Pine Bluff officials, residents, youth and clergy members gathered at the Merrill Center on Thursday in a show of solidarity.
THE ISSUE: Homicide THE IMPACT: Many are calling for peace in the city after an 18-year-old was shot to death outside the Merrill Community Center on Wednesday. Other recent murders have also involved teenagers as well.
One day after a fatal shooting on the Merrill Community Center property, Pine Bluff leaders visited the center Thursday to comfort children and offer a sense of normalcy. People prayed in the name of Jesus Christ outside the center at 1002 S. Ash St. in response to the Wednesday shooting death of Jerry Pryor III, 18, in the center's parking lot. Pine Bluff police have identified Alexis Reed, 18, as a suspect in the death of Pryor. As of Thursday, police had not located her.
Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington and her staff welcomed children to the center to be part of the “embracing community.” Washington decried the violence and asked for a spirit of healing and peace.
“In light of this tragic incident that took place [Wednesday], we are going to continue to stand strong for this community, support the Merrill Center, because we know what a vital facility this is in this particular neighborhood,” Washington said. “It serves many children and without it these kids would not have any place to go. We could not control what happened [Wednesday] but we took control as soon as it happened. We have an embracing staff of people working here who are a home away from home for kids in this community.”
Washington said pizza parlors donated food on Thursday, and McDonald's will donate food on Friday. Washington said she declined some requests for food on Thursday because she did not want extra food to not be eaten.
Mental health professionals also came to the center to provide counseling to children.
“We think it's critical to meet with the grief counselors, especially in light of the fact the public schools start on Monday,” Washington said. “We feel they need that professional guidance to usher them through this process so the effect will be softened as much as possible.”
Darnell Cann-Ward is the assistant recreational aide at the center and knew Pryor and Reed. While he was not working on Wednesday, Cann-Ward said he did not ever see Pryor and Reed argue.
“The two kids were well-known at the Merrill Center,” he said. “They come here daily, never had any problems and always got along with people. I think it was rather sad the way it went down. I am not sure if something clicked or if something happened over built-up frustration. … We normally do not get things like that happening. We may have some disagreements, some arguments and maybe a fight. But never anything this drastic.”
Cann-Ward said he hopes the children are not being impacted by the violence.
Other community leaders who came to the Merrill Community Center on Thursday included Pine Bluff aldermen Glen Brown Jr., Win Trafford, Steven Mays, Lloyd Holcomb Jr., Bruce Lockett; interim parks and recreation director Trudy Redus; mental health professionals and pastors.
Adults joined the children in playing basketball, playing pool and sharing conversations.
The Rev. Jesse Turner of the Faith Community Coalition Ministerial Alliance prayed outside the center in the name of Jesus Christ to seek healing. About 10 people held hands and prayed.
“We are very concerned about the homicides and the violence in Pine Bluff,” Turner said. “We are all taken aback by this recent shooting, where the victim came inside where the kids were. And that is disturbing to us. We wanted to be here this morning to share prayers, counseling, encouragement - whatever we need to do as the Faith Community Coalition we want to do that to uplift them and help the center move forward.”
The coalition came into existence in 1997 and started a respect for life campaign, Turner said.
“Clergy are now becoming more engaged in what is going on,” Turner said. ” … We have the voices on Sunday morning to talk to other folks but we also have to develop a strategy.”
The pastors will meet at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 16, at St. Luke United Methodist Church on School Street to discuss homicides. Pine Bluff resident Omar Allen is a concerned citizen and former chairman of the now-dissolved Parks and Recreation Commission. The City Council voted on July 17 to abolish this commission and transfer authority over hiring of employees and spending to the mayor's office.
Allen said city officials were staging a publicity stunt by visiting the Merrill Community Center one day after a fatal shooting occurred on its property. Allen declined to state the names of the people he had in mind.
“I went up to bat for community centers and I went up to bat for parks and rec,” Allen said. “A lot of city officials never really paid attention until something tragic happened. And that's sad to say.”
Allen opposed the council dissolving the commission.
“I hope that city officials considering putting funds in the Merrill Center,” Allen said. “They have two part-time workers who should be full-time.”
Pine Bluff resident Brenton Cole said he has volunteered at the Merrill Center and hosted a benefit music concert two years ago to raise money to preserve the building. He said the city council has failed to preserve the building.
“I addressed the city council several times on the Merrill Center issues, specifically about investing money and trying to prevent [violence],” Cole said. “The ones who are losing are our children. I think what happened Wednesday could have been prevented if we had the proper funding for this facility or security in the parking lot. We could have had the proper mentors to help deter situations or provide conflict-resolution situations. I think that is one of the main things that needs to be addressed … rather than getting a gun and shooting somebody.”
Elsewhere in Pine Bluff, Watson Chapel Junior High School incoming ninth-grader December Cox, 15, organized a stop-the-violence rally at Martin Luther King Park. Cox also donated school supplies Thursday under the guidance of adults to help fellow students in her community.
“I want everyone to come together for love and prayer and just have fun and get along with one another and see the best in everybody else,” Cox said. “That is basically what I want to be done.”
Cox said she experienced people dismissing her ideas for this rally while planning her event but she persevered.
“I got this vision from God,” Cox said. “It's not even about our age group. We got a lot of other little kids looking up at us and they're growing up and seeing what's happening. You don't want a lot of kids gang-banging or [going to] jail. You want most of our kids to be doctors, firefighters and police officers.”
Her mother Kenyatta Willis praised her daughter for organizing the rally to help fellow citizens, calling it a kind gesture.
Since Jan. 1, there have been 18 homicides in the city of Pine Bluff, eight more than were recorded in all of 2016. Just a few weeks ago, 19-year-old Jalin Reynolds was arrested on capital murder charges in connection with the shooting death of Zaria Johnson, also 19. Police said she was shot multiple times.