Wednesday, December 31, 2014

23rd Annual New Year's Eve Candlelight Service: My Remarks

Twenty-three years ago, we in St. Louis lost a member of our extended family: a young man named Curtis Johnson, who most of us never had the honor to know.

He would have been a full grown man today, making his mother proud, and probably raising a family of his own. But Curtis didn't get that chance, because he was taken from us by gunfire when he was just 22-years old.

Those who have never lost anyone like that cannot imagine what it feels like.

We're here tonight because Jeanette Culpepper took that terrible feeling, that unimaginable pain from the loss of her son and tried to make something good come from it. She went to work and started helping us build a society where sons could not so easily be taken from their mothers. Jeanette Culpepper founded "Families Advocating Safe Streets" and created a new tradition for St. Louis: a New Year' Eve candlelight vigil, held to honor the people we've lost to senseless acts of crime.

Jeanette and the "Families Advocating Safe Streets" never stop working and never stop fighting to raise awareness, to break the cycle of crime and to reduce violence in our community.

This year we remember 159 people too many, whose friends and families are now facing the same unthinkable tragedy as Ms. Culpepper; losing a loved one to senseless violence. I think a lot about those 159 people and their loved ones now. Most, like Curtis Johnson, were very young when they died. Some were just children. I think about what lives they could have led, and most of all - because it's my job - I think about what might have saved those lives.

I think about Juliette Cleveland-Davis, age 46, who was shot right in front of her three grandchildren as she walked with them on a summer evening. She was caught between two groups of young men trying to kill each other. I think about 32-year old Zemir Begic, beaten to death with a hammer by a group of young boys while driving home.

The sad truth is we've taken a step backwards recently, and there's no denying it. We lost more people to violence this year than last.

Looking ahead to the future, we see millions of people who are now awake and alert to the problem of violence, and the preciousness of life. Our fellow citizens are more focused than ever on the need for public safety, and in the long run, that focus will make it easier, not harder, to address the problems which need to be addressed.

Of course Jeanette doesn't need anyone else to tell her that lives or white, young or old, rich or poor. She's been teaching us that for years, and clearly, this world we live in needs to be reminded.

But, then…I don't have to explain this to any of you, because you're already engaged and involved. You never stopped paying attention. Like Jeanette Culpepper, you cared long before it was fashionable or popular to do so.  

That's why you're here, and that's why I'm so grateful to know you are.

The root word for “vigil” means "wakefulness" or "keeping watch".  It's from the same root that we derive the word “vigilance”, which we use in expressions like "eternal vigilance is the price of freedom". Well, I happen to believe vigilance is also the price of public safety, because I believe the best antidote to crime and violence is a citizenry that's wide awake and aware of the problem, and willing to work together in a search for solutions. In other words...people like you.  

Thanks for keeping the vigil. Let's all pray for a happier new year. ​