As the noon sun bathed the steps of City Hall with a generous dose of light, close to 50 people huddled and stood in anticipation, awaiting further instruction as each person held a small surprise inside small triangular cartons.
It was a vibrant Saturday. The clock struck a quarter past one: it was finally time to open the boxes. One by one, and then en masse, hordes of monarch butterflies were set free, peppering the air above with fluttering flecks of auburn.
The communal release ceremony outside City Hall on Aug. 30 aimed to memorialize victims of gun violence and raise funds to assist their families with costly burial expenses. The activity was organized by New Haven’s Sisters With A New Attitude, or SWANA, a women’s support group.
“We’re asking everyone today to find their ‘yes,’” said Deborah Elmore, director and co-founder of SWANA.
Little girls with fairy wings and fairy wands pranced around the Amistad Memorial sculpture while boys tossed a ball back and forth. A placard strewn with decorative butterflies displayed the names and photos of recent victims, along with the current status of the police investigation for each case.
Pastors of different denominations kicked off the event by inviting everyone to join them in prayer. Their individual invocations, whether in English, Spanish or Hebrew, shared a common thread — to honor all those affected by gun-related deaths, be it a victim, a family member or a police officer.
The proceedings took a livelier turn as SWANA members recited poetry and performed skits meant to convey the current realities of gun violence. The focus, at all times, was the kids.
“The war outside — it wants our children, dead or alive,” Elmore exclaimed during a reading, as teenagers jumped roped next to her and girls played hand-clapping circle games. The poem, she said, attempts to transport the listener back to a time when “things were simple.”
A short performance, Meeting of the Moms, portrayed a group of distressed women circling around a metaphorical body on the ground — a black sweater — while Elmore reflected on the experience of the parents of both shooter and victim.
Members of the New Haven police force also spoke about their department’s efforts to curb gun crimes and aid affected families. Officer Shafiq Abdussabur (pictured), citing the recent civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, referred to the issue of gun violence as a “double conversation.”
First, Abdussabur said, officials must confront the high rate of young black males shooting and killing other young black males, a statistic that fuels common stereotypes of inner city life. On the flip side, he added, there is the perception of privileged male victims being given “more weight.”
The violence has only grown more rampant. Increasingly, Abdussabur said, people involved in gun-related deaths don’t have prior felonies. He called on parents to take a more active role in nipping the problem in the bud.
“Policing starts in your house. It starts in the home,” Abdussabur said. “I don’t want the police raising my son.”
He continued, “I give a challenge and it doesn’t require dumping an ice bucket on your head. Fathers, black fathers: parent your child.”
After SWANA supporters read out the list of recent gun-related casualties, the activity culminated in the release of the butterflies, symbols of freedom, life and wish fulfillment. For the joyous dénouement, children sat on the steps to sing a rendition of Michael Jackson’s “We Are The World.”
The ceremony, equal parts mourning and celebration, had no political agenda, Elmore told the Independent. The goal was to reach out to the community and enable a dialogue among people of different backgrounds.
Barbara Fair, a community activist who emceed the event, echoed the sentiment.
“If we played some role in healing the community, if we touched one heart,” she said, “then we’ve done our job.”