NEWARK, N.J. - Yoga devotees and hip-hop music fans were among the thousands who flooded several blocks of New Jersey's largest city Saturday in hopes of gaining a cease-fire in the spike in gun violence.
The diverse crowd came out for a "24 Hours of Peace" event, part of Newark Mayor Ras Baraka's push to address violence as a public health issue. Baraka, who targeted youth violence as a councilman and a Newark high school principal, is facing a resurgence of gun violence, largely bucking the trend of declining crime rates in New Jersey and across the country.
As the festivities were underway Saturday in Newark's South Ward section, two men were killed in separate shootings elsewhere in the city, Essex County prosecutors said.
Baraka has led a series of 34 "Occupy the Block" rallies across the city this summer to involve community members in discussions of violence and policing in the wake of 63 homicides so far this year, including Saturday's shooting deaths.
Baraka said the rallies grew out of grassroots efforts he was involved in as a councilman, where community members would sit on drug corners to push away dealers and gang members. The latest event kicked off at 6 p.m. Friday and continued into Saturday evening.
The largest crowds came out Friday night into Saturday morning for a concert headlined by the hip-hop artist Rakim and a late-night showing of the movie Thor. And while those attendance numbers had dissipated somewhat later, hundreds stayed to show their support.
'Taking this back'
Among them were more than a dozen yoga devotees who practiced under tents, including Khalil Nass, chief of staff for City Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins.
"If you look at it from a very literal perspective, drugs and violence have been occupying our streets for a very long time," Nass said. "What the Council and the mayor are doing is saying, 'We're taking this back.' "
That includes promoting mental health through treatment and positive activities such as yoga, said Janice Johnson Dias, a sociologist at John Jay College who has consulted in the development of the city's strategy. The event brings together families who are often afraid to go outside, increasing stress and rates of childhood obesity.
The 52 people killed by guns in Newark this year are three more than at this point in 2014, but the number of shooting incidents has increased 24 percent to 199 as of Tuesday, according to Newark police. The number of shooting victims has increased 29 percent, to 249, the department said.
The mayor and police officials say the city is in desperate need of the 46 recruits ready to graduate from the academy in October, and Baraka said more than 100 more will be sent to training by year's end.
Some of the city's successful crime strategies have come at the expense of other areas, Baraka said, pointing to a recent collaboration with state and county police to investigate gangs. That led to fewer officers being available for patrol duty.
"We arrested 100 gang members this summer and we still have a spike in shootings," Baraka said. "We have to rob Peter to pay Paul to deal with some of the crisis in this city."
Tracy Munford, a public relations officer for Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, was promoting the hospital's work Saturday. She said two of her cousins were killed by gunfire in the last three years and - two weeks after the more recent killing - the son of one of the victims survived being shot in the head.
"I'm stressed out, the mother is stressed out," said Munford, who has worked with the hospital and the mayor as part of his public health approach to violence.
"He's making a big dent," she said of the mayor, "but every day, you literally can't take a break."