When 26-year-old Aurtrell Bivens was killed in the first fatal shooting of the new year, his family was grief-stricken — but not surprised. After all, it wasn't the first time he had been shot.
His fiancée, Bria Flugence, said the couple had feared for the safety of their family for months after Bivens was injured in a shooting in October of last year near Greenwell Springs Road. Baton Rouge Police confirmed they worked a shooting incident matching this description on the date in question.
Bivens landed in the hospital with injuries that were not life-threatening but still debilitating, including a stomach wound, his family said. Less than three months later, on Jan. 4, Bivens was driving with his 15-year-old cousin around N. 23rd Street when someone opened fire at his vehicle.
He was taken to the hospital with gunshot wounds and later died, while the cousin survived his injuries. Bivens' death kicked off what would become a historically violent January for the parish.
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"His body wasn't even healed from the first shooting," said his mother, Angela Bivens.
While police have not identified a motive or suspect in the homicide, his family says Bivens recently had a falling out with a friend, which resulted in others siding against him. His family was not sure what the disagreement was about or where it originated, but they believe the same person or people targeted him in both the October and January shootings.
Angela said her son was a "good-hearted person," but that he had a tendency to hang out with the wrong people. Back in 2016, Bivens was arrested on two counts of attempted first-degree murder for a February shooting, and then charged with another count of attempted first-degree murder in May of that year involving one of the same people from the first shooting. The charges were dismissed heading into a scheduled trial in 2019.
She described a world where her son was sucked into a cycle of gun violence — one that some young men and their families in the Baton Rouge area know all too well.
Fed up and tired
Angela Bivens is not the only mother hurting in the aftermath of devastating gun violence, although her grief is fresh.
Liz Robinson, who founded the anti-violence group CHANGE in recent years after her son was murdered, also knows that pain. Her group, along with others like TRUCE and 100 Black Men, are working in the new year to reach those most at risk: young men of color.
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CHANGE has made it their mission to canvass in Baton Rouge neighborhoods, focusing on communities where gun violence is most frequent, including Brookstown, Dixie and Old South Baton Rouge.
One such canvassing event took place this past Saturday, where 11 volunteers walked through the Eden Park neighborhood passing out free gun locks and gun safety information, in addition to flyers connecting residents to law enforcement agencies and social services organizations.
Robinson said volunteers made contact with more than one hundred people during the event and that the community was welcoming of their efforts.
"We’re hearing from them that they’re tired of the violence," said Sateria Tate-Alexander, executive director of CHANGE. "They’re tired of hearing gunfire. They’re tired of seeing moms crying."
Another mother who lost her child to gun violence last year joined the walk as a first-time volunteer. Rosalyn Henderson said she went through a period of depression after the shooting, but that surrounding herself with "positive people doing positive things" as she fights for justice has made a difference.
Tate-Alexander said the group is primarily mother-led, filled with women who have lost children to gun violence. Speaking to these mothers face-to-face on the street forces people to reckon with the "realization and humanization of what violence does," she said.
"I think what makes it so easy to pull that trigger is you don’t think about that end result when that bullet has left that gun," Tate-Alexander said. "Speaking to these families, you get to see people at the end of that bullet who were left behind: mothers, fathers, children. You get to see what that looks like years after they’re gone."
Twenty-eight-year-old Darius Crockett also joined the canvassers this weekend for the first time. He knows what it's like to mourn a loved one lost to gun violence: a cousin died by suicide and a couple of his friends were killed in shootings.
"It’s to the point it happens so much that you know somebody that’s been affected by it," Crockett said. "It’s like COVID."
On the walk, Crockett noticed kids ages 18 and younger were more receptive to the canvassers' messaging, which he hopes will inspire those teens to set an example for younger children.
"We’ve got to start coming together as young brothers to make a change," he said. "I can be a helping hand."
A cycle of violence
When it comes to shooting perpetrators and victims, the lines are often blurred, with some people fitting both categories, law enforcement officials say.
"Generally, our victims are also our defendants or vice versa on gun violence," said East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III. "It's not unusual to have someone who was shot or shot someone before to be a victim or defendant in a case."
Aishala Burgess, executive director of anti-violence organization TRUCE, said focusing on non-fatal shootings is critical when it comes to identifying how to prevent homicides in the community.
"Really, your non-fatal shootings are a clear indication of where we are crime-wise," she said. "That will dictate who will possibly become the next victim or perpetrator."
While Baton Rouge police only started tracking non-fatal shootings in recent years, there was a stark increase between the 259 injured in 2019 — the first year the agency began recording — and the 318 injured this past year, which also marked the deadliest on record for homicides in the parish.
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And in 2021, as of Feb. 16, at least 46 people have been injured in non-fatal shootings in the city, according to unofficial numbers from Baton Rouge Police — roughly twice as many people as those killed in homicides in the same timeframe.
Throughout the past year, officials have pointed out that people are killing each other more often during minor disagreements, resorting to excessive violence with little regard for the consequences. More shootings are also happening during daylight hours, not so often under cover of darkness.
Moore ties these daytime shootings to the fact that many people are out on the streets with disrupted routines amid the coronavirus pandemic, from their children’s education to changes in employment.
"Most of our shootings are retaliation. It goes on and on," Moore said. "That's why it's so important to look at the non-fatal shootings. How can we intervene?"
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Burgess said that in her experience, gun violence is inextricably linked with people falling through the cracks, whether it involves education, socio-economic problems or mental health issues.
"There's so many things that may lead an individual down a wrong path that may later lead into violence," she said. "I don't think anyone wakes up wanting to be in this lifestyle or part of this particular cycle. Life and circumstances sometimes put them into those particular situations."
'He had something to live for'
Since her son's death, Angela Bivens says she fears further threats and worries about other family members. Another relative was discovered shot to death earlier this month on Scenic Highway, she said.
"It makes me so afraid," she said. "And sad, because that was my child. He just wanted to get away and do his own thing."
Bivens' fiancée said her partner had "lived a certain life" before his children were born, but now he was "turning over a new leaf because … he had something to live for."
They even moved into her mother's home in Livingston Parish when it became clear things were getting dangerous. She believed the two would leave the Baton Rouge area soon, finding a bigger home for their growing family — including a newborn baby — and allowing Bivens to start his own car detailing business.
"He was trying to be a family man," she said. "He wasn't always that family guy, but he was trying to start something new."
In between counseling her daughter and Bivens' sons through his death and caring for their baby, Flugence is planning to make her own escape from the greater Baton Rouge area to leave behind the sadness and violence that marred her hopes of a happy family.
"My plan is to just go, to move, get away," she said. "I just know that environment is not safe."