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'These are our kids': Activists, community leaders say more needs to be done to prevent gun violence in East County

Between January and March 2021, shootings in Gresham had doubled compared to the same time frame last year.

GRESHAM, Ore. — Gresham has seen at least twice the number of shootings this year compared to last year. 

People who live there fear the brazenness of the violence. Activists and community leaders say the community needs to do more to prevent it.

"Right now, what we're seeing is murder," said Herman Greene, Abundant Life PDX Senior Pastor and Inter-Faith Peace Action Collaborative member.

"Our kids are killing our kids," added Lionel Irving, founder of Love is Stronger Inc. and gun violence prevention activist. "Every time I go to a funeral I'm seeing the same faces."

Senseless shootings put a whole community at risk.

"It's only a matter of time before an innocent bystander gets hit and everybody gonna be mad," Irving said. "We're too busy trying to get city leaders or police to do something when these are our kids. These are my friends' sons."

Young lives are lost, like 22-year-old Alejandro Barajas, who was shot and killed Sunday night. 

RELATED: 7 people injured in drive-by shooting at Gresham vigil

Those shooting victims whose lives are spared are forever changed.

"For us who have been in this work this is a scary season. Because something has to be done," Greene added.

Local activists and local pastors, including Greene and Dr. Shon Neyland of Highland Christian Center in Portland, are in touch with young people living in a world of escalating violence.

"Over the years the narrative has been: this is your life. You will end up in jail, you kill or be killed. And you don't have any hope," Dr. Neyland said.

Shootings have doubled

Growth and gentrification push more people and crime into East County. Many of the shootings are connected, gang-related and retaliatory. Irving refers to it as a "revenge fest."

The number of shootings in Gresham has doubled compared to this time last year. Interim Gresham Police Chief Claudio Grandjean says from January to March 2020, there were 11 shootings. January to March of this year saw 22 shootings.

"Like everybody in the metro area, our resources are stretched thin," Chief Grandjean said. "We need more personnel."

Grandjean said police are especially challenged when shootings happen one after another. He pointed to April 26, when seven people were injured in a drive-by shooting during a vigil for Barajas the night after he was killed.

"We only have so many officers that we can put at a problem," Grandjean added.

Community leaders step up

Law enforcement is part of the equation, but they alone can't stop shootings. The community can take on gun violence prevention. It starts with building relationships.

"A lot of that is going to start with having conversations with our kids," Greene added.

Irving, Neyland and Greene say people in the community need to hold one another accountable.

"We have to build relationships with those who are living in this world," Neyland told KGW. We as a community of African or Hispanic descent need to stand up."

"It has to change with policing ourselves as well," Neyland added.

RELATED: A program in Multnomah County is getting more funding to keep at-risk youth out of juvenile justice system

The 'pretty work' and the 'gritty work'

To save lives, activists and leaders believe it takes community organizations supporting and wrapping around at-risk kids. They say those children are easy to identify; they have often been affected by gun violence because of a family member's involvement.

This is what they consider the "pretty work."

"We need to point out there's hope, that there's opportunity," Neyland said.

The "gritty work" is immediate intervention, which can be dangerous.

"We need to be on the ground floor, engaging these guys, meeting them where they at," Irving said.

Activists say credible messengers with lived experience can get through to shooters and victims - messengers like Irving, who is a former gang member.

"What we need are individuals who understand the work, understand the life, who are violence interrupters and get in between those that are shooting people and those who they want to shoot," Greene told KGW.

Irving's organization, Love is Stronger Inc., applies for grants. But Irving says their applications sit on desks and go no where. He and others doing this type of intervention and prevention work believe it's because of their criminal records.

"You need somebody with a criminal record to talk to other people with criminal records," Greene said.

Making an investment

Gresham Mayor Travis Stovall says, historically, community organizations haven't been adequately funded.

"We're not doing enough, we're not making the investment. We just don't have enough of the resources," Mayor Stovall told KGW. 

The city of Gresham plans to spend about $200,000 on prevention efforts over the next fiscal year. Some money will come from city coffers. Some will come from state grants, which will then be passed along to community organizations for street outreach and programs.

The city has been working with state legislators to increase prevention resources in East County so those services can be expanded.

"Many of the funding mechanisms we have in our communities from the federal and state level, they are fraught with a lot of red tape and strings," Stovall said.

Stovall said he wants to break through the tape at the city level and is open to working with groups like Irving's.

RELATED: Biden calls gun violence a 'public health epidemic' while announcing orders addressing crisis

"It's those types of innovative approaches to the challenges we face that are going to develop the right solutions," the mayor said.

Like others, Stovall knows there's no quick fix, but with shootings doubling in a year the need for action has never been more urgent.

"This is a problem that’s going to take some resources, patience and consistency," Irving said.

"Gun violence can be prevented if we get out of the politics and we stop caring about who's getting the credit and we just start focusing on the issue," Greene added.



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