NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — From the raised stage of the second-floor Masonic temple on Hale Street, Jose Negron turned his head toward the window. He looked at the very spot where his son was killed almost five years ago.
Joshua Negron was 24 when he was murdered on a late Monday night in November 2012, according to reports. He was shot on the corner of Hale Street and Remsen Avenue at a candle-light vigil for a teenager who was stabbed to death there just days earlier. Two weeks before, the surviving Negron said, a young woman was killed steps away.
“We don't think it'd ever happen to us, but it does,” Negron said last Thursday, Aug. 17, to roughly 100 people in the temple, above the Progressive Lodge, as electric fans hummed against the summer heat. “Every time since then, when I hear that someone got killed, it touches my heart like never before.”
Negron said he, too, could've picked up a gun and went after his son's killer. But instead, he earned his high school diploma, enrolled in Middlesex County College and began to train up-and-coming boxers. His success, he said, was retribution in its own right.
“If you got the opportunity to make a difference in somebody's life in the community and you not doing it,” the emotional father said, “you wasting time.”
Negron was one of many speakers to take the mic that night. They came to the Hale Street hall for an “emergency” community forum to begin healing and addressing the violence that has tarnished New Brunswick and nearby towns, like Franklin Township, not just this summer, but for years. They hoped to forge a new path forward.
Tormel Pittman, a neighborhood activist, led the gathering alongside City Council President Glen Fleming. Anyone who's been to a few council meetings has likely seen the two men spar, sometimes loudly and often passionately, about local issues, especially those affecting the African-American community. But the two appeared united last week, bonded by a common struggle that they had resolved to overcome.
Jose Negron speaks about the pain he felt after his son's murder
As New Brunswick's downtown and student neighborhoods flourish, other areas still regularly reckon with tragedy. When bullets fly and blood sheds, some speakers said, it can feel like residents of violence-stricken areas are on their own.
This summer, for instance, saw several people gunned down and killed in the Hub City.
Before that, in Somerset, an 18-year-old shot a woman of the same age, and she died less than an hour later, police alleged. Earlier this month, three men with handguns committed a carjacking, and a group of people beat two men on Hamilton Street, cops said. In July, Desiree Alvarado, 38, was murdered on 7th Street, according to police.
Ashton Burrell said the community must begin to heal
Before last week's meeting began, Alvarado's cousin stood outside the lodge. She fought tears while discussing her loved one's murder with a reporter. But she also spoke optimistically about a planned block party to bring neighbors together.
That sort of attitude dominated much of the evening. Grieving parents spoke of their slain children, but then they pivoted to possible solutions. Local business, civic and religious leaders mourned the dead and then offered meeting spaces, free services and jobs to New Brunswick's young people.
“Nobody knows how to stop violence and crime … We all had something better to do tonight, but we came here, obviously, because we don't got the answers,” Pittman, the organizer, said at one point. “We're here because we're trying to make a difference.”
Each person who promised to try to make that difference in some concrete way was met with applause. Pittman himself brought two young men who were selling shirts and other items to the front of the room. He had given them their first job.
Pittman brought his two workers before the crowd, which applauded the young men
But the sort of violence endemic to New Brunswick requires an even greater effort, Pittman said.
The shootings and assaults are often carried out not just by an individual, but a person who's acting on behalf of a gang, he said. The deadly disputes might arise from drugs, turf or a long-lasting beef, he said.
He said he once got several young rivals to sit down at a local mosque. After they ditched their guns, they ate food and began to talk. By the summit's end, they'd realized that their disagreements were based more in rumor than fact.
Since then, none of those men has yet to shoot another, Pittman said.
Residents didn't need to look hard for a positive role model to local kids. Ashton Burrell, a young man from Highland Park, who chairs its Human Relations Commission, helped to lead the forum that night. A performer and former football player, he gripped the audience, urging parents and kids alike to take a stronger role in civic life and guiding young people.
“After a while, you start to get used to it,” he said of society's ills. “If we started to get used to the right things, we will get right.”
Lana Whitehead, a former basketball star and founder of the life-coaching service Sharpened Mindz, discusses how she can help the community
Redemption was also on display.
Pittman said he used to hustle on the streets. Even without a high school diploma, he has since turned his life around and become a well-known activist in New Brunswick.
Boris Franklin, meanwhile, said he did 11 years in prison, leaving his son behind. But he now works with a parole-to-college program, helping felons return to their neighborhoods. He's on the dean's list at Rutgers University. He speaks at colleges about his past violence—and how he came out on the other side.
“I came back to clean up a mess I helped create,” Franklin said. “And anyone who did violence here should do the same.”
New Brunswick City Council President Glen Fleming said it's time for the community to come together for the sake of its young people
Fleming, New Brunswick's council president, knows all too well how violence can harm a family. A teacher in another school district, he lost two students this year. His cousin was also killed on city streets.
But past tragedies don't prevent a better tomorrow, Fleming said. To that end, he announced plans for a march from Franklin and into New Brunswick, with rallies at each end, to call for an end to the killings. Organizers also plan to host regular forums going forward.
“We're going to storm the streets like this area has never seen,” Fleming said. “We have to put demands on people right now,” calling for everyday people to step up.
Tina Riley knows why that's so important. Her son Joell “Jozy” Burton, who lived in the Paul Robeson Village, was shot and killed in 2014. He was 17.
Last week, she tearfully echoed what she has said since his murder: “God give life, and let no man take it away.”