To stop the violence, listen to the victims' mothers - like me 

To stop the violence, listen to the victims' mothers - like me

By Sylvia Bennett-Stone 

About 17 years ago, I got that call in the middle of the night that every parent dreads. The caller ID said “University Hospital,” and immediately, I assumed something bad had happened to my 19-year-old daughter Krystal Joy. As I heard the voice on the phone, I first thought Krystal and her best friend Terrin had been in a car accident. I woke up my husband, and we rushed to the hospital, praying the entire ride there. We were met by a chaplain and a doctor.

“Tell me the girls are okay,” I begged them.

The doctor shook her head. “I’m so sorry — I can’t tell you that.”

The shock was so great that I passed out. I later found out that night that the cause of Krystal and Terrin’s deaths wasn’t actually a car accident, but a gunshot wound. They were at a gas station, when three men started arguing with each other. The argument quickly escalated into a gun fight, and a single bullet from a rifle went through Krystal’s body and into Terrin’s heart.

The girls’ deaths made national news, and our community in Alabama was outraged. One of the men was arrested right away, U.S. Marshals extradited the other from California. Both men were charged with capital murder.

Everyone knew Krystal and Terrin were good girls. Strangers would come up to me in the street and promise me, “If I see those guys, I plan on killing them.” I got letters from inmates in Alabama’s prisons that said, “If they come here, we’ll make sure they die.”

Street violence claims so much more than the murder victims alone: the parents, grandparents, and other relatives who struggle to go on after experiencing the death of a child. The emotional blow can trigger a wide range of psychological problems, including the risk of suicideStudies have even shown that mothers have an increased chance of dying within several years of losing a child to violence.

I have spent the years since losing Krystal counseling other mothers whose children have been killed. Often, we’ll talk all night long. Some will sit in silence on the phone for hours, because they’re worried if they hang up, they won’t make it through the night. I know firsthand the power of having someone to share your burden.

Over the last few years, cellphone videos of police brutality against unarmed Black people have rightly generated national outrage. Those lives matter greatly — but they represent a fraction of the number of Black people who are killed each week in our neighborhoods, including a growing number of children who are caught in crossfire.

2020 saw a spike in violence and murders across America. The FBI reported a 20% increase in killings nationwide in the first nine months of last year. The Gun Violence Archive reported that 2020′s shootings and firearm-related incidents were the highest level in over two decades. In the midst of hurting, some mothers are wondering if the #DefundThePolice movement could have contributed to the loss of their child, as law enforcement may have become more passive.

Defunding the police isn’t the answer. Instead, we need positive policing — including funding to train police in de-escalation and conflict-resolution skills. We need public-safety measures that ensure that our communities are safe. We must identify neighborhood risk factors that often contribute to a violent environment, and give the residents of these neighborhoods the education, mental health resources, child and teen mentorship, and legal services they need.

That’s why I have joined other mothers of murdered children to start a new initiative today: the Voices of Black Mothers United initiative. We’ve come together to honor the lives of our fallen children by helping to create safer communities for everyone. Our mission is to bring together law enforcement and community partners to support solutions to senseless violence with community-based intervention and sensible police reform.

If there had been a police officer at the gas station that night, Krystal and Terrin might still be alive. If a community leader had spent time mentoring those young men, maybe they would have been able to manage their disagreement without pulling out guns.

Krystal and Terrin would have gotten their gas and been on their way. They would have finished college, become pediatricians like they’d always planned, and had families of their own. For the sake of our children, we must stop the senseless violence in our neighborhoods.

Sylvia Bennett-Stone is the director of Voices of Black Mothers United, an initiative of the Woodson Center in Washington, DC. She was raised in Long Island, but now lives in Birmingham, Ala.