Newark anti-violence activist takes on gangs with tough talk

By Mark Di Ionno | The Star-Ledger
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on September 23, 2014

Sharif Amenhotep of the Newark Anti-Violence Coalition became an activist after he killed a woman while driving a stolen car. For five years, he has been on Newark corners to protest the gun violence in the city.

 

Certain dates stick out in Sharif Amenhotep’s mind.

Details, too.

Sept. 19, 1993, the day he killed a woman. He says her name without hesitation, “Denise Owens,” and spells it.

How old?

“She was 41. She was young, man. I took her life. I think about it every day. Every year, I go up and leave flowers there.”

He remembers the stolen car he was driving.

“A Honda Accord.”

And the color.

“It was gold.”

He and two other teenagers stole it from the Livingston Mall just hours before. Now it was 1 a.m., when the streets were empty enough.

“We were just joyriding. Speeding, doing donuts. That’s all we ever did. We didn’t steal the car to commit other crimes, not like today.”

Back in 1993, it was a familiar story. Stolen car chases, like something out of a cop movie. Burning rubber and screaming sirens. Blowing through red lights like Russian Roulette.

On 12th Street in Newark, Amenhotep was speeding the wrong way on a one-way street. A Newark patrol car hit the lights, and Amenhotep, then named Sharif Maloney, hit the gas. He says he was doing “a-hundred” going out Central Avenue from Newark to East Orange.

At Central and Hollywood, Alphonso Owens, with his wife in the passenger seat, was making a routine left.

“He probably never saw us coming,” Amenhotep said.

There was the sickening sound of metal crushing metal, and glass shattering and then everything came to a stop. Denise Owens would later die, and Amenhotep, tried as an adult, got 10 years in jail.

Something else happened that day. Amenhotep's friend, Alquan Brown, 15, also recklessly driving a stolen car, was shot and killed by police less than a mile from where Amenhotep crashed.

A dead woman. A dead friend. Amenhotep still had his life, and he knew he had to change it. He began in prison “educating myself to who I was. I knew I knew right from wrong, but my approach to life was impulsive, not intelligent.”

In solitary confinement, he read Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. He listened to tapes made by Khalid Abdul Muhammad. Muhammad was a right-hand man to Louis Farrakhan in the Nation of Islam, but a racist, anti-Semitic speech at Kean University in 1993 made national headlines and Farrakhan banished him. Muhammad moved onto to the New Black Panther Party, which Amenhotep joined.

“It was a process of discovering knowledge of myself and my ancestral past. Up 'til then, all I knew was rappers and street thugs. I learned about African kings and queens and great civilizations. Through slavery, all that history was erased. Black people had their honor, even their morality, stripped away.”

He did six years, eight months. When he stepped out of prison on Dec. 9, 1999 – another indelible date – Amenhotep was a different person. But his life changed again 10 years later.

On July 20, 2009, three people were killed and seven wounded in separate shootings in Newark. One was Nakisha Allen, 35, a mother of two girls, the unintended victim of a drive-by as she walked to the store.

“We were fed up and outraged,” he said. “She got killed going to get milk for her children.”

Ras Baraka, now mayor but then a councilman, called for community action and the Newark Anti-Violence Coalition quickly took shape.

“We had to do something dramatic,” Amenhotep said. “People were just accepting this violence as a way of life, like it was normal. These are black people killing black people. It’s self-genocide.”

The coalition shut down the intersection at Elizabeth and Meeker avenues, where Allen was killed. It was the first of a five-year unbroken string of weekly protests, all on Wednesday nights, all at intersections near where someone had been shot. One a week, for five years, and they never ran out of victims to represent.

Amenhotep has been there for almost every one – heat or cold, rain or snow.

On Jan. 26, 2011, the last of 18 inches of snow was still falling on the city when Amenhotep set up his sound system at the intersection of Schley Street and Hawthorne Avenue where Lawrence Finney was killed two weeks before. He began to chant, “Stop the violence, stop the killing,” over a mostly silent street, bringing people out of their homes, bundled up, to hear the message.

“He’s our lead-off speaker because he has a way of firing up the crowd,” said Bashir Akinyele, a Weequahic High history teacher who has also been with the coalition from the start. “He’s seen the poverty, the drugs, the joblessness, the violence, in his own family. He’s lived the kind of life he’s trying to correct.”

Amenhotep uses language that would get politicians drummed out of office and talk show hosts thrown off the air.

“I call these killers ‘savages’ because that’s what they are,” he said.

“I say they are destroying our communities because that’s the truth. It’s not a bunch of white people coming down here and killing us. It’s black people killing each other.”

At the protest to recognize Cheyanne Bond, the 17-year-old cheerleader and honor student was who robbed, then shot in the back of the head while she was kneeling at 15th Avenue at West Side Park in July, Amenhotep was in full outrage.

He stood in the intersection of 15th Avenue and South 17th Street, surrounded by supporters. But his message wasn’t for them. It was for the corner boys a block away, and all the others throughout the city.

“You say gangs are part of the community. You’re not part of the community. You destroy your community. You kill your women and children. You’re not men. Men protect their community. They protect their women and children. You’re savages. Savages.”

It went on like this for 20 minutes, maybe more. Going after their manhood. Calling them punks and cowards.

“One of you shot a defenseless little girl; some of you know who did it, but you hide like a bunch of cowards."

The corner boys smirked, and coolly leaned up against a storefront. Some sent up hard stares. Amenhotep kept going.

“Malcolm X and Martin Luther King went up against powerful forces,” Amenhotep said last week. “We can’t be afraid of a few little gangbangers. We’re in a battle for the hearts and souls of our young people, for our streets, for our heritage. This violence is epidemic. People in this city are in danger every day. We can’t be afraid to speak the truth.”

Amenhotep doesn’t hide. He’s a street vendor at Broad Street and Branford Place, and everyone knows him. If somebody comes looking, well, so be it.

“He believes the price of freedom is death,” Akinyele said.

“It’s as simple as that. Someone has to step up.”

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