Summer of shootings: Gun violence plagues Beloit
BELOIT—Angelika King knows just about everybody who was killed in shootings this spring and summer.
The 18-year-old mother of three recently was held up at gunpoint.
Carlos Martinez, 19, is afraid to take his niece to the park.
Both teens are afraid when they go out in public.
“It feels like I'm watching my back all the time,” Martinez said.
Beloit is suffering through its bloodiest period in living memory: seven homicides in four months.
Five of the victims were young and black. Six died of gunshot wounds. Police believe the shooters also are young and black, and they and their victims know each other.
The seventh death was a domestic-violence incident May 11 in which Christopher T. Rutherford, 40, is accused of driving a van that struck and killed Sheila N. Rosenbaum.
Police Chief Norm Jacobs said he hasn't seen such a bloody time in his 36 years on the force.
Beloit native Marc Perry, who works with youth at Community Action, said the same.
The violence comes at a time when Beloit is enjoying what some call a renaissance, with renewal projects along the river and a vibrant downtown and arts scene that are the envy of its neighbors.
But the renaissance has not reached two small pockets of poverty on either side of the river.
Those areas--near Summit Park on the east side and Eighth Street on the west, are the bases for a rivalry that has led to at least some of the violence, said nearly everyone interviewed for this story.
“Our city is crying, everybody dying. … It's one side of Beloit versus the other side of Beloit. They don't even have any reason to be shooting,” King said.
Older people interviewed said a majority of Beloiters are safe and know the shootings are happening among a small number of people who know each other, most of them connected to two small, troubled neighborhoods.
None of the deaths were random acts of violence, Jacobs said.
The killings have mobilized many in Beloit to do something.
Hundreds turned out at a recent rally at Summit Park, the scene of two shooting events and the death of 16-year-old boy. Churches, businesses and others contributed to the event, featuring food and fun for the kids, prayer, preaching and music for all.
Jacobs called the rally “an outstanding outpouring” and said efforts by residents to address the roots of the problem are the best thing to come out of the shootings.
“There are a lot of people out there who are trying to make a difference,” Jacobs said.
King and Martinez are working to turn their own lives around through a Community Action program called Fresh Start. They said in an interview Wednesday that six years ago they and many of the gunshot victims and the people involved in street crime all knew each other. Some were friends at school.
There were fights back then, but then there were no guns, they said.
“You get used to it. Somebody dies—well this is life,” King said. “Sometimes you don't even cry. You don't have any tears left."
GUNS AND MONEY
One of the more recent shootings was retaliation, King thinks.
“They lost one of their friends and felt someone from our side of town did it," she said.
Drugs, a gang culture, the lure of easy money and retribution for past shootings all are part of what is going on, King and Martinez said, echoing the comments of several other Beloiters interviewed.
Easy access to handguns plays a role.
“It's not hard to get a gun,” Carlos said.
Just go on Facebook and post a request for “a banger,” King said, or ask anyone in the street.
Community Action's Perry said a young man told him he could get a gun delivered with a phone call faster than a pizza.
“It's not expensive,” Martinez said. “Any gun you want, they can get it for you ... It's people bringing guns to Beloit.”
Desire for money drives the lives of people they know, and some turn to selling drugs, theft or robbery, the teens said.
“It's hard to get jobs,” King said. “A lot of people tell me this: 'That's the only way I know how to live.'”
King said four hours on a street corner selling drugs can bring in $500. She knows a 15-year-old who robs people at gunpoint.
“A lot of people don't have that person to push them to do right,” King said.
King and Martinez suspect the shooters are teenagers who are trying to impress the older men—those in their 20s and 30s who encourage the shootings and supply drugs and guns.
Teens get sent to juvenile detention, they noted.
“But the older person—they get caught, it's over. They're going to prison,” King said.
“They call them 'little savages,' 'little hitters,'” King said of the young people who will do as they are told with no complaint.
It's a small group of people who are involved, Martinez and King agreed.
“A lot of people are good in Beloit,” Martinez said. “There are a lot of good programs in Beloit that can help you.”
But some don't want the help or won't admit they need it, the teens said.
King and Martinez said some of the trouble comes from outsiders—from Milwaukee; Rockford, Illinois; Chicago; and Madison.
Chicago is a big influence, said a 23-year-old Beloiter who asked that his name not be used.
The man also pointed to music with lyrics that promote anger and violence.
The 23-year-old said he grew up in Beloit but attended Janesville Craig High School. He would invite his Janesville friends to his home back then, he said, and it was funny when they worried for their safety.
It's not a joke any longer.
“Beloit is scary,” he said.
So scary that the man said the threat of violence is invading his dreams.
Butch Martin knows the neighborhoods where poverty and drugs are neighbors to everyone.
Martin recently showed a reporter. On nearly every block, he stopped and hollered a hearty hello to people he has known his whole life. He also stopped to greet young people who have never heard of him.
“I'm a pastor, how ya doin?” he called out to two teen boys, extending his hand with his card from the window of his beat-up Pontiac Sunfire.
“I want you to know that you can call me anytime if you need anything,” Martin told one of the boys, shoving a second card into his hand for the other boy.
Martin is on a mission these days. He preached at some of the funerals for young people cut down by gunfire, some just a few years older than these boys. He doesn't want to do it again.
Martin's views on the tragedies are colored by the 22 years he spent in juvenile or adult prisons and his criminal past.
Martin dealt drugs, among other crimes. It wasn't until his last prison sentence that he found Jesus and turned his life around.
Martin's background gives him credibility on the street and gives him the wisdom to know he can't save everyone.
“It's payback,” Martin said of some of the shootings. “You shoot one of mine, and I'll shoot one of yours.”
“At what point do you call it even?” asked Adam Taylor, a fellow worker with Martin at the Overflowing Cup ministry, in an intense discussion on a park bench at Riverside Park last week.
“In the city, it goes on forever,” Martin responded.
But this is not a big city, and a big difference is that Beloit has no gang leaders, Martin said.
“What you've got here is just a bunch of soldiers, and when you've got soldiers, you've got people jockeying for position,” Martin said.
“They aren't thinking about down the road,” Martin said. “Some of them don't think they'll make it to 25.”
All of which might make it sound to an outsider that Beloit has the massive inner-city problems of cities such as Chicago or Milwaukee.
Beloit parallels those cities in some respects, including the loss of manufacturing jobs that brought their forebears here three or four generations ago.
Martin gestured to the former Fairbanks Morse building, now reinvigorated and thriving as ABC Supply, but with a fraction of the jobs.
Fairbanks Morse continues to thrive in Beloit but with nothing like the thousands who used to work in the old factory, Martin said. A few blocks to the east are small, cheap houses where many of those workers lived. Many of their descendants are still here, and in just a few blocks Martin points out several houses where drugs are sold.
The two boys he greeted had stopped at one of the houses. Martin watched them through the rear-view mirror of his car.
One of the boys stayed in the street, riding his bicycle in a circle, acting as a lookout while the other went inside to get drugs to sell, Martin was sure.
Like most Beloiters, Martin is frustrated at repeated shootings
“So what can we do to help?” Taylor said, frustration in his voice reflecting the emotions of many in the city of 36,000.
Martin said a better police presence and more arrests and convictions would help.
But the United States has the highest prison population in the world, Taylor said.
“So how's that working?”
Indeed, Wisconsin's incarceration rate for black men is the highest in the country, according to a recent UW-Madison study.
Martin gestured toward Beloit Memorial High School: “If they don't make it through there, they don't have a chance to go anywhere else.”
The situation is complicated and has no easy solutions, said many interviewed for this story.
Chief Jacobs called the string of killings an aberration.
“It's a sub-group in the community that just has easy access to weapons and is using weapons to settle what we generally believe are minor arguments,” Jacobs said.
Martin agreed with that assessment. He heard one victim was killed over a $20 bag of pot and another over the possession of a fashionable belt.
Police believe the shooters are in their teens or 20s, much like a spate of similar shootings around the nation, Jacobs said.
Only one person faces a homicide charge, so far.
Investigations are at different stages. Police have good evidence in some cases but still don't have enough for the district attorney to make a case, Jacobs said.
Jacobs agreed that gangs are a factor, but the gangs are not as organized as they once were.
They are more like loose associations often organized through social media, Jacobs said.
Social media also are conduits for “venom” that Jacobs said fuels the fires that could lead to violence.
Martin said he doesn't see a lot of police in the tough neighborhoods after dark and thinks a strong police presence could help.
Jacobs said police often are responding to calls, so if they aren't seen on the street because they are helping someone.
People with concerns should buy a police scanner and be amazed at what police are asked to do every day, Jacobs said.
Christian minister Navana Winston said some of those shot were not involved in crime but knew people who were.
“You're just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I think some of these young kids are starting to see that some of these people are hell-bent on crime, on murder,” Winston said.
Gangs are not well organized, Winston said, but there's “a gang/thug mentality among kids who don't have hope of a future, who don't have good parental support, who don't have an identity.”
Winston said she has been trying to help a young man who is being chased by people who want to shoot him. She wants to arrange for the man's probation to be transferred to another state, where he has a safe place and will be cared for. She said she was getting resistance from the man's probation agent, who didn't seem to believe the story.
“Everyone's got to find a way to have a little faith” in each other in order to solve these problems, Winston said.
Youths need to have faith in a future, she said, and the community needs to believe that it can change things.
Winston is among those who see a rotting of society and deterioration of the family at the root of the troubles.
“We've got to go back to where the church, the community and the parents are raising the child. We've gone a long way from that, and we're paying for it,” Winston said.
Winston once lived in Rhode Island, where she turned her gang-leader son into police and where another of her sons was police.
Winston prescribes a mixture of tough love, Jesus and courage to reach out to youth.
“Quit thinking they are not listening. They're listening. They may not act like they're listening, but they are,” she said.
Winston said police have a tough job. She wants to forge closer ties between cops and the community. She notes police are the ones who have to deal with dead bodies on the street.
“You think those officers don't have feelings? They have to carry that. They grieve just like we do,” she said.
“This community, if we all come together, we can wrap our arms around this,” Winston said. “We don't have to be like the rest of the country. We just have to tell ourselves that we're not going to be a part of that story.”
Winston has set up a Facebook page, called Beloit Strong, to get the good word out, and she is involved in planning a church service at 1 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 7, at Summit Park, weather permitting.
Perry, director of community programs for Community Action, rejects the idea that “all our kids” are involved in gangs.
The drug trade has always been in Beloit, Perry said, but the city has nowhere near the troubles of big cities, where high schools have guards and metal detectors.
“It's moving that way, and if we don't put our foot down and do something, we're going to get there,” Perry said.
“By and large, this is a very safe community,” Perry added.
Erick Williams, a program manager at Community Action, has a job that targets the roots of generational poverty and other societal ills tied to Beloit's most desperate neighborhoods.
Ironically, the economy is looking up, especially when it comes to jobs, Williams said.
“Opportunities are definitely a lot better. We haven't been in this position for quite some time,” he said.
Williams said if youths are carrying weapons, sooner or later they will use them.
“My question is, where are they getting them? Whoever is selling them or giving them to them, they have to be held accountable,” Williams said.
Not only are youths carrying firearms, some carry guns that shoot plastic pellets but look like firearms, Chief Jacobs said.
Those Airsoft guns could be mistaken for a real gun, endangering the person carrying it, Jacobs said.
Jacobs recommends parents search their children's rooms, and if they find a firearm or something that looks like one, “you need to ask questions.”
Perry noted the high incarceration rates for black men. When those men return to their communities, they bring with them the survival mindset they learn in prison, Perry said, and that is one contributor to this year's violence in Beloit.
Community Action has programs that help foster children get on their feet as they come of age. It has a program to encourage and show young men how to be good fathers. It has the educational program that Martinez and King are overjoyed to be a part of.
But a young person first has to want to change.
“It has to come out of you. If you want to change, this program will help you,” Martinez said.
“They will do anything to help kids stay off the street,” King added.