Credit: Kellen Riell / New Bedford Light illustration, Unsplash stock photos

NEW BEDFORD — Raising her four children in the city hasn’t been easy, but Leslie was never an absent mother, even when she was a single mom for some time. From athletic matches to meetings in the principal’s office, Leslie was there for her kids.

In 2017, she was there when her younger son got accepted into two colleges and when he graduated from New Bedford High School — an achievement not without its obstacles.

She was there, standing beside that same 17-year-old son, in a New Bedford office for youth services when a staff member pointed their attention to a computer screen on the desk. Leslie couldn’t make sense of what she described as data or a chart on the screen, but its significance soon hit: she was told it contained the words “gang affiliated” and her son’s name. 

Her confusion became dismay.

“Excuse me, my son just got accepted into two colleges, like how is he on any type of gang list?” Leslie recounted.

Her son shook his head, dumbfounded. He was one of about 30 high school seniors to receive the Superintendent’s Success Award — an honor from New Bedford High School for students who show “determination in overcoming life challenges, persevering in their goals to graduate.” His desire to get assistance with a summer job application from the New Bedford Shannon program and the Safe and Successful Youth Initiative, two youth-focused, violence prevention programs, is what brought them to the office that day. 

Leslie said the designation needed to be removed, but she said she was told it was not possible. She did not contact police to address what she saw as an error. Any process to fix it seemed unreachable, unknown and futile.

Her thoughts quickly shifted tracks from “what do we do” to “this is what we are going to do” — her son was going to get a job, and he was going to go to college in the fall. 

Years later in March of 2021, Leslie and a few other New Bedford mothers, some of whom she has known for years, gathered in a meeting room made warm with pastel pink table covers, metallic heart-shaped balloons and pink paper flowers strung across a white board. Amid mimosas, muffins and fruit, they decided to come together as a group with two aims: create change within the community and share the knowledge they “had to learn the hard way” about raising their sons with the police, school and court systems.

A few months later, they named themselves Voices of the Unheard: speaking for their sons, who they say do not trust anyone else to share their stories; and for other mothers who, like Leslie, may be asking, “what do we do?” 

Leslie and two others interviewed for this story (Shawnte’ and Jill) requested to speak with partial or full anonymity for fear of retaliation against them or their sons.

A voice for their sons

A month after the mothers formed their group, a Boston-based youth advocacy organization released a critical report alleging the New Bedford Police Department over-polices Black people and youth in the city. Based on department data, the organization, Citizens for Juvenile Justice, also found that Black residents were more than 27 times as likely to be identified as a gang member. Thirteen people in the dataset, provided in October of 2020, were between the ages of 15 and 17. 

Following a departmental review for a new policy that finished in October, Police Chief Paul Oliveira told The Light that the department had “a lot of inaccurate data” on gang membership because there “wasn’t a lot of direction and oversight over the process.” He also said they were “generous” in what they classified as validated gang members for the advocacy group’s data request. 

To determine gang membership, the police department uses a criteria list. Each criterion has a specific point value, and until recently, if individuals received at least 10 points, they were labeled as gang members. Under a new policy that took effect in October, an individual must now receive at least 20 points to be labeled a gang affiliate.

One criterion is being in a “group-related” photograph, which was previously four points but is now one point. 

As one mother of Voices of the Unheard was making rounds among family and friends during her son’s baby shower this fall, she looked toward the venue’s stage. There, her son (the father-to-be) and his childhood friends were laughing as they posed for a picture, like they’ve done many times before. They were “dressed to the nines” in their jeans, button-up shirts and designer T-shirts, surrounded by maternity photos, balloons and cupcakes.

Very briefly, she thought how nice they all looked dressed up for the happy occasion as a family friend snapped away.

Then she thought about how the photos could get them into trouble with law enforcement. The joy of the moment was quickly replaced with a lingering anxiety.

“If this picture gets out, this is a gang picture,” said Jill (not her real name). “Even to share those memories, we have to be cautious,” she said, with concern and frustration apparent in her voice. “I can’t just go on Facebook and dump all the photos from the baby shower… some of that can be taken and misconstrued and used against them… and that shouldn’t be the thought.”

Chief Oliveira previously said an intel officer monitors social media, among other information sources, to help identify gang affiliation or who might have been involved in an incident.

The photo criterion can be counted multiple times, said department public information officer Lt. Scott Carola. He noted, though, that investigators are not looking at baby shower photos to identify possible gang members. He said they are looking for “legitimate photographs” that display gang signs, gang colors, weapons and money.

Jill found out her Black son was allegedly identified as a gang affiliate or member after he was arrested a few years ago at 20 years old. He was charged with multiple firearm offenses, according to a court docket, but all charges were dismissed without prejudice at the request of the commonwealth.

While her son was in jail for a few days, all she could do was pace back and forth in her home. Jill recounted how someone told her she was the only person who didn’t believe her son was in a gang.

“I just wish for these kids coming up that they’re given their fair chance,” Jill said. “Let them show you who they are instead of labeling them.”

The gang that her son was allegedly identified as being a part of was not a real gang, the mothers said, but instead was a name that the group of friends came up with to mourn the loss of their friend who was killed at 15 years old. Renee Ledbetter, director of the New Bedford Shannon program, has previously said the group was created to honor the killed teen.

According to a 2018 state report for the New Bedford Shannon program, the gang was listed as one of the largest for that year. Carola said by email that the department has not validated anyone as a gang member for that group and that he was not aware why the gang appeared in the report. 

Oliveira has said the gang identification system is a means of preventing gang-related violence and identifying at-risk youth who could benefit from programs, such as the Shannon program or the Safe and Successful Youth Initiative.

According to a 2020 state report, New Bedford’s Shannon program helped nearly 80 youth complete a year-long employment program, and served about 270 youth with case management services.

Changing gang numbers from NBPD

Each year, state and local agencies prepare a report on the status of the Charles E. Shannon Community Safety Initiative for a given community. The Shannon program addresses gang and youth violence through outreach, case management and education initiatives for people ages 10 to 24. It is supported by state funding, which neared $800,000 for New Bedford in 2020. The following figures are pulled from the New Bedford reports from 2016 to 2020. 

  • 2020: NBPD confirmed 31 active gangs and 582 gang members, 29.5% of whom were under 25 years old. 
  • 2019: NBPD confirmed 26 active gangs and 505 gang members, 39% of whom were under 25 years old. 
  • 2018: NBPD confirmed 19 active gangs and 505 gang members, 41% of whom were under 25 years old. 
  • 2017: NBPD confirmed 21 active gangs and 432 gang members, about 45% of whom were under 25 years old. 
  • 2016: NBPD confirmed 19 active gangs and 510 gang members, 37.5% of whom were under 25 years old. 

But civil rights activists, attorneys and youth advocates have argued the gang member label can affect how one is policed and treated in the courtroom with sentencing. For the sons, the label was another instance of policing that contributed to the stress some of them still experience today.

“Not one of us are saying that our children are 100 percent innocent and have never done anything foolish,” Jill said, noting, though, that they should be left alone when they are not doing anything.

“I think it’s the trauma that’s left afterwards. The PTSD that comes from all these negative interactions that they’ve had over time… It just packs on and packs on,” Leslie said.

A voice for themselves

About twice a month, the five mothers of the Voices of the Unheard return to the same meeting space to talk about what their sons have experienced. The balloons, flowers and mimosas are gone, but their sense of mission remains. They vent and break bread with local takeout. They take time to check in on their sons, some of whom might have texted another mother that week instead of their own. Together, they laugh, they worry and sometimes, they cry. 

They’re flexible, sometimes skipping a meeting due to a scheduling conflict, like a grandchild’s sports tournament. The meetings are only supposed to last two hours but sometimes go for three or four. 

“We found comfort and strength amongst each other because we all have the same stories and when your child is going through something, it’s so heartbreaking that there’s nothing you can do; your hands are tied,” Jill said. “We all have regular nine-to-five jobs. And it’s so hard to know that we can’t talk about our sons freely because they’re judged. And (in the group), we can freely talk.”

Shawnte’, another mother in the group, has a Black son and a Hispanic son, both in their mid-20s. The older one is considered a gang member by law enforcement, while her younger son is not a gang member, but is currently incarcerated for drug charges, she said. 

“That’s what’s helped me get through this… having people willing to help me and understand what I go through. And it took a lot for me, because I used to be embarrassed,” Shawnte’ said. “It takes a village.”

Their children have witnessed violence and experienced trauma over the years, which has caused cross-generational trauma and anxiety. 

“I can honestly tell you that us group of moms, any time you hear there’s a shooting, a stabbing, someone died, we are on the phone with each other… Everybody’s reaching out to their son. You live in a state of anxiety,” Jill said. “If I hear police sirens, I freak out… We could be at a function, if the police are walking towards us, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, what’s going to happen now?’” 

“We found comfort and strength amongst each other because we all have the same stories and when your child is going through something, it’s so heartbreaking that there’s nothing you can do; your hands are tied.”

The mothers’ sons have been friends since elementary school and attended countless parties, cookouts and events together. It’s during some of these functions that the mothers see their sons finally feel safe and at ease. But while the sons laugh, seemingly having a nice time, the mothers can’t help but worry.

Citizens for Juvenile Justice found Black people in New Bedford were disproportionately represented in police field incident reports, though the police department noted in its response that field incident reports do not always involve a stop or capture criminal behavior. The department generally criticized the organization’s data analysis and findings overall. 

“It’s just really stressful,” Leslie said. As a Cape Verdean family, the stress of raising her sons has made her worry about her daughters going out. Her older son, now in his mid-20s, shares a similar wariness: he lives close by, but will not visit her house unless he has a ride so as to avoid a potential police stop while on foot. 

A voice for others

This summer, the mothers stood behind a table at Magnet Park during a cookout. Nearby, between the food trucks and kids hopping in a bouncy house, some of their sons handed out backpacks with school supplies, an idea they came up with on their own, said Leslie.

In matching orange shirts with the group’s name, the mothers handed out little red cards with directions on what constitutional rights to cite if stopped by police. They also collected signatures from about a dozen people who expressed interest in joining their group. 

Raena Camacho, the community engagement mobilization coordinator at the New Bedford HEAL Center, said Voices of the Unheard has helped with numerous community events the center hosts. She called their actions courageous, noting most people in their communities don’t speak up due to fear of retaliation. 

“It means a lot to me, just being a community member. When I was younger, it was just hard to find people to speak up,” Camacho said. “It’s just beautiful to see strong women, people within our communities, coming together and actually making that happen.”

The mothers are trying to establish themselves as a nonprofit advocacy organization and expand to other areas in the community. They are also in the process of preparing a community action plan to present to city officials, including the mayor and City Council members, that seeks transparency, accountability and attention on disparities in the school, court and police systems.

Jill said emphatically that they do not think all New Bedford police officers are bad. Rather, she said there are a few “bad apples” on the force that the department needs to address. 

As for other parents, efforts could include discussions on school resource officers, the court system and how to speak to lawyers. Early on in the pandemic, the mothers joined a Zoom call with some employees of the Massachusetts Trial Court to share how experiences with the court system affected them and their sons.

Leslie’s younger son, now in his mid-20s, landed the summer job but left college about two weeks into his first semester due to trauma that resurfaced while he was living alone in a new place. Later on, he enrolled in community college classes and is now a father working on getting into real estate. 

“At this point, all of our sons are grown men, so anything we’re trying to do is not going to change for our sons,” Jill said. As her son is readying to enter a trade, she has been busy preparing to spoil her new grandchild with a specially decorated baby room.

While she did some decorating, her son put the crib together.

“We’re just trying to save the young kids coming up,” Jill said, adding she has two grandchildren that she hopes won’t be labeled because of who their father is. 

Longtime advocates for their own sons, the moms want to teach other parents how to be the best advocates for their children, imparting information they didn’t have years ago — information Leslie might have used when she was standing in that office years ago with her son.

Email Anastasia Lennon at alennon@newbedfordlight.org.

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