Paterson Tries to Focus on Recovery in Wake of Murder

Basketball star Armoni Sexton was killed in a drive-by shooting in Paterson, highlighting violence in the city.

By David Cruz

There has been enough blood spilled in the city of Paterson to last a generation, enough violence to snuff out the optimism of youth. Just last month, Armoni Sexton, a promising young basketball star, just 15, was gunned down in a drive-by shooting, just the latest tragedy in a city that has seen much more than its share.

“They want the news people to come out here and capture the bad. It’s not all bad. If we had something to do for these kids, it wouldn’t be like this,” said resident Frankie Phillips. “The mayor and all the political people down there, they don’t do nothing. They don’t ever come out unless there’s a murder. They don’t ever try to upgrade the community; they’re always trying to downgrade the community. Then when it comes time to vote, they always want somebody to vote for them. That’s why I don’t vote for anybody.”

Sexton’s killing is believed to be the latest instance of a decades-old rivalry between mostly young, black men from from the city’s Fourth Ward (up the hill) and the mostly young black men from the First Ward (or down the hill). Police Director Jerry Speziale — whose son was a teammate of Sexton — said no one can really remember how this so-called rivalry between neighborhoods even began.

“Why? Just because you’re from a different area? I mean that’s really what it was,” he said. “Today it’s kinda escalated to where guns are being involved. And that’s our job to remove those guns from the street and also to work with those kids so that they understand that you lose two lives. You lose the life you take and you lose your own life to a life in jail.”

Mayor Jose Torres has a dream of a resurgent Paterson, with economic activity creating jobs and tamping down violence, but he knows that until he gets his streets under control, that dream remains deferred — despite his boast of a 50 percent reduction in crime in the city’s hottest spots. Today, he was joined by Senate President Steve Sweeney for a firsthand look.

“We know the problems,” said Sweeney. “They’re very clear. When people come into your community to buy drugs, that’s harming this community. That stigmatizes this community. We went into one neighborhood and as soon as we stopped there were 15 to 20 guys on the corner. As soon as we stopped they disappeared.”

Torres said help is on the way. “I made a commitment that I would hire 25 new police officers to replace the 125 that were laid off during the previous administration — that’s 25 per year. I’m glad to say, we haven’t been in office a year and we’ve added 47 new police officers to the rank and file and in July we’re starting our other academy.”

A truce brokered by community leaders has brought some calm to the block where Sexton was killed, but summer’s just begun and with jobs and recreation activities scarce, Patersonians are left to hope that things stay this way because — they say — hope is the only thing they can really count on.

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