Written by Nathalie Lagerfeld
The playground at Spencer Elementary School teemed with children. They clambered up and down the colorful play structures, or raced each other around the springy foam padding beneath. But this was no school day recess—it was the Heaven Sutton Peace Festival, a community celebration held on Saturday, June 14 as part of CeaseFire Week 2013. Many of the children wore white T-shirts emblazoned with a large “7,” honoring Heaven Sutton, the 7-year-old victim of gun violence for whom the festival was named.
Earlier in the day, CeaseFire staff had honored State Representative Lashawn Foster and Pastor Robbie Wilkinson at the festival during a ceremony attended by aldermen Deborah Graham and Jason Irving. Both honorees—as well as 15th District Commander Barbara West, due to receive her award later that evening—had worked with CeaseFire on anti-violence initiatives in the community.
Now, however, the roughly 150 attendees were ready for fun and games. Music pouring from speakers sent older kids dancing across the hot blacktop, where their figures cast long shadows in the early evening sun. A few feet from the playground, hot dogs cooked on a grill manned by CeaseFire volunteers. Staff from My Girlfriend’s Kitchen, a restaurant in West Garfield Park, passed out cupcakes topped with brightly colored icing or glistening brown caramel.
Bright-orange posters preaching messages of peace had been woven into slats of the playground fence, reminding the merrymakers of why they were there. But according to Karl Bell, program manager for Austin, just getting people together at events like the Peace Festival can itself help promote nonviolence. “You have the children of groups A, B, and C coming together and having fun in the name of peace,” he said. “It shows that this is normal, all of us playing together. We’re all the same, and we’re all one.”
On June 27, 2012, Heaven was selling sweets from a candy stand her mother, Ashake Banks, had set up in front of their house in the 1700 block of Luna Ave. The stand was intended to keep Heaven close to home and out of trouble. Instead, trouble found her.
At about 10:45 p.m. that evening, two men bolted out of a nearby alleyway and began shooting at a group of people across the street. Caught in the crossfire, Heaven was shot in the back as she tried to run into her home. “She died in my arms,” a grief-stricken Ashake later told news crews.
Jerrell Dorsey, 26, was later charged in Heaven’s death, but Bell maintains that arrests alone will not be enough to end the violence. Instead, the whole community must get involved in an effort to promote change. “There has to be an outcry every time that someone gets shot,” Bell said, “to show that it’s not normal behavior.”
Helping amplify this outcry is a large part of CeaseFire’s mission. After her daughter was killed, Ashake asked the group to help spread the word by organizing a shooting response. A shooting response is an organized march by community members, CeaseFire staff, and clergy designed to let perpetrators of violent crime “know that their behavior is unacceptable,” Bell said.
Heaven’s march, which attracted several thousand people, was the largest Bell ever worked on. Heaven was also the youngest person for whom he had ever organized such an event.
Some might doubt that marches, cookouts, or anything else could convince perpetrators to alter their violent behavior, but Bell knows firsthand how tragedy can inspire change. He was once a gang member himself, but left behind that life when members of his own family fell victim to violence. “My youngest brother was killed trying to be like me,” he said. His other brother, who wanted to retaliate against the men who had killed him, died “of a broken heart,” Bell added. “I didn’t do my job as a big brother. They followed me onto the streets.”
Bell has now been working for CeaseFire, in a volunteer or paid capacity, for an entire decade, and he credits his involvement with the organization for turning his life around. He is now in his third year as a student at Northeastern University, where he is about to finish his bachelor’s degree, and is beginning a master’s degree in August. His three-year-old child and one of his cousins would be at the Peace Festival, he said. “My family was a big part of the violence… we helped create it,” Bell said. “Now I try to stop it.”
Another person taking a stance against violence is Heaven’s mother, Ashake, who attended the Peace Festival with several family members. She founded an organization, Heaven on Earth, to give support to other mothers who have lost children to the ongoing violence. On June 27, the first anniversary of Heaven’s death, the group will host a prayer vigil and smokeout in her honor at LaFollette Park from 4 p.m.–6 p.m.
Even as she continues to work for peace, Ashake admitted that she sometimes loses hope that the violence will ever stop. “The shootings are getting worse—they’re coming outside in the daylight,” she said.
Still, most days, she manages to keep her spirits up. “You’ve got to keep going, to keep smiling,” she said with a shrug.
“[Heaven’s death] impacted everybody,” added Ashake’s cousin, Juanetta Banks. “But at the end of the day, we have to move on. I think that’s what she would want.”
CeaseFire would like to thank numerous partners, including Youth Outreach Services (YOS), Heaven on Earth, My Girlfriend’s Kitchen, Groupon Grassroots and RMK Photography for their support of this event.
Photos credited to RMK Photography.
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