Patrina Peters leaned her small frame against a podium in an Orleans Parish courtroom on Thursday afternoon and peered out at more than two dozen men and women to warn against a fate she knew too well.
“Mark my word,” she said. “Your death will destroy your mother.”
Peters was speaking at the latest of what Mayor Mitch Landrieu has dubbed “call-ins” — mandatory gatherings of young men and women in jail or on parole or probation to face law enforcers, social service providers and victims of violence offering them a choice between punishment and job opportunities.
For Peters, it was the latest step in a long and painful journey that began with her son Damond’s death in the Lower 9th Ward in May 2010. In the years since then, she has regularly spoken at the call-ins, a part of the mayor’s Nola for Life violence-reduction program.
On Thursday morning, she and three other women who have lost children to violence — the Mothers Circle — came together to announce the launch of a city-supported initiative they called a reconciliation project.
Along with Chanda Burks, Evelyn Cargo and Patrice Junius Harris, she said the group is planning an anti-violence march and second line, plus a longer workshop series for mothers of children who have died violent deaths in New Orleans.
Since October 2014, the mothers have been meeting in a small discussion group under the auspices of the city and the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, which is attached to the University of Mississippi.
Peters said her son’s death was so devastating that her heart broke in an almost literal sense. She was forced to undergo bypass surgery.
Burks’ son, Jared Francis, a student at Edna Karr High School, was shot in the Tall Timbers section of Algiers in September 2012. Harris’ daughter, Christiania Junius, was shot in February 2011 in the Upper 9th Ward. Cargo has lost two sons to gun violence in separate incidents: Henry died in 2008 at 28, and Eric died in 2011 at 29.
The meetings have been challenging, the women said, and there was at least one major stumbling block along the way. The group initially included the mother of a convicted murderer in an attempt to bridge the gap between victims and perpetrators, but her participation was complicated by the stress of having an incarcerated son.
Peters said she hopes to welcome the woman back someday.
“She’s a mother that’s hurting, too,” Peters said. “To find solutions, we have to reach out to the other side.”
Before all three women spoke at the Ashé Power House in Central City, Landrieu said that if the city is ever to end its chronic violence, mothers must lead the way.
“I’m asking for you to do something impossible: to actually testify to the rest of the world about your child,” he said.
October saw two killings in New Orleans. Adding in a third death that occurred in February but was only deemed a homicide months later, the city will officially report three homicides for the month to the FBI. That total is the lowest for any month since 1964, according to the NOPD.
As of Monday, the city had recorded 134 murders this year, compared with 129 at this point in 2014.
NOPD Criminal Investigations Division Cmdr. Doug Eckert called the low October tally “pretty damn good for us” at a department commanders’ meeting Wednesday.
Landrieu, however, is reserving his celebration. He said he has convened groups like the Mothers Circle in an attempt to hammer home the high toll that violence has claimed in New Orleans to people who believe it does not affect them.
“When you count the number of deaths that we have had every year, it’s still way higher than the national average. And even if it was lower, it would still be too much,” Landrieu said. “We can change, especially if we just honor the truth.”