In Virginia, a symphony of consolation seeks to counter violence | Roger Chesley

A concert can’t bring back those we’ve lost. But it can heighten awareness, give comfort, and bring people together to fight violence

The Virginia Symphony Orchestra (Photo via the Virginia Mercury).

The Virginia Symphony Orchestra (Photo via the Virginia Mercury).

By Roger Chesley

HAMPTON ROADS, Va. — Novel in its approach, a Hampton Roads-based community group is fighting the spate of gun violence with woodwinds, crescendos – and comfort.

This act of musical consolation will occur at an Oct. 18 concert featuring the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, a combined gospel choir and recognition of the family members of people slain in the region.

Given the unrelenting numbers of gun-related homicides in the commonwealth, it could just as easily be a love letter to localities around Virginia facing the same crisis. Goodness knows too many people are dying, whether in arguments, as innocent bystanders or over drug disputes.

It’s called the “Evening of Hope.” The Urban Renewal Center, which focuses its community-building efforts on the seven major cities in Hampton Roads, the VSO and others are sponsoring the free event at the Harrison Opera House in Norfolk. I don’t recall a musical gathering like this before in Virginia, but I could be wrong.

The evening will also recognize first responders including police officers, emergency medical technicians and hospital trauma specialists who confront violence and its aftermath.

More than 400 people have registered so far at the 1,600-plus-seat venue.

Antipas Harris, founder and president of the center, said the genesis for the concert came from talking to people damaged by the all-too-frequent carnage. He picked up chatter on the issue while driving for a ride-sharing company.

A Norfolk Police Department spokesman told me, for example, that homicides for the first nine months of the year rose from 36 in 2020, to 47 in 2021, to 53 this year. In Richmond, homicides totaled 50 for all of 2020, 60 last year and 43 through Sept. 30, police there said.

The steady increase in homicides occurred statewide too, from 391 in 2018 to 562 in 2021, according to the Virginia State Police. The weapons used in the overwhelming majority of cases each year in Virginia are firearms.

The spike has been repeated nationwide during the pandemic, when homicides rose by 30%. However, NPR reported the homicide rate is still lower in the United States than it was in the 1990s.

“It occurred to me there were people living in grief,” Harris said. “People have gotten anesthetized” to the shootings.

That’s true. If we don’t know the individual, or can’t connect with a victim because of race or shared circumstances, it’s easy to hear the news, sigh and keep on moving.

It’s a coping mechanism. The dismissal of the horror, though, means murders have become almost “acceptable” in too many places.

So the concert is a way to confront the slayings but also comfort the survivors grappling with loss from all types of homicides.

“Violence is violence,” Harris said, adding, “I want to draw attention to suffering families.”

Front-line workers are included because they face an experience most of us can’t imagine in trying to save gravely wounded people. “The hospitals tell me it’s one business they want to be out of,” he noted.

I asked the community leader whether an event like this one is really “anti-violence.” No guns will be seized, of course. No demands for new laws are likely to be mentioned.

This is an epidemic. ... It's a crisis that's killing our people.

– Antipas Harris

Harris replied he’s trying to keep politics out of the effort, because people shut down when you talk, for instance, about gun control versus gun rights. What he’s focusing on instead is “the humanity of the people shot.”

“This is an epidemic,” he continued. “And I’m taking a different approach. It’s a crisis that’s killing our people.”

Among the people memorialized will be Sierra Jenkins, the Virginian-Pilot reporter gunned down while leaving a popular downtown Norfolk nightspot in March.

The 25-year-old woman was an innocent bystander, and then-Norfolk Police Chief Larry Boone said an apparent dispute inside the restaurant-bar “over a spilled drink” led to the shooting. She was one of several people killed or wounded in the early morning gunfire.

Jenkins had interviewed Harris for a story about English as a Second Language funding for immigrants only a few weeks before she was fatally shot, he recalled.

Sadly, many other people could be included in the memorial:

Maurice Wilson, 18, of Chesapeake, was fatally shot in that city in 2021.

And that’s just a sampling.

Officials in Richmond were rocked last week when a high school student walking to the bus stop was shot and seriously injured. Police told me Wednesday they had no updates in the shooting of the 17-year-old boy.

The Oct. 18 concert can’t bring the dead back to life.

It can heighten awareness. It can comfort survivors. It can spark a desire for people to become more engaged in their communities to fight violence.

That would be enough.

Roger Chesley is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury, a sibling site of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this column first appeared.

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Capital-Star Guest Contributor
Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.