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Photos by Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette
The Rev. Saharra Bledsoe of Renaissance Baptist Church and president of the local chapter of NAACP, prays before the second annual “Pick Up a Book, Not a Gun” anti-violence rally and march.

Families march to remember

Many join rally to honor victims, end gun crimes

Participants march down South Anthony Boulevard to support the end of gun violence in the city.

– With the number of homicides in Allen County at a record 45 last year, the Rev. Saharra Bledsoe launched the second annual “Pick Up a Book, Not a Gun” anti-violence rally and march on the city’s south side with a prayer.

She asked that God would remember the grieving.

“Look down upon these families whose hearts are being broken by this senseless violence,” said Bledsoe, associate pastor of Fort Wayne’s Renaissance Baptist Church.

Shortly after, about 80 people, many wearing T-shirts with victims’ names or pictures, strode down South Anthony Boulevard Saturday toward McKinnie Avenue from Colerick Street.

Bledsoe, sworn in last year as president of the Fort Wayne-Allen County Branch of the NAACP, acknowledged a dip in slayings this year. She attributed at least part of it to the severe winter weather, which kept people indoors.

But she said the city still has plenty of issues to address to lessen violence, which last year disproportionately took the lives of young black men.

She said she has not seen an open-door policy among police and prosecutors so families of victims, “regardless of who was the shooter,” feel they can talk to and get information about investigations.

And, she said, few resources exist for grieving families.

“There’s gaping holes. We have no outlet for these grieving families,” she said.

She hopes to address that situation this year through a committee of the local NAACP.

Bledsoe said jobs remain scarce, as does good child care, while guns remain plentiful.

“And we don’t know where the guns are coming from,” she said.

She added that “it’s too early to tell” if Fort Wayne’s new police chief, Garry Hamilton, the first black to hold that post in the city’s history, will be able to put a dent in gun crimes.

Bledsoe said the group is seeking book donations beginning today. The group will host a free event from 1 to 9 p.m. in Memorial Park to collect books. The family-oriented event includes food, games and gospel music.

The books will become part of a Little Free Library at the NAACP’s headquarters at 1307 E. Lewis St., and volunteers also will be distributing books door to door. The Little Free Library is a national nonprofit organization that promotes reading by encouraging cities and families to install mini libraries in yards, parks and other places.

Sundays in the Park events will continue weekly throughout this month, Bledsoe said.

She added that she is beginning a 40-day fast today to end violence. Another black pastor in Fort Wayne, the Rev. Bill McGill of Imani Baptist Church, completed a similar fast last year.

More than 35 of the walk’s participants were members of the extended family or friends of Tavontae Jamar Haney, according to 24-year-old Jaron Chapman of Fort Wayne, Haney’s cousin.

The 19-year-old was shot and killed by Fort Wayne police April 27, 2013, after he ran from a traffic stop. Police said Haney had outstanding warrants and pointed a gun at them. The shooting was ruled justified in February.

Some family members disputed that finding Saturday, saying they attended the walk because they wanted “justice for T.J.”

Others said they wanted young people to know that, if they’re stopped by police, they shouldn’t resist or flee.

“Don’t run at all. Stay where you’re at,” said Kuzari Reynolds, 15, of Fort Wayne, another cousin of Haney. “I’d rather he be doing time than not being here.”

Marsha Johnson, 41, also Haney’s cousin, said her concerns went beyond that case.

All the violence “makes me feel terrible,” she said.

“Every time another family has to grieve and bury their son, it’s just senseless,” she said. “And it has to stop.”