Lawmakers push businesses to fight gang violence

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As the owner of Flowers by Zenda, Orlando Kross peddles petals and foliage, sure. But he’s also a crucial set of eyes along a pulsing stretch of Broadway in the bustling, high-traffic community known as Marble Hill.

Under the screeching 1 train hurtling south along the elevated train tracks at West 225th Street — on a strip that includes a furniture store, a 99-cent store, a liquor store, and a now-vacant McDonald’s that was a lifeline for some residents — Flowers by Zenda shares its humble space with a barbershop, crammed into a corner where Kross readies bouquets with a visible passion for serving customers.

Being a store owner, “you always observe the behavior of the customers and the community,” said Kross, leader of the Marble Hill Merchants Association. “Not only in your store, but on the street. If there’s groups that are gathering, you want to keep an open eye” toward “gang-related so-called activities.”

As violence continues to simmer in the borough, cops in the 50th Precinct and other Bronx precincts need all the help they can get from small business owners like Kross.

So bad, in fact, a couple of lawmakers are pushing a bill to make it happen.

State Sen. Luis Sepúlveda and Assemblyman Victor Pichardo introduced legislation July 10 that would require small businesses statewide to call police when a child or young person in danger seeks help from them. It’s called “Junior’s Law” after 15-year-old Lesandro “Junior” Guzman-Feliz, who police said was dragged from a Belmont bodega last month where he’d sought refuge and stabbed to death with knives and machetes by gang members who had been chasing him.

“The way that this young man’s life was taken, in such a brutal and savage way, is really a failure on us as a society to not only protect our kids, but prevent these tragedies from happening,” Pichardo said. “Unfortunately, we can’t bring this young man back to his family.” But lawmakers “can try to push something” to prevent, “at the very least, another child from losing his life in such a violent way.”

 

Pushing away from gangs

Laws alone, however, can’t fix a societal issue. Another part of the solution, Pichardo said, means tackling the problem at its roots.

“I think gangs have a very similar modus operandi regardless of whether they operate in Kingsbridge Heights, or in Morris Heights, or University Heights,” Pichardo said. “These kids are drawn to the fact that these gangs offer them something that maybe a parent or a guardian or a mentor in school can’t offer them. We need to create an environment where … we can give them a better outlet. That’s first and foremost.”

Which requires funding the right kinds of youth programs, Pichardo said, like Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s $18 million anti-gang, anti-violence initiative.

“That will benefit the Kingsbridge Heights area,” Pichardo said. “But we need to make sure that we continue to do more. It’s not just money. We need to make sure that we have people in our communities that can show kids the way forward that shows the follies of gangs, but more importantly, gives a sense of hope to a community that really needs it.”

Gang violence, however, has been a problem for generations, Pichardo said, stemming from the so-called war on drugs during the 1970s and 1980s, and what he calls the government’s own “giant and colossal mistake in how we dealt with crime,” especially when it comes to drugs.

Storeowners themselves also can be victims, according to 50th Precinct commanding officer Terence O’Toole. Security cameras mounted at local businesses, however, have helped identify perpetrators in numerous investigations.

But that doesn’t take away the fact storeowners are in the community and they get threatened, too. “Gang violence,” O’Toole said, “has been a problem for years.”

 

But is it enough?

And while some gangs in the 5-0 have shifted tactics targeting property over people, “there’s still that violent streak when they operate,” he added.

Yet, O’Toole’s not so sure “Junior’s Law” provides the ideal solution.

“I don’t know if a law forcing (storeowners) to do something is the correct way to go about it,” he said. “I think it should be more of a voluntary compliance. Obviously, it’s good to call 911. Some stores do, some stores don’t. Some places are very compliant, and there’s some stores that don’t want to comply with anything.”

But for the most part, O’Toole said, even the best-intentioned small business owners may find themselves facing a choice that could quite literally be between life and death.

“The small individual business owner is between a rock and a hard place,” O’Toole said. “He’s got to protect his business, protect himself. I’m sure he’d love to help people out, but what dangers does that put him in?”

That risk of danger is something Kross has no choice but to face daily. 

“It’s an ongoing struggle,” he said. And survival — both his and that of the customers he watches over — requires staying alert.

“The community is being shared with a lot of people,” Kross said. “Especially Marble Hill. It’s a big community. You’ve got kids walking with their parents, with their grandparents. You want to be aware of what’s going on in your surroundings.”

But along with being a keen observer, Kross views “Junior’s Law” as a potentially potent antidote in a place he’s seen stray slugs prove “a bullet doesn’t have eyes.”

“It’s not a one-way street, or ‘I own the block.’ You have to work together” with police, Kross said. “People should feel safe and comfortable walking down the street, and law enforcement can’t be everywhere at the same time.”