Last year, black-and-white "We Must Stop Killing Each Other" signs began popping up in yards across St. Louis.
The organization behind the signs, Better Family Life, had just received $55,000 from the city of St. Louis to continue its efforts to reduce violence in targeted city neighborhoods.
Twelve months later, that rallying cry drew a sizeable crowd to Page Boulevard Saturday for an anti-violence march.
The outreach efforts don’t seem to be reflected in St. Louis’ homicide numbers — the city is on track to have about 160 murders this year, the same as 2014.
“This is not about speed as much as it is about direction," said Better Family Life's James Clark. "We didn’t get into this crisis overnight, so we don’t expect to get out of it overnight. But we believe that the direction that the African-American community must go in at this hour is to begin to focus our collective attention on the fact that we kill each other at an alarming rate.”
Clark said his organization has been successful at reducing crime in the three neighborhoods -- Academy, Hamilton Heights, and Penrose -- where it has outreach workers but hasn’t been able to get the funding to expand.
"We have got to be able to bring this homicide rate down. We’ve got to be able to bring this crime rate down. And in order to do it we must be active in the neighborhoods where it’s taking place,” Clark said. “We are not New York. We are not Los Angeles. We are not Chicago. We are a small city, but we have ignored the human capital in our more challenged neighborhoods for far too long.”
Many of the hundreds of people marching carried pictures of loved ones lost to violence, including Asha Preyor, whose 20-year-old cousin Devon was killed in University City four months ago.
“It kind of makes me feel sad to know that that many people have had that many people die that were so young,” Preyor said. “But it’s a good movement, just seeing black people support each other instead of killing each other.”
Preyor said young people need more things to do to keep them from getting into gangs and going down the wrong path.
Marcher Corey Jones lost his fiancé Felita Davis to a gunshot on Grand Boulevard two years ago. He said the momentum of Saturday's march had the potential to lay the foundation for change.
“I’m hoping that it is (the start) but you can’t really say for sure. The parents got to get more involved, period, with their kids. It starts with their parents and it’s got to trickle down,” Jones said.
Shelia Price brought three grandchildren to the march. She lost her son to gun violence 20 years ago, and said she’s made an effort to get involved with police ever since.
Price said it’s hard to tell whether Better Family Life’s effort to reduce the culture of violence has had an impact.
“I think the community has lost hope, is what’s going on,” she said. “But I think it has made a big difference, because a lot of people have come together. And that’s what we wanted, for the community to come together before something happened.”
Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.