Saturday, 15 May 2021

Killing of fourth Denver teenager in one week prompts calls for change

Davarie Armstrong’s friends tried to keep him alive as they drove the few minutes to the hospital from the house party where he had been shot.

Dante Johnson held Armstrong, his best friend, as they sped away from the home, where gunfire had erupted for no reason that the teens could understand.

“I was just saying, ‘You good, you good. Stay with me,’ ” Johnson said.

But Armstrong died Saturday, just weeks before he was slated to start his senior year at South High School. The 17-year-old was a good student, a standout athlete, a hard worker and a mentor to younger kids, his friends, family and coaches said. He was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time when he was shot, they said.

Armstrong is the latest Denver teenager to die in a wave of killings over the past week. Four teenagers have been shot and killed here over the past seven days: 19-year-old Tayvion Washington, 14-year-old Xzavier Collier, 15-year-old Moses Chaney Harris and Armstrong.

The young men’s deaths prompted community organizers in the Park Hill and Montbello neighborhoods as well as from the larger Denver metro area to hold two community meetings Monday night about the violence and to demand investment and change from city leaders.

“We are in a state of emergency,” Sharletta Evans, founder of Victim and Offender Mitigation Initiative, said at a meeting at the Zion Senior Center.

“We want our city officials to speak up … at least show that you care about your black and brown kids.”

Community activists in the fall and earlier this year warned that this summer would be deadly for young people if nothing changed in how the city handles violence prevention. So far this year, at least 10 Denver teens have been killed in homicides — more youth killings than all of 2019.

During the meetings Monday, community members and anti-violence activists discussed setting up safe zones where teens can access services and hang out in a non-violent space, as well as creating on-the-ground intervention without involving police.

Mayor Michael Hancock tweeted that he was heartbroken over the recent killings and said that he planned to announce new funding opportunities later this week for the nonprofits that already work with Denver’s young people. His office did not return a call for comment Monday afternoon.

“This is personal, not just for the families overcome by grief, but for every one of us who calls Denver home, because we are failing our young people when they need us the most,” Hancock wrote on Twitter. “We cannot standby while violence overwhelms our neighborhoods. We must wrap our arms around our youth, like we’ve never done before, come together in solidarity to begin the true work of healing.”

“To me, a tweet is, words are empty without action,” said Linda Colbert of Families Against Violent Acts.

Colbert said that more funding from the city is necessary, but also worried that the funding will be so small that it will cause conflict among the organizations.

“They want the organizations to split a minuscule amount of money, or worse, to fight over the funding to prove that we can help the community the most,” she said. “It causes somewhat of a rift even within the organizations.”

Hancock’s tweets are also unlikely to reach many of the people impacted by the recent violence, she said. Not everyone has Twitter, she said, and what many grieving families want is personal contact with city leadership.

“I don’t know a family that can say that our city’s leadership has checked in with them and asked ‘What can we do?’ ” Colbert said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened the risk of youth violence, community organizers said. Many teenagers are disconnected from supports they may have had at school, they are struggling to find jobs in a weakened economy, and any organized summer activity they may have looked forward to is likely now out the window. Those factors, along with a resurgent civil rights movement focused on racism, create a seemingly inescapable source of stress, especially for Black and Hispanic youth.

“It’s like do you catch COVID and lose your life?” said Narcy Jackson, co-founder of Athletics and Beyond, which provides life skills training and off-season athletic programs. “Do you die in the hands of the authorities? Or is it someone with bad intentions who lives in the same place you do that might kill you? It’s like a minefield.”

It’s disheartening to talk to young people who feel like they have nothing to live for, Colbert said. Adults must take it upon themselves to help the teens find reasons to be hopeful, she said.

“Because without hope, you don’t mind dying,” Colbert said.

Armstrong was one of the teens in Jackson’s off-season football program, which Jackson had to cancel the summer program because of the pandemic. The teen helped mentor younger students and wanted to go to college to pursue his football career, she said.

“He became a standout of our program,” Jackson said of the teen. “He was a quiet giant.”

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