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New group seeks to address violent crime in St. Pete

Jordan Balloon, 7, sits near tombstone reminders at a vigil in Childs Park focused on stopping the violence in the community. Many residents said they have lost family members and friends to violence.
Jordan Balloon, 7, sits near tombstone reminders at a vigil in Childs Park focused on stopping the violence in the community. Many residents said they have lost family members and friends to violence.
Published Apr. 26, 2012

ST. PETERSBURG

Under the light of the setting sun, Tashawn Muhammad reached up to pin a T-shirt bearing the image of Paris Whitehead-Hamilton on a line strung between trees.

The picture of the 8-year-old girl, who died in 2009 when gang members pumped 56 bullets into her house, swayed in a light breeze alongside T-shirts emblazoned with the faces of other St. Petersburg murder victims.

In the middle, a banner proclaimed that it is "Time to Take a Stand."

"What we're trying to do is get people to notice," Muhammad said. "We're tired of the violence in our neighborhoods. We're just trying to stop it all across the board."

Muhammad, along with her husband, John Muhammad, was among the organizers of the Stop the Violence Coalition, a newly formed neighborhood group that held a three-hour vigil Wednesday in Childs Park.

Few of the 150 attendees had not been touched by violence. Many were victims — people like Alicia Roberts, whose son Antonio "Pac-Man" Roberts, 20, was shot to death in May 2005. And Denise Swisher, who lost her son Forbes "P-Nut" Swisher, 18, a year later.

The boys were friends. Both killings are unsolved.

"My mission is not to solve my son's murder, but to make sure there's no one else's murder that needs to be solved," Swisher said. "There is no reason my son should have been shot down in the streets of St. Pete."

More than a few people at the event also knew the other side of violent crime. John Muhammad's sister-in-law was shot to death two weeks ago in an Easter morning home invasion — but he also has four relatives in prison for murder.

Violence and crime, Muhammad said, are perpetuated by a culture that tolerates it.

"It's a loss on both ends," he said. "Our call to action is to hold ourselves and our community to a higher standard and decrease our tolerance for violence."

At the base of a large oak tree, volunteers erected Styrofoam grave markers with words of warning. "Stop the Violence," they read. "Each One Reach One. Enough is Enough."

Mothers of murder victims implored the crowd to take a more proactive role in their children's lives.

"If I can save a life that's exactly what I'm going to do," Swisher said. "And I need everyone out here to help me."

In the two months since the Coalition began to plan its first event, three murders have occurred, John Muhammad said.

The Coalition seeks to address five subjects of concern: black-on-black crime, police and community interaction, victim advocacy and support (bringing particular attention to unsolved cases), domestic violence and bullying.

They plan to host more events addressing each of their goals.

Dan Sullivan can be reached at (727) 893-8321 or dsullivan@tampabay.com.

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