‘Our lives depend on it’

Published 5:15 pm Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Church forum advocates for gun violence prevention

Rows of empty seats — spaced 6 feet apart — and roughly a dozen faces greeted Barbara Wiggins on Dec. 18 as she climbed the steps leading to the stage in the Williams Mission Center at Main Street Baptist Church.

But Wiggins remains convinced that those seats won’t be empty forever. The lack of attendees at her first attempt to organize a community discussion on gun violence hasn’t dissuaded her from her intention to make the forum a recurring event in Smithfield.

“If two people show up, that’s a good thing; if one person shows up, that’s still a good thing,” Wiggins said.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Isle of Wight County has seen two fatal shootings this year. In October, a former Smithfield High School student pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and reckless handling of a firearm after having shot and killed a classmate in March while playing with his father’s gun, according to court records. Another fatal shooting occurred in September at the Safco Distribution Center outside Windsor.

“By us being out here in the rural community, we haven’t had the magnitude of it — yet,” Wiggins said. “But it’s like a tornado waiting to happen, and what we don’t want to do is wait until the tornado gets here.”

The idea, Wiggins said, is to delve into “why all of this violence is happening,” particularly when it happens “through the route of a child.” For the Dec. 18 forum, Wiggins invited the Rev. Dr. M. Julius Hayes, founder of the Saturday Academy for Positive Self Development, to speak on the matter.

The Saturday Academy, according to its website, is a service that “brings together parents and their children and provides them with a controlled forum for the free expression of problems they perceive to exist between them, the school, community and penal system with a view towards mutual understanding and respect.” Hayes founded the organization, which he considers a ministry, after his son was recommended for expulsion.

“They were dumping African American boys in an ‘alternative school’ getting them ready for the jailhouse. … That boy, today, is a licensed clinical social worker,” Hayes said.

His purpose in advocating for gun violence prevention is “not to point fingers” but to “uplift” and “provide education and awareness preventatively to the community,” he told The Smithfield Times, prior to taking the stage.

Wiggins, Hayes and Isle of Wight NAACP Chapter President Valerie Butler, who was in the audience at the forum, all say racial disparities play a role in what Hayes termed an “epidemic” of gun violence in America.

According to Hayes, gun violence is the leading cause of death for Black males under age 35, and Black males between the ages of 15 and 24 are 22 times more likely than whites in the same age group to be murdered by someone with a firearm.

“I spent 15 years with the court system, the Fifth District Juvenile Conference Committee,” Wiggins added, “and I’ll tell you … I didn’t see failure in any of those children who got in trouble. What I did see was that they were afraid. They were being picked on, and when they retaliated, they were the ones — a lot of them — that got caught.”

Illegal guns and straw purchases — when a person buys a gun for the purpose of giving it to someone prohibited from owning a firearm — are another part of the problem, according to Smithfield Police Lt. Patrick Araojo, who was another guest speaker at the forum.

Unfortunately, when it comes to illegal guns and straw purchases, “we have to take a reactive stance,” Araojo said. “We don’t have a crystal ball. We don’t know who’s carrying a weapon and who’s not.”

“We need to evolve as a community, we need to evolve as a police department, and that’s what we’re trying to do … none of that can happen without change,” Araojo added. “This is where it begins. Change begins here.”

Wiggins also hopes to build relationships with legislators and with parents.

“Our lives depend on it,” Wiggins said.