Ayeshan Nichols

Greenwood resident Ayeshan Nichols takes care of her 6-year-old grandson after his father, Nichols’ son, Bernard Nichols, died from gunshot wounds Aug. 16 of last year.

Before Ayeshan Nichols moved back to her hometown of Greenwood early last year, she did not expect that she would lose her eldest child, Bernard Nichols, to gun violence — let alone that she would end up taking care of her son’s 6-year-old child, her grandson.

Instead, while still living in Marietta, Georgia, north of Atlanta, Nichols paid close attention to the string of homicides that continued to claim the lives of Greenwood youth.

“Every time you got on Facebook, we would see somebody else murdered in our hometown. It hurt me dearly — to my soul — then. I prayed for my hometown every night,” Nichols said.

“It disturbed me that so much was happening with guns and nothing was being done about it. This was happening to people who I grew up with. … We saw these kids as they were growing from babies, and they’re killing each other. It’s literally the children in our hometown that’s literally killing each other, and we as adults don’t know what to do to stop it.”

On Aug. 15, Nichols’ life changed when Bernard Nichols, a 25-year-old employee at Wendy’s and a 2013 graduate of Greenwood High School, died in the early morning in Greenwood Leflore Hospital’s emergency room after being shot the previous night on the 100 block of Taft Street.

His mother now has to contend with reminding her grandson what a good father Bernard Nichols was. She does this by wrapping and giving presents to her grandson and says they’re from his dad.

“He keeps wanting him; he keeps asking (about) him,” she said. “I try not to mention it because I try to hide it, the pain. But it’s here in my head; it’s here in my heart. But he’s going to continue to ask about it, so I have to continue to talk to him about it.”

• • • 

Janice Johnson, who lost her youngest son, Kenton “Buddy” Johnson, 24, almost a year ago in a Jan. 24 fatal shooting at the corner of Avenue I and Broad Street, also continues to grieve.

“I miss him. It’s horrible. I miss him daily,” she said. “I don’t have the luxury of fussing at him — ‘Be in before dark,’ ‘Watch yourself while you’re out there.’ I miss being a mother to my son.”

In October, after Greenwood resident Elizabeth O’Brien read about Johnson’s trouble grieving, O’Brien informed Johnson that someone had paid for Johnson to attend counseling sessions at Westminster Presbyterian Church.

Johnson appreciated that gesture and found the counselor to be one of the nicest men she had met, but she finds it hard to talk about what she’s going through.

She said she remains scared and reclusive, leaving home only to get groceries or to see the doctor. A drive-by shooting on Veteran’s Bridge in November, in which a random motorist’s vehicle was hit several times, only served as a reminder to Johnson of the terror of the random gun violence in the Greenwood area.

Like Nichols, Johnson is now caring for her late son’s child — and her 4-year-old grandson resembles his father.

“‘When I do get to talk with him?’ he still says. ‘Is my daddy still asleep? Is he going to wake up?’”

His grandmother explained, “The last thing he remembers is seeing him in the casket at the wake.”

Nichols has not been seeking counseling, instead relying on her faith in God and praying for her hometown.

“I just hope that all these murders stop. I hope that they are solved and that the persons who are responsible, justice will be brought upon them, and I just hope that this town can become a peaceful place again,” she said. “Because there are people who love each other. There are people here who know how to love, how to come together, and they can’t, and they’re afraid to because the hate overpowers it. It’s just running wild with guns.”

Nichols and Johnson also are both aggrieved that no one has been charged with murder in connection with their sons’ deaths.

• •  

Bernard Nichols and Kenton Johnson were two of 23 people killed in homicides in Leflore County during 2020, a year marred with acts of gun violence that led to the highest homicide count in the county in the past decade.

Of last year’s homicides, 22 people died from gunshot wounds in 19 incidents. Another 32 people were shot in non-fatal incidents.

All of the victims were Black, and all but three were male.

The next highest homicide count was 15 in 2016, followed by 11 homicides each in 2019 and 2018.

Most of the shootings occurred either in Greenwood or just outside the city limits, such as at apartment complexes or in residential neighborhoods.

Gun violence in the Greenwood area, considered pervasive for a long time, now seems to be running even more rampant.

Sept. 17 shooting

Greenwood police officers respond to the scene of a fatal shooting that occurred the night of Sept. 17 on the 100 block of East Johnson Street.

Greenwood Deputy Police Chief Marvin Hammond, who has been with the department for more than 32 years, said two types of shooting incidents have increased over the years: reports of shots fired and others of people injured by gunshots.

Random incidents of shots fired now lead to 15 to 30 calls a week to the Police Department.

“But the actual gun violence towards another person, that has even increased,” Hammond said. “Young kids today, they go from zero to 100 real quick. They argue, have physical altercations and the next thing they’re shooting. So that’s from zero to 100 because they go right to shooting, sometimes after an argument. They just start shooting because they figure that’s the only way they can handle that situation. So, yeah, it’s bad.”

Though people of all ages have pulled the triggers, it’s believed those between the ages of 14 and 21 are responsible for most of the shooting incidents.

Ryan Parsons, a Greenwood-based Princeton University graduate student who studies poverty in the Delta, has secondhand knowledge of gun violence issues based on the more than 30 interviews he’s conducted in Greenwood for academic research.

From these interviews, Parsons believes that those who are involved in gun violence are not part of established gangs, such as the Vice Lords or Gangster Disciples, but instead informal neighborhood groups composed mostly of younger men.

“There’s a lot of pressure for young men living on the street to either get involved with the group or be victimized by it,” Parsons said. “The other issue is that there’s not a lot of opportunity for young black men really anywhere in the country but especially in Greenwood.”

“It’s easier to get caught up and identified as a troublemaker than it is to find a formal, well-paying job in Greenwood,” he said.

Other local residents who have witnessed the rise in gun violence over the years also attribute the problem to lack of opportunities, the environment and an abundance of free time.

Other factors include easy access to weapons, particularly assault-style rifles; the amplification of social media; and what residents say is the lack of conflict resolution skills.

Kenderick Cox, a teacher in the Greenwood Leflore Consolidated School District, has lost numerous former students to gun violence. He said the environment is a huge factor behind the shootings.

“A lot of ones who are doing it are in survivor mode,” he said. “They’re miseducated. They have limited resources, and they feel like ‘I got to do whatever’s necessary to provide for me or my family.’”

Born and raised in Greenwood, Cox could recall when the city had a “plethora of different opportunities.” That has changed, he said.

“When a kid doesn’t have anything to do, they’ll find something to do,” he said. “As of right now, those somethings are life-threatening. We just have to find alternative ways to keep them motivated.”

Playing sports is one option, but Cox said it’s not enough for everyone.

Noting the countless blighted properties around town, Cox asked why the city can’t contract the cleanup of these lots to youth.

“If you put a kid to work and have a way to make money, I guarantee they’ll stop doing the things that’s going on with the community now,” he said.

• •  

Shun Pearson, who has spent years working with at-risk youth to guide them in the right direction, also said the lack of opportunities and a dilapidated environment play a role in why youth may resort to firearms.

Shun Pearson

Shun Pearson, who has worked with young people for years, speaks to a group of kids during a game of pick-up baseball held last summer at Bishop Apartments.

“You can get your face on a T-shirt before you get an opportunity to do something with your life,” Pearson said, referring to shirts made in memory of lost loved ones.

“When opportunity is lacking, when you’ve been told you can’t get a job because you can’t pass a drug test … it’s been disconnected,” Pearson said. “They’ve been disconnected so long they can’t put their hands on the problem.

“But these kids, these are babies. They are 18, 17, 15. When 12-year-olds die of gun violence in your community and it doesn’t cause an uproar ....,” he said, trailing off, referring to the 2019 murder of Jordan Lloyd, a Greenwood Middle School student.

Pearson noted that local youths sometimes post pictures on social media of themselves toting guns.

“The people who got the guns are crying out for help,” he said. “They’re actually saying, ‘Holler at me. Check on me. Ask me what’s wrong.’ So, now that they post it, that’s for somebody. If they’ve got a picture of a gun, they’ve got an enemy. That picture’s for somebody.”

From his interviews, Parsons said that only a small number of people are actually responsible for pulling the triggers. Yet, he said, the ripple effect leads to “an exponentially larger number of people who are affected on the side.”

Cox said gun violence has had a numbing effect, particularly on kids who may go on later to seek revenge if they have lost a close friend or family member.

“That’s where a lot of this gun violence is going on now,”  Cox said. “We as adults have to step up and say, ‘Hey, we have a problem. We have kids who are going through post-traumatic stress.’ Instead of complaining these kids did this, these kids did that, we need to start wrapping our arms around them.”

• •  

Most of the grassroots efforts designed to address gun violence in the community focus on reaching youth. Activists behind these initiatives, however, often lack the funding as well as wider support from the community and local leaders to keep these programs running.

Loretta McClee, who has organized peace rallies in the past and provides a listening ear for grieving parents, said, “The only reason why the peace rallies are not effective is because we don’t have enough community participation.”

Jelani Barr, who worked with Pearson in 2014 in an unsuccessful effort to secure funding from the Greenwood City Council for an anti-gun violence program, is discouraged that local leaders have not adopted grassroots efforts that focus on assisting youth.

“The only way to address this problem is from within,” he said. “This is not a problem you can police away, you can arrest away.”

Barr also said that he was dismayed that the Leflore County Board of Supervisors appropriated $200,000 to the Sheriff’s Department last year to hire more personnel and form a crime task force. He said that money would have been better invested in youth programs.

“This isn’t new, what’s going on,” Pearson said. “It’s just newly being talked about.”

• •  

For last year’s killings, there are 11 homicide investigations — four handled by the Sheriff’s Department and seven by the Greenwood police — that still have not led to any charges.

Although both departments plead with the community to call in any tips, Cox said that for local residents who fear retaliation, it’s not always easy to call in a crime. He added that the relationship between the community and law enforcement has “been at a rough patch for some time.” He said there have been cases of people experiencing retaliation after word leaked out that they had spoken with authorities.

Hammond said officers don’t give away the identities of people who have called in information, and the department is promoting the use of CrimeStoppers, an anonymous tip line. He also said that officers are encouraged to get out of their vehicles whenever possible and develop personal connections with residents by, for example, joining kids for impromptu basketball games.

During a Black Lives Matter protest held in front of Greenwood City Hall in June, residents expressed frustration with police for cracking down on minor crimes and having what they perceive as a lax attitude toward major crimes.

Police Chief Terrence Craft, who was appointed to his position this past week, has said that his goals for his administration include establishing a better relationship between the community and the police and investing in other crime-reducing strategies outside of arrests, acknowledging that “we cannot always arrest our way out of crime and quality of life issues in our community.”

Sheriff Ricky Banks declined requests for an interview.

The Rev. Dr. Calvin Collins, pastor of New Zion Missionary Baptist Church, has personally witnessed the ripple effects of gun violence in the community.

As a pastor, he often ends up officiating at the funerals for children of church members who have been slain.

He did not say how many there have been.

“You don’t want to know the answer to that,” he said. “Too many. Let me put it that way.”

“It hurts,” he went on. “It’s painful, and it hurts on one side. But on the other side of the coin, there’s anger and frustration. Frustration because you can’t hit a button and make it go away. Anger because it doesn’t make sense. It’s foolish, it’s inhumane. It’s disrespectful of life, disrespectful of the parent. This is somebody’s child. Somebody’s son, somebody’s daughter.”

Contact Gerard Edic at 581-7239 or gedic@gwcommonwealth.com.

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