ST. PETERSBURG — They gathered just a short walk from the home where 8-year-old Paris Whitehead-Hamilton's life ended in a barrage of gunfire. With signs displaying their hopes and their frustrations, they walked out of Bartlett Park to tell a city that violence is not inevitable. And they warned repeatedly that the community must avoid the one thing that enables the criminals: Silence. So up to 400 people marched Saturday morning between Bartlett and Campbell parks in an event organized by the NAACP's St. Petersburg branch following a string of shootings that have shaken the community.
With Mayor Rick Baker and police Chief Chuck Harmon in their ranks, the group carried signs that said "Enough is Enough" and "Hugs not Guns" as police escorted them through the streets.
"The violence has got to stop," said the Rev. Walter Jenkins, assistant pastor of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church. "Things have gone too far. If a man is not willing to stand for anything, he'll fall for anything."
St. Petersburg NAACP president Ray Tampa led marchers with a bullhorn, reminding everyone that it wasn't just one child's death they were marking.
"It's every other senseless death that our community is addressing today," he said. "Paris' death and all the other deaths aren't going to be in vain. We're going to get these guns out of our community."
At Campbell Park, speakers talked about helping police and being unafraid to step forward to help.
LaShawn Crawford, Paris' cousin, urged the crowd to call police when crime occurs.
"We've got to get past this 'no snitches,' " Crawford said. "When I grew up, if you didn't snitch, you got your butt whooped. It's okay to talk to the men in green and white. The police are your friend."
Police promoted a new program that puts a bounty on guns — a direct outgrowth of Paris' April 5 shooting.
Police will pay $1,500 to anyone who calls the Crime Stoppers of Pinellas County hotline, toll-free at 1-800-873-8477, with a tip that leads to both the recovery of an assault weapon and a weapons charge against somebody.
Police will offer $1,000 for tips leading to other firearms. Calls can remain confidential, police said.
Harmon, the police chief, said after the event that he knows police can never entirely rid the city of illegal weapons.
But events like Saturday's are a start, he said. "I think the guns will become less available as the community's tolerance lessens," Harmon said.
Deanie Victor said younger people need to realize guns are not the answer to every conflict.
"Way back when, they used to fight, roll around in the dirt, shake it off and go on with life," Victor said. "Not anymore."
She blames the influence of television for creating a gangster mind-set on the streets.
"They see someone get killed on one channel," Victor said. "But they're alive on another channel. Out on the streets, death is final."
William R. Levesque can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 269-5306.