In 2013, a month after the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, a group of Black pastors and other activists visited the Obama White House to press the administration to do more to prevent gun violence in communities of color.
Obama had just released his post-Newtown gun violence prevention plan, which did not include any funding for community violence prevention efforts, and which made no mention of the disparate impact of gun violence on Black Americans.
When the clergy members expressed their frustration at the White House’s lack of response, an Obama staffer told them that there was no support nationally to address urban gun violence, and that Americans’ political will was focused on “the issue of gun violence that affected suburban areas – schools where white kids were killed”.
Some of those same Black pastors who visited the White House in 2013 were invited back for a ceremony on the South Lawn earlier this week.
Congress had finally passed a modest set of gun violence prevention compromises in the wake of yet another school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. This time, community violence prevention efforts were fully on the agenda, with Congress endorsing $250m dedicated to funding violence interrupters and other community-based efforts.
“This is a full circle moment,” said Pastor Michael McBride, the national director of the Live Free Campaign, which works to reduce gun violence and mass incarceration. McBride was one the clergy members who had spoken out publicly about his disappointment with the Obama administration, including then-vice-president Joe Biden, after Newtown.
Both Democrats and some Republicans were now willing to dedicate federal dollars to “targeting interventions and resources at those at the highest risk of shooting and being shot”, McBride said.
And the $250m in federal funding for community programs was desperately needed, he added: “Many violence interrupter programs in cities are usually funded seasonally, or unevenly, and certainly not to the scale of the problem.”
Biden’s speech at the South Lawn ceremony touting the country’s progress in preventing gun violence was interrupted by an objection from Manuel Oliver, who lost his 17-year-old son Joaquin Oliver in the Parkland school shooting in Florida in 2018, and who insisted that more needs to be done.
For many violence prevention activists, the struggles of the continuing gun violence crisis were balanced against the value of marking the fact that they had made progress. Some activists who have worked for decades on the issue said they saw changes worth noting in political rhetoric and action, from the White House.
The Rev Jeff Brown, a Boston-based minister who was one of the collaborators in “the Boston miracle”, a successful effort to reduce gun homicides in the 1990s, was also at the event on Monday, and said it was good “feeling that hope, that you know, we’re being heard”.
It had been an “abject disappointment” to Brown in 2013 that the country’s first African American president had, in his view, ignored the calls for more action and funding to prevent daily gun violence.
The federal funding for community violence interventions in the post-Uvalde violence prevention compromise bill that Congress passed, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, was “just the start”, Brown said, and “the honest truth is that we really need more”.
In his speeches on gun violence, Biden, a longtime booster of police departments, now sometimes highlights the importance of prevention work by violence interrupters, many of whom are formerly incarcerated or have other criminal justice system involvement in their past.
To hear the president of the United States legitimize the contributions of violence interrupters is powerful, said Teny Gross, a longtime violence intervention advocate who runs the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago.
Eddie Bocagnegra, who worked for years as an outreach worker in the streets of Chicago, has become a senior adviser to Biden’s justice department, an appointment that recognizes the expertise of on-the-ground violence prevention workers with deep ties in the community.
“These are groundswells of change,” Gross said.
Advocates say the shifts they have begun to see in the gun debate are bigger than the Biden administration. In the past decade, McBride said, organizers have pushed well-funded national gun control groups, which have often been led by wealthier white activists, to raise awareness about community intervention programs, not simply fight for new gun laws. They have also tried to win allies in law enforcement, and convince some police officials that civilian intervention programs can benefit public safety.
McBride said there was some progress in reframing the debate, from a “crime and punishment framework”, to a “public health framework”, that is no longer as focused on defining violence as an issue of “personal moral ineptitude”.
At the same time, advocates said, the past months have been heavy for anyone working in gun violence prevention. Gun sales spiked during the pandemic. In between brutal mass shootings, a conservative-dominated supreme court dramatically expanded the scope of gun rights, in a ruling that is expected to eviscerate existing gun control regulations.
Gross, who runs a violence intervention organization in Chicago, says he feels like the sorcerer’s apprentice in Disney’s Fantasia: the small progress they make is overwhelmed by a situation that has spiraled out of control.
Over the Fourth of July weekend in Chicago, the daughter of one of his staff members was shot, multiple staff members were shot on multiple days, and then, on 4 July itself, there was a mass shooting targeting a parade in Highland Park that left seven people dead and 30 others wounded.
“We are drowning in guns,” Gross said.
Still, Gross said, it was important to take a moment to acknowledge the progress that organizers had made, through years of meetings in church basements, knocking on doors, and flying from city to city across the country.
“Organizing – the power of the people – it still works, even if there are partial victories,” McBride said.
July 15, 2022 at 03:42PM Lois Beckett