Gun Violence Prevention: Not Just For White Picket Fences
For Chicago activists, gun violence prevention has been a pressing issue for decades. Now, some feel left out of the high-profile national conversation about firearm access, which has largely focused on serial murder rather than urban gun violence.
“This a deeply personal issue for the members of our team and many of the young people we work with," said Kedar Coleman, the Black Youth Project's national outreach director, in an email message. "All of us to one degree or another have been impacted by the bloodshed and loss of life. We’d seen enough. We felt something needed to be done—immediately—to call attention to the tragic loss of so many young black and brown lives.”
During the 2011-2012 Chicago school year, 319 public school students were shot, 24 of them fatally. Over the course of the calendar year, more than 500 murders took place in the city. Coleman noted that 108 of those victims were 19 or younger.
“Persistent poverty, violence and death are traumatizing,” Coleman said. “Trauma carries with an intense feeling being overwhelmed. It impairs one’s ability to cope. Consequently, for the communities that are ground-zero to the carnage, sustaining a conversation or outcry about gun violence that grabs and holds the nation’s attention, becomes challenging to say the least.”
The death of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, who performed at Obama's second inauguration days before she was shot in a North Kenwood park, spurred a renewed push by local advocates to see youth violence addressed in the White House's plan to fight gun violence.
”The president needs to signal to the world that we as a country value the lives of young Black and Latino children in Chicago,” Coleman said. “The president rightly went to Newtown and Aurora to comfort the families who lost loved ones in those senseless acts of gun violence. He needs to come to Chicago to make clear that the lives of Black and Latino youth in urban areas are equally valued with their peers in suburban areas."
Black Youth Project representatives joined the family members of shooting victims this month to launch a public awareness campaign and a Change.org petition calling on the president to come to Chicago and give a speech addressing urban gun violence.
The petition, which has collected more than 43,000 signatures, is an emotional plea by the family members of gun violence victims.
“Youth in my community face specific challenges that lead to gun violence—and these challenges require different solutions than other tragedies commonly invoked in current gun control debates, like Newtown and Aurora,” reads the petition. “It is time President Obama talked openly and honestly with the nation about all the factors that threaten the lives of inner-city youth.”
The campaign was successful, as the White House announced Sunday that the president will make one of his first post-State of the Union stops in Chicago and address, among other topics, urban gun violence.
“We know that the president cannot end the gun violence in Chicago by himself,” Coleman said. “Instead, we are asking the president to come to Chicago, sit with community groups, city and state officials, and map out a course of action that can stem the violence in our communities.”
Michael Skolnik, editor-in-chief of Global Grind and a board member for the Trayvon Martin Foundation, said he supports efforts that bring attention to the issues affecting young people of color. However, he's worried that the activists' emphasis on a national response to gun violence will turn attention away from grassroots efforts.
“A speech from the president is not going to stop the violence in Chicago,” Skolnik said. “I support a speech, of course. I just don’t want us to lose sight of our power and what it is that we can do. If we do the work, things will get done. It boils down to the fact that these children have no hope and that is a dangerous thing. We have to give the children of Chicago hope if we want the violence to end.”
An effective local response to gun violence recognizes that it is rooted in generations of poverty and disenfranchisement. The Chicago Reader's Steve Bogira compared homicide rates in the poorest and most affluent Chicago neighborhoods, and found that murders were 13 times more common in the poorest areas. And urban studies expert Richard Florida has also highlighted deep associations between gun violence and poverty, education, and race across the nation.
“Yes, we need gun control in this country … but background checks and weapons bans will not stop a deep systemic problem that has its roots in educational and economic inequities,” Florida wrote in an email message. “Our country is divided by class—knowledge, education, skill and income. I've showed the correlations between gun violence and these factors."
"If we really want to do something about gun violence, we need to do something about all our left behinds,” he said.
Tio Hardiman, director for CeaseFire Illinois and creator of the Violence Interrupter Initiative, has been working to make Chicago a safer place for years. He emphasizes that everybody in the community can find a role in fighting urban gun violence—especially at the interpersonal level.
“This information needs to get down to the people pulling the trigger,” Hardiman said. "The main thing is to talk positively to friends and peers. They can intervene. We cannot continue to condone negative behavior. Violence should be seen as unacceptable. Youth should try and pull up a brother who is struggling. We need masses of people to challenge each other to change the way we think as a society.”
Marc Peters is a reporter at Campus Progress.You can follow Marc on Twitter at @rippleofhope.
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