Residents, city leaders and activists gathered Friday in East St. Louis to share and hear stories about the worst moments of some of their lives: When bullets flew through a home as their children slept. When a gun landed them in police custody or prison. When someone they loved — a son, cousin, nephew, classmate, friend — died in a shooting.
Both the chief and Mayor Charles Powell III said the issue had touched their lives.
Perry read from a new city proclamation during the event, pledging officials would “do all we can do to keep firearms out of the wrong hands and encourage responsible gun ownership to help keep the citizens safe.”
The event was planned by the Metro-East Organizing Coalition, a grassroots organization focused on ending gun violence and mass incarceration, in partnership with the city of East St. Louis and other gun violence prevention organizations, including the metro-east chapter of Moms Demand Action and Life Outside of Violence.
A tribute to those lost to gun violence
The event featured a candlelight vigil in the vestibule of City Hall to honor the local residents who have died in shootings.
Speakers gave special tribute to Jaylon McKenzie, 14, a Mason-Clark Middle School student and rising football star who died May 5, 2019, after he was struck by a stray bullet while attending a graduation party in Venice. Six men faced weapons charges in connection with the shooting.
Jaylon’s mother Sukeena Gunner spoke at the event. She recalled all the scholarship offers, opportunities and plans her son had.
“All I can do now is hold on to the memories of what could’ve been, what should’ve been, what’s supposed to be, because somebody took my son at the age of 14 and shattered my world,” she said.
Larita Rice-Barnes, executive director of the Metro-East Organizing Coalition, announced a $500 donation from the coalition to Gunner’s foundation on Friday.
Speakers at the event also paid tribute to La’Tatia Stewart, 56, of Cahokia Heights, who led rallies, vigils and marches in the East St. Louis neighborhood where her son Gregory Stewart was fatally shot in May 2020 to encourage any witnesses to share information about his unsolved homicide.
Stewart herself was shot to death on May 3 in a downtown St. Louis parking garage near the hotel where she worked. A 35-year-old St. Louis man has been charged in connection with this shooting. No arrests have been made in Gregory Stewart’s death.
How people are addressing gun violence
Chris Peters, the leader of the local chapter of Moms Demand Action, said the group plans to continue La’Tatia Stewart’s mission of advocating for the families of homicide victims. La’Tatia Stewart volunteered with Moms Demand Action and had planned to be involved in National Gun Violence Awareness Day events before her death, according to Peters.
“She was a comfort to the bereaved, a mentor to others who were also seeking answers and justice and an inspiration for others to keep going. She truly became a powerful voice in raising awareness of this horrific issue of unsolved shootings,” Peters said.
“… Moms Demand Action has also made it a priority to raise awareness of the extremely high number of unsolved shootings in our country and the profound impact it has on the survivors and the surviving family members, and we will do this all in La’Tatia’s memory.”
Peters said Moms Demand Action also works to raise awareness about safe gun storage through an education campaign to prevent children from accessing unlocked and loaded guns. In addition, the group advocates for legislation that would prevent people from possessing firearms after a criminal conviction for domestic abuse.
Another group in the region, Life Outside of Violence, works in St. Louis trauma centers to help people between the ages of 8 and 30 get support after they’ve been shot, assaulted or stabbed, according to Kateri Chapman-Kramer, who spoke at the East St. Louis event. That support might include counseling, employment, or housing.
The organization says participants are over 50% less likely to return to the hospital with another injury from violence after receiving resources.
East St. Louis faith leaders and community activists planned a second gun violence prevention event for Saturday: A 10 a.m. unity parade from City Hall to New Life Community Church at 1919 State St. in East St. Louis followed by workshops from 12-2 p.m. on gun safety, healing from homicide and how to respond to a bleeding emergency.
Reporter Mike Koziatek contributed information to this report.