Austin Huguelet • Jan 7, 2022
ST. LOUIS — A new vigil dedicated to honoring those killed by violence each year debuted in north St. Louis on Friday night.
Grieving families gathered at Williams Temple Church of God, 1500 Union Boulevard, to hear the names of those killed last year read aloud as well as remarks from local leaders trying to shorten the list in 2022.
They heard from Mayor Tishaura O. Jones, who quoted Matthew 5:4 from the Bible — "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted" — and assured those in the pews she's working hard on new solutions to old problems.
City police Chief John Hayden, who spoke after Jones, outlined current attempts at those solutions. He said his officers would continue to focus patrols in areas data shows to be the most problematic and bring along social workers to try and help people before they commit a crime. He said officers would also continue work to build relationships with residents, work that's crucial to gaining cooperation of crime witnesses — and urged those in attendance to reach out.
"If we dare to work together, I am so optimistic about the city we can be," he said.
Khatib Waheed, a representative of St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner, addressed the same topic and appealed to the audience to advocate for more funding for witness protection programs.
He also asked those in the pews to urge the mayor to appropriate money for special investigators dedicated to going after police brutality.
"We have to weed the bad apples out," he said.
Officials and organizers also paid tribute to Jeanette Culpepper, who began a tradition of a New Year's Eve vigil for victims of violence after one of her sons was fatally shot in 1991.
"There was no bigger advocate for ending gun violence in our community," Jones said.
Culpepper died in October, prompting a bitter split in her organization, Families Advocating Safe Streets. Her son, Andre Johnson, took her place, and two longtime supporters, Sharon Webb-Steele and Liz Watkins, left to form the organization that hosted Friday's vigil.
The traditional New Year's Eve service went ahead as usual last week but attracted a fraction of the usual attendance of more than 100 seen in past years. Jones and most other dignitaries skipped it, too. Friday's service, on the other hand, drew an audience of several dozen as well as the dignitaries.
Webb-Steele and fellow organizers did not directly address the split in remarks Friday. She said that next year her organization, Mothers Advocating for Safer Streets, will hold its vigil on New Year's Eve.
Those grieving weren’t thinking about any feud, though. Lisa LaGrone was there to hear the name of her grandson, Antonio Martin, who was shot and killed last year.
“It was a good service,” she said.