Placeholder Image

[Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times via AP]

Urban Violence

With America’s Focus on Gun Violence, Activists Fight to Ensure Victims of Color Aren’t Ignored

This summer’s mass shootings have Congress searching for solutions to gun violence. Organizers in America’s hardest-hit communities say what they need is funding for programs already saving lives.

Earlier this week, black and brown community organizers gathered on a conference call urgently convened in the wake of last weekend’s mass shootings. But they spent little time discussing El Paso and Dayton. While acknowledging the devastation gunmen had wrought on those places, they instead focused on the drumbeat of gunfire in some of America’s city neighborhoods, and on the  people of color who live in them. 

“For black and brown communities, when shootings happen, they’re not treated the same or covered the same,” said A.T. Mitchell, founder of the Brooklyn social services nonprofit ManUp, Inc., during one of the call’s more forceful moments. “We have to work twice as hard as our colleagues to get the kind of resources we need.”

Mass shootings consistently garner more media coverage and public outrage than other forms of gun violence, though they account for a much smaller share of the gun homicides that make firearms the leading killer of America’s black youth. Consequently, many community gun violence prevention organizations struggle for both attention and funding — even as research makes it increasingly clear that the tools to reduce everyday shootings are available right now. 

With Republicans in Washington, D.C., suddenly expressing openness to new gun safety measures, the Black and Brown Gun Violence Prevention Consortium, which organized Tuesday’s call, is trying to ensure that any remedies that emerge from this window of bipartisan urgency do not exclude interventions that may directly address shootings in communities of color. 

On August 3 and 4, the same two days in which 31 people were fatally shot in El Paso and Dayton, 95 more people died and 211 were injured from gunshot wounds, according to the Gun Violence Archive. Chicago, long the (perhaps unjustified) metonym for urban gun violence in America, saw its deadliest weekend of the year. Early that Sunday morning, a local hospital treated so many gunshot patients it had to divert ambulances because its trauma center had reached capacity.

The interventions the consortium promotes have consistently proven capable of saving lives when well-implemented. An approach known as focused deterrence, in which police and community partners collaborate to steer high-risk individuals away from violence, has led to fewer homicides in multiple cities. The consortium also points to the work of violence interrupters, who reach people estranged from law enforcement; to cognitive behavioral therapy and targeted job opportunities to dissuade people from engaging in violent behavior; and to programs designed to pacify gun violence “hot spots” where violent crime clusters.

The Harvard scholar Thomas Abt ran the numbers on what it would cost to blend those strategies into a national violence reduction plan. He estimates that over two presidential terms, a comprehensive effort would cost less than $900 million —  “a rounding error” in the $4 trillion federal budget — and potentially save more than 12,000 lives.

Despite their effectiveness, the community-based programs for fighting gun violence  have largely failed to gain traction at the federal level. In early 2013, community gun violence advocates met with then-Vice President Joe Biden, whom President Barack Obama had asked to lead his administration’s response to Sandy Hook. They presented Biden with studies studies showing how strategies like focused deterrence could make a serious dent in the largest segment of the country’s gun homicide problem. When the Obama administration released a comprehensive list of proposals and executive actions to combat gun violence, none of the community gun violence recommendations made the cut. 

Reverend Jeffrey Brown sat in on those meetings. “These are things that are evidence-based,” he told The Trace. “It just galls me.”

Following the mass shooting at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, former Capitol Hill staffer Amber Goodwin began laying plans for the Community Justice Reform Coalition to give people of color a more prominent place in the gun violence prevention movement. In the years since, establishment groups like Giffords, the Brady Center, and Everytown for Gun Safety have begun to work with community-oriented organizations to secure more state funding for existing anti-violence programs.  

Meanwhile, the Black and Brown Gun Violence Prevention Consortium, co-founded by gun violence prevention activist Erica Ford and Pastor Michael McBride, is working to correct the lingering financial imbalance by pooling the resources of dozens of smaller campaigns. 

Pastor Michael McBride leads a rally in Oakland in 2017. [Thomas Hawk/Flickr]

Take the case of GoodKids MadCity, a youth-led Chicago nonprofit founded in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting. The organization recently set up a GoFundMe page. Of a modest $10,000 ask published on July 17th, the organization has raised just $358. Last year, a similar March For Our Lives GoFundMe published raised $3.5 million.

Alone, GKMC might struggle to enact its gun violence prevention plan. But as a participant on Tuesday’s call, one of the organization’s leaders was able to make a pitch for volunteers and resources. 

Pastor McBride, an Oakland minister whose LIVE FREE campaign was integral to a dramatic drop in gun violence in that city, was another organizer of this week’s call. He also participated in another telephone conference on Sunday, during which faith leaders discussed how to expand the focus on mass shootings to encompass solutions to all gun violence. 

McBride said the collaboration is a response to a dynamic that organizations like his have long faced: “Issues of gun violence in black and brown communities are seen by the country as problems for black and brown people to solve on our own.” 

The consortium, he said, allows larger organizations like LIVE FREE to leverage their national infrastructures to scale the work of comparatively smaller outfits like GKMC.

McBride and other allied activists — Reverend Brown and Anthony Smith of Cities United among them — say that the fact that some of the major white-led gun violence prevention organizations have increasingly devoted resources to their agendas is the result of tireless, strategic activism.

“This is a result of us beating the drum and saying, ‘Don’t forget about the day-to-day gun violence, don’t forget about the day-to-day,’” said Smith.

Notwithstanding their progress, advocates can still find themselves cut out of the conversation when mass shootings capture the national spotlight. 

Erica Ford, who runs the New York City branch of the anti-gun violence group Life Camp, said that after CNN invited March for Our Lives leader David Hogg to participate in a town hall on gun violence that aired Wednesday night, he directed CNN producers to reach out to Ford. They did. “But they only wanted me to be a stick figure in the audience and give them questions to ask their panel,” Ford said.

After a debate with the booker, Ford declined the opportunity. “What tools are the victims of previous mass shootings gonna give America to set up systems and infrastructure to stop shootings?” she said. “CNN wanted to sensationalize this story, and I couldn’t be a part of that.” 

CNN did not immediately respond to request for comment. Toward the end of the televised event, panelists did raise the issue of community gun violence, though it received significantly less air time than mass shootings.

“To decenter directly impacted people from the political conversation is a decision to double down on the status quo,” McBride said. “We want to be heard in the boardroom, in the office space, in the classroom, in Congress, in the White House. We want our wisdom and expertise to be respected. We don’t want to have to be validated by our white colleagues to get our point across.”

Next weekend, several leading Democratic presidential candidates will attend a forum organized by McBride and other faith leaders in Atlanta. He said he is looking forward to the opportunity to directly ask them how their gun violence proposals will decrease community shootings. 

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Amber Goodwin as a co-founder of the Black and Brown Gun Violence Prevention Consortium. The group was co-founded by Erica Ford and Michael McBride.