Michael “Blue” Williams, CEO of Family Tree Entertainment, is used to calling the shots when managing the careers of successful rappers. But for his “Guns 4 Greatness” gun buyback program, the Bronx native plans to use his executive skills for the greater good.
This Saturday March 30, in partnership with the NYPD and numerous entities, Guns 4 Greatness will take place in a large church in East New York, Brooklyn — an area known for gun violence. The first public-private initiative of its kind in the city, the program promises cash and entertainment industry mentoring to those who relinquish firearms, in addition to tickets to concerts by popular acts like Beyoncé.
Initially nicknamed the “Beyoncé gun buyback” by the media, Williams stressed that Guns 4 Greatness is a serious matter while addressing press at the Wednesday announcement of his brain child. Standing at six-foot-five in a dapper suit with gleaming accessories, the entertainment veteran spoke sensitively about society’s need to reach troubled youth.
“These kids, you’ve got to give them stuff and keep them engaged,” Williams told theGrio from the tranquil hall of the Christian Cultural Center, where the buyback will take place. “I wanted to be able to offer kids incentives for doing the work. If you go and you sign up for mentoring, and you continue to do the work, I’m going to get you tickets to Beyoncé, I’m going to get you tickets to Summer Jam,” a popular annual concert produced by radio station Hot 97.
“I’m going get you things that keep you feeling like, ‘I’m doing the work, and I’m engaged, because things that matter to me are being given to me.’”
A need to appeal to the youth
Attorney Kenneth P. Thompson, a prominent partner in the program, felt just as strongly. Thompson, who is currently running for Brooklyn district attorney, said the entertainment-based incentives are key because, “most of the folks that come in with these guns have been older folks,” regarding previous programs.
Church drives removed roughly 7,000 firearms from New York City streets during a period between 2008 and 2011, city officials calculate. Still, African-Americans suffer from high rates of gun-related crime.
The greatest victims of gun violence in the city, African-Americans made up approximately 74 percent of shooting victims in 2011, according to the latest data. Almost 73 percent of known shooting suspects that year were also black.
“But the folks that are doing these shootings and killings are young people,” Thompson, a former federal prosecutor, explained in the church hall. “So we’ve got to try. These guns are just prevalent.”
Banking on the glamour of entertainment
Entertainment lawyer L. Londell McMillan represents clients such as Prince and Chaka Khan, so understands how the allure of show business can keep those who turn in guns committed to change.
“I think that if young people believe they have the opportunity to be mentored in a career that they love, that that trade off will lead to them making the choice to turn in a gun,” McMillan, another high-profile Guns 4 Greatness collaborator, asserted at the launch.
“There are no guarantees,” he assessed realistically. Yet, McMillan thinks added incentives such as mentoring are a worthy gamble.
“We’re hoping that people’s love for wanting to be in the entertainment industry will outweigh their need to feel they have to risk their lives,” he said.
Thinking big, starting small
As the impact of Guns 4 Greatness is determined, Williams and his partners plan to expand it nationally to major cities such as Chicago and Detroit, using their personal contacts to provide career assistance to participants, as they raise money for the program from the private sector.
But, the ambitions of Saturday’s kick-off are modest.
“My first goal was grandiose. I thought, ‘I’m going to get 200, 250 guns off the streets,’” Williams admitted. “But now I am resigned to think, ‘If I get one gun off the streets, I’ve saved two lives.’
“If one person comes through that door, and he doesn’t use that gun to hurt somebody, and he doesn’t go to jail, then to me it’s a success,” he said.
Filling a void in the current gun violence debate by addressing circumstances that lead to crimes specifically impacting people of color, African-American leaders such as Williams, McMillan, and more are taking this opportunity to help the black community in an innovative way.
“‘To whom much is given, of him much shall be required,’ I do believe in that,” McMillan said. “So at this time, we’re required to try and do something that’s important while there’s a national movement. We should be in that conversation.”
A message of hope
Guns 4 Greatness will take place on Saturday, March 30 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Christian Cultural Center located at 12020 Flatlands Avenue in Brooklyn, NY. Participants can receive $200 for a working handgun or assault rifle, payable in the form of bank cards, in addition to professional mentoring.
Williams wants youths engaging in gun-related activities to know: “You can make a change.
“If you are grabbing a gun for whatever reason, today or tomorrow, you have an option,” he continued. “A lot of kids don’t have fathers. A lot of kids are dropping out of school. Forty-six percent of minority kids aren’t finishing high school. So, these people are disconnected. They don’t know how to get back into a program. They don’t know how to get back on the right path. This is a chance to get on the right path. All you have to do is come in, and turn in your gun.”
Just as he is wisely starting small, Williams encourages people considering the program to take baby steps.
“You could have four guns. I’m telling you to come and turn in one, and get a chance to get on the path, and see if that change makes your life better than it is now.”