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Rev. Milford Griner has personal experience with gun violence. It's driven him toward solutions for 54 years

Rev. Milford Griner, pastor for 37 years and community leader, stands inside of Bartley Temple United Methodist Church in Gainesville, Fla., on May 5, 2023. (Caleb Ross/WUFT News)
Rev. Milford Griner, pastor for 37 years and community leader, stands inside of Bartley Temple United Methodist Church in Gainesville, Fla., on May 5, 2023. (Caleb Ross/WUFT News)

The Rev. Milford Griner was shot by a gang in Philadelphia when he was 11 years old, causing permanent damage to his right eye, and he uses this experience to drive him in advocating to prevent youth gun violence.

“It could have easily been me that was killed,” he said. “And here I am now, and I’m 65 years old, and I’m a survivor of that.”

Griner, who lives in Gainesville, said his activism goes back about 30 years. He was a pastor for 38 years in 14 churches across Alachua and Marion County, and he was also a former police officer. Now that he is retired, he said he has more time to dedicate to his activism.

Griner is the founder and president of the Rosa Parks Quiet Courage Committee, which was created in 2006. He started the committee after Rosa Parks passed away, and it is dedicated to preserving her memory and legacy. The Rosa Parks Quiet Courage Committee is another avenue of Griner’s activism, and it brings community members together in fighting for change.

He has taken it upon himself to partner with pastors and law enforcement officials, such as Tony Jones, the former Gainesville police chief and Lonnie Scott, the current chief, by meeting on Zoom and in person on a semi-regular basis since January to address the problems associated with youth gun violence, to propose solutions to reduce it in the community and to help these young people engaging in gun violence find a better way.

“We walk out on scenes, and we see young kids, teenagers, or young adults that were alive a few minutes before we got there,” Scott said. “And now they’re gone.”

He said that there is a lack of respect for life on a national level.

“You have to look at gun violence not as the problem but as the symptom,” Scott said.

He identified parenting, educational and spiritual challenges and mental health as some of the variables contributing to this problem. He said that the GPD values engaging with the community and working with the people that it serves to be successful in its efforts.

Jones and Jaime Kurnick, the GPD’s chief inspector, said that one common way that these children obtain weapons is from breaking into cars, and this is one of the various areas that the GPD is targeting to curb violent crime.

The GPD has programs, including B.O.L.D., Reichert House and Violence Interrupters, that work to provide services for young children who come from difficult circumstances, to be proactive in preventing youth who come from engaging in violent activity, to help reintegrate citizens who have been involved in violence and to keep these young individuals on the right track to show them that there are other ways to settle their differences.

“My strongest point is that I have a love of children, and I can't stand to see them hurt,” Scott said. “They have no one to protect them. The parents should be doing it, but sometimes the parent can’t. And I think we as a society have to take responsibility for protecting those that can't protect themselves.”

B.O.L.D., which stands for Brave Overt Leaders of Distinction, and Reichert house are funded by the city, while Violence Interrupters is funded partially by a grant and through state funds.

Jones weighed in on the value of human life and said that losing one life is too many.

“If I can save one life at a time, if I can convince individuals that there is other ways of resolving conflicts than resorting to gun violence, I did my job,” Jones said. “Because the young people are our future, and we have to work to empower them with resistance skills, resiliency skills, that there is more to life than picking up a weapon and discharging it at someone.”

Kurnick emphasized this, as she said that investing in these kids to keep them on the right track is worth it.

“It's easy to put someone in the car and take them to juvenile assessment center and you know, you're done and that's an easy solution,” she said. “The harder ones are where you have to invest time, and you have to invest in these individuals and the youth. The other part is finding individuals who can reach them.”

The GPD focuses more on trying to prevent people from committing crime than it does trying to lock people up, Scott said.

Scott, Jones and Kurnick addressed the barrier between police officers and civilians and how it is important to build trust and rapport with community members.

“Unfortunately, we get painted with the same brush that Memphis Police Department gets painted with,” Scott said. “They have some officers who acted what appears to be improperly and did some things that nobody should do. And instead of focusing on that community and that problem from that agency, they paint all law enforcement with that same ration. That’s not how we police here.”

Scott said that the GPD respects its community members and values listening to them about what they feel the biggest issues are.

He also said that people sometimes forget the officers are not robots. That once they go home and take off their uniforms, they are fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, uncles and friends just like anyone else. Jones now manages juvenile justice programs, and he said that you have to reach these kids where they are and let them know that police officers are human beings just like them to build this sense of trust and understanding.

“I think that the most important thing that you can do is make sure that you have an agency that is reflective of the community and sees themselves as part of the community, not apart from the community,” Scott said.

The GPD is still tackling how to deal with this issue effectively, he said, because acts of gun violence continue to occur on a national scale.

“You don't enter the profession because you're looking to get rich, you enter the profession because you want to make a difference, you want to be a hero,” Scott said. “You want to change somebody's life, save somebody's life.”

The Rev. Mary Mitchell, chaplain of the Rosa Parks Quiet Courage Committee, said she only sees this problem getting worse.

“Children live what they learn,” she said. “And if we don't show them something different, guess what? It's a cycle.”

Rachel is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.