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Chester Residents Call Out Gun Violence, Culture of Silence

Scott Morgan
South Carolina Public Radio

The City of Chester is in crisis. Shootings are on the rise and so are shooting-related deaths. So far this year, police have taken more than 130 calls about shots being fired. That’s 20 more than all of last year.

Since April there have been almost a dozen confirmed shootings, including the recent deaths of 36-year-old Andrew Johnson and the drive-by killing of 14-year-old Jada Jones. Thirty homes, vehicles, and people have been hit by gunfire in Chester so far in 2019. That number was 25 for all of 2018.

Those numbers might not sound like much, but in a city of less than 5,500 people, statistics like these get attention.

In response, Chester residents, civic organizations, and county and city law enforcement agencies are publicly speaking out against two things they say are literally killing their neighbors and families – the violence wrought by illegal guns on the streets and the silence that allows mostly young males to harbor weapons they shouldn’t have.

On Sept. 14, about 100 residents, plus a few neighbors from York County, marched in the Freedom From Gun Violence march and rally through downtown Chester. It was the opening salvo in what event co-organizer Wyonia Hinton says will be an ongoing effort to raise awareness that everyone in the community needs to tell police when they learn that someone has a firearm illegally.

“Somebody knows what the other person is doing,” Hinton said. “We believe the parents know. But what they’re doing is shielding their children.”

That calling-out of parental silence was a centerpiece of the Sept. 14 rally. Speakers, including City Administrator Stephanie Jackson, repeated a simple sentence Chester City police use a lot: If you see something, say something.

“Whatever you know, tell it,” Jackson told the attendees of the rally. “We need your help. We don’t want anyone else to be afraid to walk down the streets of Chester because you’re afraid that you’re going to get shot.”

But getting that kind of feedback might be a tall order. Chester County Sheriff Max Dorsey says a lot of parents in the county – in fact, the ones he wants to reach most – don’t want to talk to him.

“They hate me,” he says. He knows it’ll be a lot of work getting through to parents that he is on their side, not to mention convincing them that that he does not want to punish criminals as much as he wants to preempt trouble and violence in the first place.

“When you arrest somebody,” he said, “at that point, you’ve failed.”

While the rally was less well-attended than hoped – county officials and organizers geared up for several

Credit Scott Morgan / South Carolina Public Radio
South Carolina Public Radio
Larry Hill co-organized the march and rally. He'd been contemplating such an event for 20 years, but says recent gun-related killings in Chester forced his hand to do it now.

hundred and got about 100 – event co-organizer Larry Hill said he is optimistic about where things are headed.

“I’m very encouraged,” Hill said. “When I looked up there and saw those people, I felt good about that.”

Hinton said that modest steps are still steps.

“A lot of people were telling us that it’s not going to do any good to march,” she said. “And I’d say, ‘Well, what if Martin Luther King didn’t march? What if Rosa Parks hadn’t done anything?’”

Residents are also starting a neighborhood watch and say they are looking to coordinate with Chester schools and civic organizations, as well as with law enforcement, to make sure there’s unity on one message – that gun violence in Chester needs to stop.

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.