STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

In one Muskegon neighborhood, "weapons offenses" jumped 680% in seven years

Dustin Dwyer

This is the final story in our three-part series on a street gun battle in Muskegon last month that put children’s lives at risk.

Part one of the series is here. Part two is here

For today's story, we broaden our view, to look at the dramatic rise of gun crimes across several neighborhoods in Muskegon, and what’s being done to stop it.

Muskegon is not the most violent city in Michigan. Statistically, that would be Flint or Saginaw or Detroit.

But Muskegon is a relatively small city – only about 38,000 people – and much of the crime is centered in just a few neighborhoods.

So people who live in those neighborhoods actually experience a much worse rate of crime. Pick a random person off the street, and they’ll know someone who’s been affected by gun violence.

Like Michael Williams. I caught up with him on Southern Avenue on a sunny Saturday afternoon. He knows two people who’ve been killed by guns just since May.

And he knows a lot of kids getting involved in gangs.

"It’s certain groups of the kids," he says. "You know, certain kids that’s in the same area, they don’t even want to be involved with that stuff, know what I mean. Then you got the unfortunate kids, like, no parents. All they see is what they see."

What they see is drugs, being sold openly on the street. What they see are a lot of people with guns. And a lot of people who can get you a gun.  

"It’s easy for 'em to get a gun," Williams says. "It’s hard for them to stay out of trouble."

Credit Dustin Dwyer

Overall crime trends in Muskegon have been going down in recent years, as they have been in most cities. But if you look at statistics released by the Muskegon Police Department, one thing you see is that crimes listed as "weapons offenses" have gone up dramatically – a 287 percent rise since 2005.

And here again, the crimes are concentrated in certain areas. In the Nelson neighborhood, where the shooting happened on July 9th, weapons offenses are up almost 700 percent since 2005.

Shauna Hunter works at the YMCA just across the highway from the Nelson neighborhood. She recently had a group of kids in a room, and asked them about guns.

"The question was, 'How many of you, think it’s easy to get a gun?' And 100 percent of the children raised their hand," Hunter says.

We’re talking about kids some of whom are only 15 years old.

T.J. Chappel, who works with Hunter on youth programs at the Y, says many kids feel pulled into crime by gangs.

"We say, 'Well, why do you think they want to be in a gang, what feeling do you get from this?' And they’re like, a lot of people come from one-parent households ... and that one parent is working all the time."

Chappel says for a lot of kids, what it really comes down to is feeling loved.   

The gangs replace that love they’re missing at home," he says. "And it’s really tough when you think about it, cause it’s almost like a lose-lose type of situation there."

So Hunter and Chappel organized a walk last weekend to make a show of support for the kids and the families that feel outnumbered by the negative    influences in their neighborhood.

About 40 people showed up, most of them dressed in white t-shirts, carrying cardboard signs. They marched through the streets of the Nelson neighborhood, shouting: 

"Who cares? We care!"

And yes, a community walk is not going to turn around a crime problem in a matter of days. But it’s a symbol. It’s something to show that the bad guys don’t always get to dictate what happens in a neighborhood, or how a neighborhood is seen by the outside.

And Michael Williams, he thinks it’s a good idea.

“This should be done more often," he says. "They should have more marches."

That, and he says getting some of the guns off the street might not be a bad idea.

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