Christmas Eve Shooting Inspires Coney Island Residents to Take Action

For many New Yorkers, Christmas Eve is the most peaceful night of the year. But in 2013, it was another night of violence in Coney Island.  Just before 7 p.m., 17-year-old Yaquin English returned from walking his dog when he was shot seven times. He died in front of the Gravesend Houses, the public housing project that was his home. His pit bull stood tied up nearby with a gunshot wound to its paw.

English’s family was not the only one to lose a son that night. In 2016, Jerome Leslie, who was also 17 at the time of the shooting, was convicted of murder in the case. He is now serving 22 years to life at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y.

The entrance to the housing project where English was killed. (The Ink/Megan Messana)

Then, two days after English was killed, 20-year-old Shawn White was shot to death a few blocks away. It was the end of a particularly bloody year. In 2013, there were eight murders in Coney Island according to the New York City Police Department, with 335 murders taking place across the entire city. With the New Year approaching, many neighborhood activists felt it was time to make a change to the place they call home.

Mathylde Frontus, 39, a Coney Island resident and the former executive director of Urban Neighborhood Services (UNS) remembers receiving a phone call the morning after White was killed. “I was just laying there in my bed,” Frontus said, “and I said [to myself] you’re going to have to do this again.” Frontus said she formed the Coney Island Coalition Against Violence in December 2009; two years later, members voted to disband and work on anti-violence efforts through their respective organizations.  But after the phone call, Frontus said, “I decided right then and there that I was going to send an emergency S.O.S. email to invite stakeholders to come to my office that evening with the intent to coalesce around this issue, and that’s exactly what happened.”

Frontus sent the email on the morning of Dec. 27 and that night about 30-40 people were crammed into the small UNS office on Mermaid Avenue. The meeting included business owners, public officials, parents and local clergy. “It was a fire hazard for sure,” Frontus said, laughing as she described how close everyone had to be to fit inside.

From there, Frontus helped create the Coney Island Anti-Violence Collaborative (CIAVC). The Collaborative began as a part of UNS, a non-profit local agency that helps with everything from job and housing searches to providing LGBTQ+ safe zones. It is now its own entity and, Frontus said, is currently funded by State Sen. Diane Savino, who has provided between $200,000 – $250,000 over the past few years, and the Fund for the City of New York. The main goal is to eliminate violence in the community, and they are tenacious in their objective. “In the beginning, it was essentially me pitching this idea and vision … and asking for people to believe me that this was serious,” Frontus said, “and I did that by asking that we meet monthly.”

Since then, the group has met consistently on the second Wednesday of every month. The most recent meeting on Oct. 11, held in the auditorium of Liberation Diploma Plus High School in Coney Island, drew around 50 people. Young children ran around playing while their older siblings kept an eye on them. A middle-aged couple befriended the police officers who were also in attendance, discussing how they’re lifelong residents of the area, how loud the people who live above them in their apartment building are and how they try to come to every one of these meetings. Everyone could sample the catered Chinese food that was available to anyone who would like a hot meal, and phrases printed on colored construction paper peppered the wall of the room – “if you can dream it, you can do it” and “in order to succeed, we must first believe that we can.”

The room seemed to light up when Frontus, previously the acting chair of the Collaborative’s Steering Committee, entered. She made her way through the crowd, greeting every person she passed. “I’m blind without my glasses,” she said , “so I can’t see who anyone saying hi to me is!” She took her seat at the long table in the front of the auditorium and put her glasses on. At 6:10 p.m., the meeting began.

“We know two things,” said Joe Herrera, the co-chair of the Collaborative’s Steering Committee. “We don’t make guns in Coney Island and we don’t make bullets in Coney Island.” He went on to welcome everyone, and then brought five Neighborhood Coordination Officers (NCOs) from the 60th Precinct up to speak.

Liberation Diploma Plus High School, where the CIAVC holds their monthly meetings. (The Ink/Megan Messana)

“Any problem that you have, big or small, we have the resources to alleviate,” Sgt. Christopher Vincenti told the crowd. “We get all the resources together and we solve the problem.” He went on to explain what they’ve been up to lately in the community, discussing things like homelessness and a recent string of car burglaries. “We’re on the street every day,” Vincenti said. “We know the people. We know who the players are.”

After a few more updates, Herrera introduced Ronald Stewart, who was greeted by a round of applause. “This is a group of volunteers; this is not a paid job,” said Stewart, 65, who is known locally as Brother Ron. “We do this because have a deep love of Coney Island.” Stewart reminded everyone that “violence against anyone is not normal” and asserted that “I refuse to be a prisoner in my own home.”

Not long after it was created, the Coney Island Collaborative developed an initiative called the Step-Up Project. The project is an outreach team, which means the members walk through the neighborhood and attempt to talk to anyone they pass about how they can get involved and what they can do for themselves and their community.  Stewart, a life-long resident of Coney Island, is a coordinator of the program. A retired parole officer and the son of an activist mother, Stewart seems right at home in the Brooklyn Public Library on Mermaid Avenue as he explains how the neighborhood has a place in his heart. “I always had a commitment to stay here,” he said. After the deaths of English and White, Stewart and Frontus, along with a few other men, began meeting every Sunday morning in Dunkin’ Donuts on Stillwell Avenue to devise a plan to combat community violence.

“We just began to walk through the community, giving out fliers, talking to people … making ourselves present,” Stewart said, “to let them know that these things are happening and we have to do something to stop it.”

Throughout his time in the neighborhood and with Step-Up, Stewart has worked with countless young people. “I had one woman come up to me, and ask if I could speak to her son,” he said. “She said he got bullied and beat up by a group of kids, and his mind is set on revenge.” He explained how the woman told him that he could find her son playing basketball at a certain court everyday, so Stewart was able to find him and spark a conversation over a game. “Through the conversation, I found out that he decided not to do it,” he said. “I don’t think that was really in his heart … but sometimes young people feel that they have been violated and they have to get that revenge.”

“Another guy, he used to see me all the time,” Stewart said with a smile. He talked about how the young man gave him a call one day after his mother told him that Brother Ron was someone he could talk to. They met in Kaiser Park, which is across the street from the Gravesend Houses. “He said, ‘Listen, my girlfriend is pregnant, and I want to get out of this stuff … I want my daughter or son to have a better life,’ ” Stewart said. “That was his inspiration.” Stewart helped the young man get a construction job in the neighborhood and now three years later, he’s still working and taking care of his young daughter.

Talking to individuals is a large part of how these organizations operate. At the monthly meeting, Shirley Juste, site director of UNS, stressed how the organization has free therapy. “You have someone right here willing to open their heart and help you heal,” she said, attempting to instill the idea that no one should hold back on working through their feelings and any trauma they may have experienced. Along with therapeutic talks, monthly meetings and the Step-Up outreach team, the Collaborative hosts rallies any time a shooting takes place in the neighborhood; an annual Stop the Violence family day; community breakfasts; poster campaigns, and a toll-free number for anyone seeking help or support.

The entrance to Kaiser Park, located across the street from the Gravesend Houses where English lived and where Stewart met with a young man who needed his help. (The Ink/Megan Messana)

Frontus explained how the Collaborative also pushed to get a cure-violence program in Coney Island. “Coney Island is blessed in that way because it has two anti-violence initiatives,” Frontus said, “which is two more than other neighborhoods have.” Operation H.O.O.D. (Helping Our Own Develop) is a city program, funded by the NYC Anti-Gun Violence Initiative according to the Jewish Community Council of Greater Coney Island, the organization that hosts the program. Derick Scott, program manager for Operation H.O.O.D., explained that the cure-violence model is more than just “taking guns off the street.”

“That’s the political solution,” Scott said. “We’re changing the mindset.” The five core components of the model, he explained, include outreach, community organizations, gathering faith-based leaders, compiling data and public education on the issues facing the community. Regarding how police and these organizations interact, Scott said “they do not get in the way.”

“They think the police are, in many ways, complicit in this,” Stewart said of people in the community, “that they know where the guns are but they’re not really making a strong effort [to stop gun violence].” He added that many residents feel that the police “are an occupying force in the community. They just want to do their eight hours and go home.”

There is some indication that the anti-violence efforts may be working. This year, the 60th Precinct has seen only five murders in Coney Island as of Oct. 17, according to Compstat, down from the eight that occurred the year English and White were killed.

But whatever the statistics, activists like Frontus and Stewart say they will continue their efforts. “We try to encourage the guys that used to be [involved in violence] when they were younger … we encourage them [that] ‘you need to go back and teach these guys the error of something like that,’ ” Stewart said. He explained these men, along with the outreach workers of Step-Up and Operation H.O.O.D. are considered “credible messengers,” and that people in the community will listen to them before anyone else.

When asked why, Stewart answered succinctly. “They have a saying among them,” he said, “you send a wolf to deal with a wolf.”

Update: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Frontus had not gone forward with an earlier anti-violence initiative. In fact, she formed the Coney Island Coalition Against Violence, which lasted from December 2009 to December 2011. The story also incorrectly stated that the Coney Island Anti-Violence Collaborative is part of UNC. It began as part of UNS, but is now its own entity. Frontus was also incorrectly identified as the chair of the collaborative’s steering committee. She is the former acting chair.

Header Photo: The Gravesend Houses, located on Neptune Avenue & Bayview Avenue. (The Ink/Megan Messana)