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On a weekly peace walk in Roxbury, Boston’s mayoral candidates are urged to talk more about street violence

Pastors, residents say they don’t hear enough about what should be happening on the ground.

The Rev. Arthur Gerald Jr., pastor emeritus of Twelfth Baptist Church, greeted a community member while on his weekly peace walk.

Topic: 6MAYORVIOLENCE
The Rev. Arthur Gerald Jr., pastor emeritus of Twelfth Baptist Church, greeted a community member while on his weekly peace walk. Topic: 6MAYORVIOLENCEErin Clark/Globe Staff

The Rev. Arthur T. Gerald Jr. took a hard right down Dudley Street near Nubian Square on a recent Friday afternoon, careful not to pass a single person without a warm greeting.

“How you’all doing today?” he said to a barber.

“Be careful and be prayerful,” he told a young man in a wheelchair.

Gerald, the longtime pastor of Twelfth Baptist Church before he retired, has done this walk hundreds of times over the past 15 years — every Friday afternoon, beginning at 4:30 and again, after a pause, around 6.

Usually he has company: other pastors, church brethren, police commissioners, politicians. Former Boston mayor Martin J. Walsh used to join him at least once a month over the years, Gerald said, as he cut down Dearborn Street and headed toward Eustis Street.

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But since the walks resumed this spring after a pause due to the pandemic, Gerald said, none of the candidates for mayor has joined him. The hopefuls have visited the so-called Mass and Cass area and talked about violence there multiple times. (One of them lives in the area.) But the candidates have rarely shown up at crime scenes in other parts of the city that experience different types of violence, including shootings, some anticrime advocates say. Their absence at these life-changing and traumatic events has caused consternation, on a granular level, among residents in some of the city’s communities that have seen their share of crime and trauma.

Twelfth Baptist Church is reflected in Roxbury resident Eva Coakley’s door while she chatted with the Rev. Vernard Coulter during a stop on the weekly peace walk with members of Twelfth Baptist Community Church and other local churches in Roxbury.
Twelfth Baptist Church is reflected in Roxbury resident Eva Coakley’s door while she chatted with the Rev. Vernard Coulter during a stop on the weekly peace walk with members of Twelfth Baptist Community Church and other local churches in Roxbury.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Acting Mayor Kim Janey, whose home church is Twelfth Baptist, used to come along as a city councilor, Gerald noted, but she hasn’t returned in her current role. “Now she’s got the whole city to run,” said Gerald, whose peace walk route passes Janey’s home.

The peace walks offer candidates a chance to see residents up close, at home, in the yard, with their families. They get to hear the people’s triumphs, their sorrows. Being at crime scenes offers candidates an opportunity to experience firsthand the pain of families.

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To be sure, major crimes in Boston are down 17 percent this year, with the number of shootings and homicides dipping compared to the same time last year. There have been 29 homicides so far this year and 144 shooting victims, police data show. Comparatively, there were 41 homicides and 191 shooting victims through the start of September in 2020, the data show. Firearms arrests are also up.

While crime has declined overall, it remains persistent in certain parts of the city. On Wednesday, hours before the mayoral candidates held their first televised debate, a man was shot and killed shortly before 2:30 p.m. in Jamaica Plain’s Egleston Square. His death will be investigated as a homicide, police said.

Crime is among the top five issues voters say they care most about, while only 4 percent of the people surveyed said police reform is a significant issue, according to a recent poll by Suffolk University and The Boston Globe.

The Rev. Vernard Coulter (left) and the Rev. Richard Conway of St. Mark and St. Ambrose held hands in prayer before their weekly peace walk.
The Rev. Vernard Coulter (left) and the Rev. Richard Conway of St. Mark and St. Ambrose held hands in prayer before their weekly peace walk.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

“Homicides are still taking place in broad daylight,” said Randy Muhammad, a member of the 10,000 Fearless Peacemakers and a minister at Muhammad Mosque No. 11 in Grove Hall. The community group has its own hourlong peace walks every Tuesday evening at 7, and Muhammad said that as of yet none of the mayoral candidates has come along.

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“The reality is violence is in our community and it is something that needs to be addressed,” he said. “I hope that whomever gets in the office will work with us” and volunteer in the community to help make a change.

The candidates, in their own way, have talked about trauma and crime, and some have long track records advocating on the ground around addressing violence. Prior to their mayoral runs, the candidates attended various antiviolence events, but some activists singled out City Councilor Michelle Wu as the one person in the race they don’t often see on the weekly peace walks or at scenes where there have been killings.

Wu, who regularly attends community meetings on such matters, was present Thursday as residents gathered at the Egleston Square area police precinct in response to the deadly shooting a day earlier. In a statement, she said she knows what it feels like to “meet with residents grieving horrific loss from gun violence, or to walk our streets with community members after an incident of violence in our neighborhoods.”

Residents in a stretch of Roxbury where Gerald and the peace walkers visited said they have heard the mayoral candidates’ pledges on combating crime — from reforming the police, to increasing the number of police officers, to tackling the root causes of crime. But they said they have not heard enough talk about what should happen on the street level, in their neighborhood, and on their block.

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“When I see the news, I don’t see the candidates talking about what is going on the streets,” said Javier Plaza, as he greeted Gerald and the peace walkers while sitting at an edge of Orchard Gardens development.

Janey was at the crime scene consoling relatives of the 73-year-old grandmother who was shot and killed on Onley Street in Dorchester this summer. She also spoke about the personal toll of violence in her community at Wednesday’s debate on NBC10 Boston.

“I’ve experienced gun violence on my street . . . on a regular basis. I’ve lost count. Someone has been shot in front of my house. This issue is real. I live with the trauma as do residents of our city,” said Janey in the debate.

There have been eight shootings on Copeland Street, where Janey lives, since June 2017, according to police data.

Dr. Arthur Gerald, Jr., Pastor walked through Nubian Square while out on his weekly peace walk.
Dr. Arthur Gerald, Jr., Pastor walked through Nubian Square while out on his weekly peace walk.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Last month, City Councilor and mayoral candidate Annissa Essaibi George launched her “tough conversations” tour in some of the city’s most troubled neighborhoods, promising more police officers and better community policing. She visited Dorchester’s Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood and Mattapan, saying gun violence “is an epidemic that strikes our streets every day.”

But James Hills, a longtime community activist who works closely with families reeling from gun violence, dismissed the tour as noise akin to “sounding brass and tinkling cymbals” in a close election.

The campaigns all said the candidates have been on numerous peace walks throughout the years in various parts of the city. They’ve connected with neighborhood groups, crime prevention advocates, and trauma teams, and provided needed support to families, their campaigns said.

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The Rev. John Currie of St. Peter Parish said he hasn’t seen any of the candidates this summer on the peace walks he leads from the church’s front doors on Bowdoin Street. He said the walks, coordinated with the police, have been interrupted this year due to the pandemic and stressed that he does not take the candidates’ absence on the walks “as a sign that they’re not concerned about the issue of violence.”

Along the walk in Roxbury, Gerald, of Twelfth Baptist, met up with former police commissioner Dennis White, who Janey terminated in June after the reemergence of decades-old domestic abuse allegations against him shortly after he took the job in February. And he returned to the subject of Walsh.

Former Boston police commissioner Dennis White (left) hugged the Rev. Arthur Gerald Jr.
Former Boston police commissioner Dennis White (left) hugged the Rev. Arthur Gerald Jr.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

The former mayor, Gerald explained, believed the peace walks were crucial opportunities to engage with residents. “They could touch him because he was in their community as opposed to being in his office at City Hall,” he said.

The Rev. Vernard Coulter, in gray suit and polished loafers, has joined Gerald’s peace walk and others across the city for more than 30 years. He’s gone to crime scenes to console families of homicide victims and ministered to his fold at the New Faith Missionary Baptist Church on Geneva Avenue, a troubled spot in the city.

Every Wednesday he chairs a public safety meeting at Ella J. Baker House near Dorchester’s Four Corners. His guests include antiviolence activists, preachers, prosecutors, city and MBTA police brass, and other crime fighters. They get information on the latest neighborhood crime statistics, residents’ concerns, and other crime prevention strategies.

He said unlike in previous mayoral election years, he has not seen any of the current mayoral candidates at the meetings, which have been held since the 1980s. Walsh and former mayor mayor Thomas M. Menino were frequent visitors at the Baker House, said Coulter.

“They haven’t come,” he said of the current candidates. “Personally, I do not see any of them addressing the issue of violence either‚ and I’m very concerned because of all the shootings we’ve had.”

The Rev. David Searles, senior pastor of Central Assembly of God Church in East Boston, said he would like to hear the candidates expand on the progress that has already been made combating violence in the city. Five years ago the East Boston community came together after a spate of violence.

They held peace walks, created a neighborhood trauma team, and, eventually, launched a pilot effort, called The Hub, that dispatches social workers with police to resolve crises that involve mental health and addiction cases — without resorting to any arrests.

“That kind of thing is already happening here, and none of the candidates is saying anything about that,” Searles said. “It’s as if that doesn’t exist.”

Coulter and other ministers mingled with people at the MBTA bus depot in Nubian Square. They climbed the slopes of Warren Garden and doled out hugs and a prayer with street vendors and grandmothers.

Eva Coakley, in a green dress with a jeweled neckline, peeked out from her doorway to greet the peace walkers, who normally make a point to stop by. She said she liked two of the candidates running for mayor, but struggled to remember their names. She’d like to see more of them in the community.

“I really think they should come around‚” she said, “because a lot of people don’t know them.”


Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.