Changing the culture of violence

After a surge in murders in SE Queens last year, activists step up to quell incidents

By Joe Anuta, Howard Koplowitz and Ivan Pereira

August 31, 2011

  • Shenee Johnson (c.) and her husband, Imam Shaheed Morrow (r.), film a music video for the song “Life Support” during an anti-violence rally in Manhattan. Photo by Christina Santucci

  • Ronald Merritt (r.) credits activist Erica Ford with getting him off the streets. Merritt now runs a company called “Du U TV.” Photo by Christina Santucci

  • Ronald Merritt now helps with Erica Ford’s organization, LIFE Camp. Photo by Christina Santucci

Tyquan Jackson was stabbed to death in a November 2003 fight involving some 200 teens in Jamaica. He was 15 years old.

A few days later at the funeral, a 16-year-old named Ronald Merritt watched Tyquan vanish into the ground.

Before Tyquan's death, Merritt was a South Jamaica teen on the streets who wanted to impress his friends.

"I was selling drugs, running around robbing with guns on me," Merritt said.

But when a southeast Queens activist named Erica Ford spoke at the service, he had an epiphany.

"There was probably over 100 people in there, but I felt like it was coming straight to me. She said, 'If you want to change your life, come to me,'" Merritt said.

Ford stayed true to her word.

This second part of an investigative series by TimesLedger Newspapers explores how Ford and other community activists have used violence as galvanizing points to change lives in neighborhoods like Jamaica, St. Albans, Cambria Heights, Queens Village, Laurelton, Brookville, Springfield Gardens, Hollis, New Hyde Park, Bellerose and Rosedale.

Culture of violence

A TimesLedger analysis of 2010 police statistics from southeast Queens found there were 43 murders spanning three police precincts: the 103rd, the 105th and the 113th. The murders constituted nearly half of the 100 homicides in Queens. There still had been no arrests in 25 of those murders by last week, police said.

Ford attributes the death toll to a culture of violence that pervades the area. She believes that there are many contributing factors, including hip-hop and rap culture, the repercussions of the crack epidemic of the 1980s and the lack of community facilities in southeast Queens.

Ford hopes that her mentorship of young people like Merritt will save them from the violence.

"He put his gun down and now he shoots video," Ford said of her young protege.

Merritt is now 24. He runs his own film company called "Du U TV" and is serious about it -- he has the logo tattooed on his hand.

He has shot video for former Gov. David Paterson, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and Queens-born rapper Ja Rule. He speaks to fathers in prisons -- his own was incarcerated for most of Merritt's childhood growing up in the South Jamaica Houses -- and provides a role model for other teens who want to get off the streets.

But Merritt admits that it wasn't easy.

"If it wasn't for Erica Ford, I'd still be on that street corner," he said.

Details were scarce, but Tyquan was stabbed after a group of about 200 teens from two high schools -- neither of which Tyquan attended -- got into a confrontation on Archer Avenue in Jamaica. By the time the fighting was over, Tyquan was dead.

After the funeral, Merritt thought about death on a daily basis..

Ford's LIFE Camp seemed like it could help Merritt escape the mayhem that had claimed his friend, but his life in South Jamaica seemed like a world away.

"I couldn't go, because I was from the hood," Merritt said. "I didn't want my friends to laugh."

When Merritt finally made the trip to York College in Jamaica, he set his cell phone alarm for 10 minutes.

"I'll give her 10 minutes of my time and see how good this program is or I'll see how whack this program is," he said.

He walked in to find a room full of teens working on video projects, interviewing each other.

When his alarm went off, Merritt pretended it was a phone call and left. But his brief time there was enough to entice him back.

"They got the cameras and everything, I was like, 'I can do this,'" he said.

Nearly 10 years later, Merritt now tries to give young people the same opportunities that were offered to him. And he is not the only one taking a stand against violence in southeast Queens.

A family fights back

The family of Tony McFadden Jr. II, who was killed Oct. 11, said they have been working to help others handle the pain that they continue to endure.

McFadden, who was known as Tone Macc and Junior to his family and friends, was 26 years old when he was murdered. According to the Queens district attorney, Luis Cherry has been charged with shooting McFadden in the head outside the home where McFadden was living with his girlfriend and her family. Cherry was arrested in January.

Cherry, who the police say has ties to the Crips gang, has also been accused of another murder three days after McFadden's death in Suffolk County, according to the Suffolk County district attorney's office.

He is currently awaiting trial in both Queens and Suffolk.

Talia McFadden, McFadden's older sister, said she has been establishing the Tony McFadden Jr. II Foundation as a way not only to cope with her loss but to help other victims' families.

The nonprofit aims to create a venue where the community, businesses and elected officials can come together in their efforts to curtail violence.

"I've got a lot of moms who are going through the same process as my mom," said Talia, the eldest of the McFadden's five siblings. "The foundation is helping me heal."

In June, the foundation held a march from McFadden's childhood residence to the spot where he was shot, then continued to Roy Wilkins Park, where other crime victims' families -- including relatives of Kedrick Ali Morrow -- vowed to work together.

"When someone's loved one dies, we have to be there," Morrow's father, Imam Shaheed Morrow, said during the march.

Morrow, 17, was shot on May 15, 2010, and his mother Shenee Johnson has since started Life Support, a group formed to help families of victims of violence grieve.

Johnson created a CD and music video titled "Life Support" that starts with sounds from an emergency room and was inspired by her son's death.

Johnson has formed a network of Queens families shattered by violence, including Donna Hood, whose 13-year-old son Kevin Miller was caught in the crossfire of suspected gang rivals two blocks from Campus Magnet HS in 2009.

Last year the Kevin Lamont Miller Foundation gave out three scholarships, including two to students from Miller's alma mater - Humanities