Ending Urban Gun Violence Requires Ending Poverty and Discrimination

Ending Urban Gun Violence Requires Ending Poverty and Discrimination

For immediate release: October 11, 2018

Statement in Response to Recent Shootings in Syracuse

Ending Urban Gun Violence Requires Ending Poverty and Discrimination

Community Policing and Youth Programs Will Help

by Howie Hawkins

Two youth, ages 12 and 15, were shot dead this week in Syracuse. Five people were shot right around the corner from my house three weeks ago. Their families and loved ones are in my thoughts.

It is no mystery where most of these youth shootings occur. They are endemic to high-poverty urban neighborhoods across the country, particularly in communities of color that are segregated and isolated by pervasive discrimination.

These shootings stem from the hopelessness, anger, and trauma of young people who start life deprived and often disabled physically, mentally, and emotionally by malnourishment, lead poisoning, periods of homelessness, and other readily solvable social and environmental conditions. They see the people in their neighborhoods in the same boat and hear a dismissive message from the larger society that their situation is their own fault.

Nor is it a mystery what we need to do about it. We need to end poverty and discrimination. The correlation of violence with social inequality and poverty is strong and global.

Government should be the employer of last resort to end unemployment. Government should guarantee as human rights comprehensive health care, good schools, and enough quality public housing so that every family can afford a decent home. And it should strengthen and enforce its anti-discrimination laws.

To secure these economic rights, President Franklin Roosevelt called upon Congress to enact the needed legislation in his last State of the Union address in 1945. He called for second, economic bill of rights. The civil rights movement picked up this torch – adding the demand to end racial discrimination – with the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the 1966 Freedom Budget proposal to Congress, and the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign. I have been calling for their realization through a Green New Deal that would add the right to a safe climate and clean environment.

But instead of providing these economic rights, government has focused since the Great Society on supposedly upgrading poor people with education and job training for jobs that are not there, and job search and poverty-wage work requirements to receive stingy public benefits. The old New Deal actually provided jobs, homes, and incomes for those in need. Since the Great Society, anti-poverty programs have focused on paying middle-class professionals to administer programs to teach poor people how to “behave properly” and don’t get real resources and opportunities to them.

The parents and grandparents of today’s residents of high-poverty neighborhoods has steady work in factories and the retail and service businesses that factory workers’ wages supported. When the factories left for the suburbs over the 1950s and 1960s, their poor descendants were defined as deficient when in fact they were segregated away from the new opportunities in the burgeoning suburbs.

I am tired of hearing that we need new ideas to end gun violence. End poverty and discrimination to end gun violence. Poor people are poor because they don’t have enough money. It’s that simple. Poor people need living wages, good schools, better housing and health care, and a healthy environment. Do that and street gangs shooting it out over turf, status, and revenge will fade away.

City administrations can do much to reduce the discrimination and segregation that poor people of color face by enforcing policies to desegregate housing and schools and to improve public transportation to jobs, schools, and commercial and cultural venues.

But only the states and the federal government that have sufficient revenues to invest in poor communities and secure economic human rights for them. With Trump in the White House, it is state government that must step into the vacuum in New York. New York State could provide universal single-payer health care, a living-wage minimum wage, adequate and equitable school funding for high-poverty school districts, expanded public housing, lead abatement, and other measures that target public investments into the communities that are most in need. What’s been missing is the political will from both major parties.

While poverty and discrimination are the root causes of urban gun violence, cities can mitigate gun violence with community policing and targeted assistance for the troubled youth most in need.

As I argued in my recent Syracuse mayoral campaign, communities facing gun violence would benefit from adopting the Richmond, California model of community policing and neighborhood safety.

Richmond is a working-class city with 80% people of color, which had earned a reputation as one of the most dangerous cities in America for its high murder and crime rates. Under a Green mayor, Gayle McLaughlin, who began the first of her two four-year terms in 2006, Richmond hired a police chief committed to diversifying the police force, to community policing, and to providing help to at-risk youth as central components of a crime reduction policy.

The new police chief, Chris Magnus, replaced aggressive paramilitary “street teams” with real community policing – not a small group within the department for public relations, but every officer assigned to specific neighborhoods to patrol defined beats, often on foot or bike, and tasked with building relationships and solving problems together with the residents and businesses.

To address gang-related crime and shootings, an Office of Neighborhood Safety was established with a $1.2 million budget and 12 staff to work in concert with police and community and church groups in reaching out to active shooters in gangs and giving them a choice: accept help (with a modest stipend and access to education, employment opportunities, counseling, and drug treatment) or expect close scrutiny and consequences for any criminal activity.

Promotion in the department was tied to successfully building positive relationships with and solving problems in the neighborhood, not on the volume of tickets and arrests. To integrate officers into city neighborhoods, police officers were offered free apartments in public housing projects paid for by the city budget. The current president of the police officers' union is one who chose to live in public housing.

Many officers who didn't like the community policing approach left. Over Magnus' 8-year tenure, he was able to personally select 90 of the department's 140 officers and 42 of 46 supervisors.

Internal affairs investigations were removed from department headquarters to an independent Office of Professional Accountability in city hall. Richmond's Citizens' Police Review Commission employs a professional investigator who has the power to subpoena officers and question them under oath.

The change in the culture of the Richmond Police Department was exemplified when Chief Magnus held up a “Black Lives Matter” sign at a December 2014 vigil for Michael Brown, who was shot dead by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, the previous August.

The reforms in Richmond corresponded with major reductions in violence and crime. After decades with homicides routinely exceeding 40 per year dropped from 42 in 2006 to 11 in 2014, the lowest on record. Homicides rebounded to the low 20s in 2015 and 2016 as budget constraints cut both police officers and the Office of Neighborhood Safety. Violent crimes dropped by 23% and property crimes by 40% between 2006 and 2014 and the downward trends continued in 2015 and 2016.

The police force grew from 20% to 60% people of color over the same period. 20% of the officers were women by 2014. There was less than one officer-involved shooting per year over the same period. No residents were killed by a police officer in Richmond between 2008 and 2014. In nearby Vallejo, with similar demographics and crime rates, 6 residents were killed in police encounters over the same period.

Police forces should be representative of the neighborhoods they serve, with residency requirements and strong affirmative action measures. 92% of Syracuse police live outside the city. 93% of city police are white in a city that is 28% black and 49% people of color – an inexcusable failure 38 years after the 1980 federal consent decree required the city to hire more black officers to remedy past discrimination.

We need police chiefs and local elected leaders who are committed to minority recruiting and community policing linked to complementary city programs that provide opportunities, services, and mentoring for at-risk youth who are neither in school nor working and for people who are reintegrating after incarceration.

None of these reforms – ending poverty, community policing, targeted assistance for at-risk youth – are new or mysterious. They are proven remedies. It’s time to employ them.

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