Straight talk and harsh realities dished out with love was the order of the day as the Salvation Army played host to an anti-violence rally on Saturday.

Families devastated by violence, businesspeople looking for change and community activists working to improve Aiken all spoke out at an event looking to change the course of young men and women at risk of entering a life of crime.

“If you don't want your children to become something or to love something, don't be it. And don't bring it home,” said Christopher Garris, a local business owner. “How in the hell do you expect your boy to grow up to be a man when you are bringing thugs home? How do you expect your young daughter to become a lady when you are laid-up with a hoochie?”

With a focus on the local African-American community, speakers with experience of poverty, violence and loss looked to send a message that hard work, responsibility and community were key.

Garris captured the crowd's attention with an energetic speech, which drew on his own experiences as a drug dealer and recovering addict, who has turned himself into a successful individual.

“I got 19 years clean from crack cocaine,” he said. “I sit here hearing my brothers and sisters make all these excuses about why the can't make it. Life is only going to give you what you are willing to invest in yourself.”

Garris and Clement Scurry of the Free Riders Motorcycle Club spoke of overcoming notions of honor in “thug,” “gangster” or “hustler” life, and the importance of honest work.

“You say you're a hustler, but you're living in a single-wide with (rims) on a Crown Vic,” Garris said. “You say you're a hustler. No you're not, you're a fool!”

Garris mocked those who complain about the divide between communities, but then turn around and refuse to help police investigations.

As well as the speakers, family members of those slain by violent crime provided poignant memories of the impact of these acts.