I have been actively working to prevent gang violence since 1989 when my cousin, Al Wooten Jr., was killed in a drive-by shooting. That’s 30 years helping with homework, writing proposals, attending board meetings.
Every new killing reminds me of more work to be done. It also makes me wonder about the effectiveness of solutions like the youth center we started in my cousin’s honor.
My aunt, Myrtle Faye Rumph, founded the Al Wooten Jr. Heritage Center in 1990. I was one of several voices pushing for a youth center in the often contentious meetings held for three months in her family room in Inglewood.
“It helped me get out of gangs,” I said. “I wouldn’t be here and wouldn’t be in college if my counselor didn’t help me.”
Family and friends tossed around a myriad of solutions to stop the violence. We debated so much in fact my aunt settled the differences by crafting a name that would recognize more than one solution and target. Before we changed our name this year to Al Wooten Jr. Youth Center our corporate name was Al Wooten Jr. Youth and Adult Cultural-Educational Center.
In trying to identify solutions, we finally settled on the theory that had that young man been in an after-school program that afternoon he would not have killed our beloved Al.
With that simple purpose, my aunt rented a two-room storefront next door to her moving and storage business on 91st Street and Western Avenue. We brought pencils and paper, games and basketballs, offering homework help and field trips to the local bowling alley.
We started with four pre-teen boys and today provide after-school and summer programs for more than 350 students at the center and other sites. We are housed in six storefront buildings the center owns across from our original site.
Have we made a difference? Certainly. We have countless stories from alums who said our activities and the time and care we poured into them saved their lives.
Has it been enough? Apparently not. People are still dying in gang violence, including my nephew, killed in February.
And that leads me to Nipsey Hussle and my son.
As a newspaper reporter at The Wave in 1992, I covered the gang peace rallies sweeping the city. The most memorable was more than 1,000 Crips and Bloods at South Park dancing and tying blue and red rags together, with actress Jada Pinkett cheering them on from the stage.
Gunfire like firecrackers in the night virtually stopped. Gang-related homicides in Los Angeles County went from a reported high of 803 people in 1992 to more than half at 349 people at its reported lowest in 1999, according to the Sheriff’s Department.
The Wooten Center is a gang prevention, not intervention, program. We have never said we can stop the violence completely. Because of my experience covering the peace rallies, I have long said the only ones who can stop the killings are the ones committing the murders. My son agrees and has a solution that is helping us get there again.
“Love Is the Solution,” his poster board read in Nipsey Hussle’s funeral procession. The Fruit of Islam security staff apparently liked the message so much they asked him to hold up the sign as he walked with them behind the hearse down Slauson from West to Crenshaw boulevards. Several news outlets including TMZ and ABC-TV pointed to the young man with the love sign. They said it’s a powerful message and I agree, especially since my son, Matthew Sutton, 33, was once a gang member himself.
With a wife and children of his own, Matthew wants a better world. With a mind now focused on spiritual matters, he sees the value in the intangible. When a disturbance between a man and police broke out on Slauson, Matthew yelled “Just love! Just love!” repeatedly over a bullhorn, helping calm the crowd.
“God gave me the message to give so I did it,” he said. “I didn’t know it would turn into what it did. I just wanted to be obedient.”
Matthew’s own rap lyrics shout the idea that love has the power to help us choose peace over violence. I see it in the love for Nipsey Hussle inspiring gang members around the world to settle their differences.
I don’t recall discussing gang peace as a solution in our family room meetings. But if we want to do more, we have to go deeper and I think love leading gang members to lie down their weapons is about as deep and effective as we can get.
Naomi McSwain is executive director of the Al Wooten Jr. Youth Center. See www.wootencenter.org. See more on Matthew on Instagram at @itsmatthewsuttonmusic.