn’t understand my grief. It was a lot going through that grief process, it’s never-ending. Without marriage counseling and one-on-one grief therapy we don’t know where we would be.” John wrote a chapter in the book, “Men Cry in the Dark,” reflecting on how men’s upbringing makes it difficult to process and express their emotions; he encourages men to be open about their own emotions and help their mates to feel safe expressing their grief.
Regina says that the real work of grieving starts after the funeral. Members in their group often feel they lack support from others. “People tend to go on with their lives. I tell people in my group: it didn’t happen to other people, it happened to you. You need to learn to put your life back together on your own terms and your own journey. Sometimes people want to be helpful but don’t know how to help. The best way to support a survivor is to listen. Less talking, more listening.” For those who are grieving, it’s comforting to have a community who can understand their story and pain.
Through their Everytown network, they have met people across the country who have the same issues with violence in their communities. People across America wrestle with the roots of violence: “I think it stems from poverty, lack of education and/or skills, unemployment, and homelessness. There’s a whole bunch of issues we can tackle. . . . We need to start back at the basics. Not everyone is meant to attend college. We also need to focus on training for skills and trades for some of them. We need to help guide our youth on their path to success.” As an educator, she is gratified when she is invited to attend graduations of children, she knew years before: “I feel so blessed when a kid comes up to me and says, I remember what you did for me!”
She didn’t fully realize how bad local violence was before Tre’ was killed. “Now I’m constantly worried about my nieces and nephews. . . . It shouldn’t be like this: you shouldn’t have to think about what streets to avoid because you might be in the path of a stray bullet.”
Regina notes that Tre’s murder is still unsolved — one of roughly 200 cases in Mercer County still unsolved after years. She encourages other survivors to keep pressing prosecutors to keep on their cases despite the frustrating backlog. Regarding the “stop snitching” subculture, she believes the answers need to start with the laws and law enforcement: current laws require that witnesses’ names are public record. There is an initiative for names to be kept private up until trial, to protect witnesses from retaliation; Regina supports measures such as New Jersey Assembly Bill A3626 and Senate Bill S2849, fighting for stronger protections for witnesses. As of this writing, however, the Assembly and Senate bills appear to be stalled. Efforts to solve murder cases and hold perpetrators accountable are of great importance to survivors, who need closure for their own sake and to help prevent other families from suffering new tragedies. Regina and John encourage readers to visit the Tre’ Devon Lane Foundation at www.tdlane.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Resources are available in New Jersey for victims, their families, and witnesses who can assist authorities in tracking down perpetrators of crime: