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City of Gainesville hosts Wear Orange Midnight Basketball event for Gun Violence Awareness Month

Gainesville middle and high schoolers play basketball together at the Teen Midnight Basketball event on Friday night. (Valentina Sandoval/WUFT News)
Gainesville middle and high schoolers play basketball together at the Teen Midnight Basketball event on Friday night. (Valentina Sandoval/WUFT News)

Coming together to play basketball and eat pizza, Gainesville middle school and high school kids filled the Martin Luther King Jr. Multipurpose Center’s gymnasium on Friday night.

Their orange and black shirts read “Choose peace, gun violence must cease.”

The Teen Midnight Basketball youth program is a monthly event the city holds every first Friday from April to August.

“The importance of Midnight Basketball is to give kids something to do,” said Gun Violence Intervention Program manager Brittany Coleman. “Especially on a Friday night.”

Coleman said the program invites kids from local middle and high schools to participate in a basketball tournament and eat free food, giving them something fun and recreational to do instead of turning to trouble.

June’s installment of Midnight Basketball was special, as Mayor Harvey Ward designated it a Wear Orange event while declaring Friday as National Gun Violence Awareness Day in Gainesville.

The Wear Orange national initiative honored gun violence survivors this year with Wear Orange Weekend Friday through Sunday. The color was chosen to represent the color hunters wear in the woods to identify themselves and avoid shooting each other.

Gainesville has had a steady growth in crime and homicides since 2020. The police department shared at a City Commission meeting in February that homicide deaths have gone up by 75% in the past four years and a lot of homicides are linked to stolen firearms. Gun violence was declared a public health crisis in the city in February 2023 and during an August gun violence summit, city officials reported 131 shooting incidents including homicides from July 2021 to July 2022, and 154 incidents from July 2022 to July 2023.

Susan Cone, a member of the grassroots organization Moms Demand Action, helped bring the Wear Orange initiative to Gainesville and is glad to see the city and community come together to honor victims and fight for a good cause.

“I’m excited to live in a city that is committed to ending gun violence,” Cone said.

Although she only moved to Gainesville early this year, Cone said she was also a member of the organization when she lived in Collier County, and as a mother of three and grandmother of two, she is committed to the cause of protecting children.

“This is really important,” she said. “I’m glad the community is not trying to pretend gun violence is not a crisis.”

Aside from the basketball game, bracelet-making station, pizza and free shirts, Moms Demand Action also passed around Wear Orange pamphlets, and a representative of the Santa Fe College Achieve program tabled right outside the gymnasium with information for the kids. The program aims to help high school students with coaching and mentoring for success in going to college and pursuing a career.

The event also included the third annual Signing Day Ceremony for the incoming class of firefighters of Gainesville Fire Rescue. The ceremony simulates signing days for college athletes so the 15 new members of GFR signed a letter of commitment, received a shirt and hat and took pictures with their families to celebrate their new career path.

Mayor Harvey Ward said mixing the ceremony along with Midnight Basketball was deliberate, since he and the rest of the city officials want kids to see their future options and to make working for the city look as “shiny, sparkly and exciting as possible.”

“We want to provide events that make kids feel good about themselves and see that there are professional pathways for them,” he said.

Two of the kids who sat front row for every game of the night seemed to agree with the fun of the event. Maurice Register, 14, and Braden Daniels, 13, spend their night watching every game, eating snacks and hanging out with friends.

Maurice said it was his first time coming to the event but that they are both likely to come back next month and try to be players next time.

“Watching the players was the most fun,” he said.

Despite not playing, Braden held a basketball in his hand for most of the night.

About halfway through the night, the MC hyping up the players asked to take a break from the games to hear about the importance of fighting gun violence. The speaker asked a couple of questions to the bleachers full of kids.

“How many of you know someone who has been a victim of gun violence?” he asked. “How many know someone in your age range who has been involved in a gun violence incident?”

After silence from the questions, Maurice raised his hand along with a third of the crowd of about 70 kids.

Ward said he knows this event is not the only thing that needs to be done in the community to protect kids and fight gun violence, but it is an important step in the process of the city’s initiatives. It is also particularly difficult to bring these initiatives to fruition in Florida, he said, since state legislation is often aiming to protect gun rights.

“It’s hard in a state where we want everybody to be armed twice,” Ward said. “We do all of this with kind of one hand behind our back.”

The next Midnight Basketball event will take place July 5 and the last one of the summer will be Aug. 2.

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