COLUMBIA — The amphitheater outside the Boone County Courthouse was filled with chanting Saturday morning.
"Silence the violence!" the people shouted as one, audible from blocks away.
Columbia residents gathered for the Silence the Violence event organized by the Columbia Community Non-Violence Initiative to raise awareness and find solutions for violence in the city. In the last two months, two teenagers have been shot and killed in Columbia.
"Make sure all of the people — even if they are asleep right now — make sure they hear our voices," said Christopher Walls, who helped organize the event.
Led by three police officers on horseback, the group marched west on Ash Street, up Bryant Street, and back east to Frederick Douglass High School. The whole way the crowd, complete with megaphones and signs, repeated their message: silence the violence.
"We want the city to know it's time to take back the peace in the city," Walls said. "It's everyone's problem. If violence is allowed to multiply, it will undermine everything."
As the group marched through blocks west of Providence Road, residents emerged from their houses, snapping pictures on their phones or stopping friends in the crowd to say hello. Some joined in as the long column of people walked past their front yards. Walls estimated the group grew by 30 percent during the march.
The march was followed by a public forum at the high school, including a motivational speech by BET host, activist and award-winning journalist Jeff Johnson. Johnson urged Columbia residents to be courageous and do something for their community. He also praised local politicians for attending the event, instead of "just issuing a statement."
"I'm tired of speech after speech that motivates us to a state of euphoric inactivity," Johnson said. "We keep talking about silencing the violence, but we don't talk about what we're going to do."
Johnson spoke to the importance of pairing potential mentors with organizations in town that work to provide structured activities for local youth.
"The only way you reduce violence is by increasing opportunity," he said. "Begin to instill them with the vision and values of the community you want to create."
Johnson spoke to event attendees from the front steps of Douglass High School, because more people showed up than anticipated, and everyone would not all fit in the gymnasium.
Deasaa Turner helped design T-shirts for the event. Turner said she got involved after the shooting of DeAudre Johnson in March, which affected many of her friends and family.
"We should care about everyone else, too," said Turner, who attends Jefferson Junior High School. "And not just when it hits close to home."
After Johnson's speech, organizers hosted a forum in which attendees could share personal stories and ask questions of a panel of people with first-hand experience with Columbia street life.
"They chose me because overall, I have a lot of control in these streets," said panel member Ahmonta Harris, who said he aims to be a role model for Columbia's youth.
Harris said the event was important at this time of year, because with summer approaching, youths will have more free time on their hands and will be more likely to turn to violent behavior.
"People fight and you don't hear about it," Harris said. "It's all the shootings. Columbia's not used to that. Since Columbia's small and like a family, when someone gets murdered, it's connected to everybody."
After the forum, attendees split into breakout sessions led by the panel members and event organizers. Topics included street life, parenting, gangs, safe sex and substance abuse.
An expo was also held in the gymnasium of Douglass High School, comprised of organizations seeking to educate, employ and empower local youth. Groups like the Youth Empowerment Zone and Youth Community Coalition provide the chaperoned, structured activities many event attendees were calling for.
Several people at the event said they had been involved in dangerous activities in their youth and now hope to set a good example for local teenagers.
"I've walked over troubled waters, too," said Sherrod Ellis, a forum panel member. "But this is what change looks like."