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In Holyoke, frustration and resolve in the face of violence

Holyoke City Councilor Jenny Rivera (second from left) placed an arm around her nephew as they marched together during Holyoke’s Drop the Violence March.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

HOLYOKE — The frustration was palpable.

The speakers at Sunday’s peace march did not personally know the pregnant woman who was struck by a stray bullet Wednesday as she rode a public transit bus. But one by one, through anger and tears, they shared the same message as she remained in the hospital where she lost the child she was carrying: The violence needs to stop, and the guns have to go.

“My daughter takes that bus, and I’m scared,” Danielle Reeves, who lives near the shooting scene, said loudly, drawing applause. “It doesn’t need to be this way.”

Two men are being held on murder charges, and authorities say they continue to seek a third in connection with the shooting that has rocked the old industrial city. Authorities have said a fight among multiple people outside a convenience store at the corner of Sergeant and Maple streets in a neighborhood near Holyoke’s downtown led to gunshots — including a bullet that hit the woman as she rode a bus.

Johnluis Sanchez, 30, and Alejandro C. Ramos Jr., 22, both pleaded not guilty last week to the murder counts stemming from the gunfight. Sanchez was arraigned from a hospital room due to injuries he suffered in the shooting.


The police reports with specifics of what allegedly occurred have been impounded, and authorities have not publicly identified the woman.

She remains in the hospital, where authorities have said she was in critical condition after the shooting. But now, “she’s on the road to recovery,” said Holyoke Mayor Joshua A. Garcia, who has remained in contact with the woman’s boyfriend.

Protesters taking part in Holyoke’s Drop the Violence March gathered around a makeshift memorial to pray for the baby who died after a pregnant mother was hit by a stray bullet while riding a public transit bus. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Ashley Stacko, who was pushing a child in a stroller during the march, said she lives near the shooting scene, and because she’s pregnant, people worried she was the one struck when they heard reports of the crime. She said she knows the cousin of the woman who was hit, and the family is “hanging in there, but it would have been too much to come” to the march.


“They need to get rid of the guns,” she said. “It could have been me.”

Priscilla Rivera, a community activist who co-owns the downtown City Sports Bar and Lounge where the crowd of about 100 mustered before marching to the shooting scene, said the city is “losing its youth.” She was one of several who spoke of the need for better programing and outreach to young people.

“We need to stop the gun violence,” she said. “It’s a cycle that keeps repeating and repeating and repeating. ... If you want to better your life, you have to be a cycle breaker.”

Meg Magrath-Smith, a city council candidate and one of the organizers of the event, said the shooting was a “punch in the gut” to her and others in Holyoke who feel that violence in the city is holding back progress they’re trying to make.

“This is life-liberty-and-pursuit-of-happiness-level stuff,” she said.

Garcia, the mayor, told the Globe he is planning to ask the City Council for $1 million to fund a plan that’s “heavy on enforcement.” That means more police patrols, he said, and replacing and expanding the infrastructure of cameras around the city aimed at catching criminals.

“We’re at a zero-tolerance level,” said Garcia, wearing a “Mayors against illegal guns” pin on his vest and holding a sign that read “Holyoke mourns.” He said his administration has been walking a fine line of “enforcement and compassion,” but, “my compassion after this just went completely out the window.”


A few minutes later, he revised his position, adding that “obviously there’s still compassion” in the response, saying he is also aiming to beef up homeless and mental-health outreach to “help those who are really struggling.”

He said he also plans on expanding anti-blight efforts, looking to increase fines and enforcement action on property that’s the source of trouble or that violates codes.

Garcia is in his first term as mayor of Holyoke, the “Paper City” of around 37,000 that continues to struggle with issues of poverty and crime.

He said people can donate to a relief fund through the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce that will provide aid to the wounded woman and her family.

Holyoke Mayor Joshua A. Garcia (center) took part in Holyoke’s Drop the Violence March. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Speaking at the shooting scene, activist Juan Gonzalez said the community and city need to do more to reach youth, because “If a child doesn’t feel a part of the village, they’ll burn it down.”

He said he lives just two blocks away and worries for his own kids.

“A stray bullet don’t have anyone’s name on it,” he said.

Gonzalez wore a multi-colored boombox on a strap, providing musical accompaniment to the march, ranging from Tupac Shakur’s “Changes” to Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror.”

But often marchers walked to the beat of their own chants in English and Spanish: “Hey, hey, ho, ho, these guns have got to go,” or “Holyoke, together, will never be defeated.”


During the half-mile trek, these chants paused briefly as the United Congregational Church of Holyoke’s bells launched into “Amazing Grace” as the marchers passed.

At the scene, a makeshift memorial had sprung up. Stuffed animals, prayer candles, and star-shaped balloons framed a piece of cardboard that read, “Dios te bendiga angelito” — God bless you, little angel.

Sean Cotter can be reached at him @cotterreporter.