Violence prevention activists try to treat the ‘disease’ of gun violence
At a community roundtable, activists discussed ways to attack the "disease" from all angles, including taking the fight to politicians and changing "community norms."
As local violence prevention leaders trickled into Repair the World’s Broad Street facility Monday evening, many appeared despondent.
The news of Pittsburgh rapper Jimmy Wopo’s condition had reached these individuals even before it had reached many of Wopo’s friends and family, let alone been reported in the media. Wopo, 21, had been critically injured in a drive-by shooting in the Hill District, the very neighborhood he often highlighted in his rap verses. He later succumbed to his wounds.
On Tuesday, the issue of gun violence came to the forefront of community discussion again when 17 year-old Antwon Rose was killed in East Pittsburgh. Rose was fatally shot by a police officer after he ran from a car that police believe was involved in an earlier shooting.
Yet one also sensed a feeling of stubborn resignation on the part of these community activists and school administrators, who clearly had been inured to this type of tragedy. Despite the efforts of these leaders and others around the region, Allegheny County saw 110 homicides in 2017, up from 105 in 2016.
Monday’s event, billed as a gun violence community roundtable, nonetheless went on.
Organizers from three local groups — the Violence Prevention Initiative, 3E Now and the Black Political Empowerment Project — led discussions focusing on different aspects of the gun violence epidemic in Pittsburgh and around the country, addressing potential root causes and proposing steps to stem such violence.
Richard Garland, director of VPI, repeatedly used an analogy to stress the urgency of the issue: gun violence, he said, is similar to a “disease.”
“We are interrupting the transmission of disease,” Garland said. “We are treating the disease” by “making a warm hand-off to the services that someone might need in order to help cure the disease.
“The third thing that we are really, really trying to do by our outreach efforts is change community norms,” he added.
Garland also pointed to the displacement of vulnerable individuals due to gentrification as a factor in many of the recent homicides in the city and its surrounding towns.
“Many of the shootings and many of the homicides, there’s a lot of different people that talk about, ‘Well, I’ve never seen this guy before, he just moved in the neighborhood,’” Garland noted.
“Many of these [city residents] are being displaced and they’re moving to the county,” he added. “And a lot of people from the county are moving to the city.”
In 1997, the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police was the first in the nation to implement a consent decree with the Department of Justice to address patterns of civil rights violations. In the years after, Stevens said he and other groups have worked with city police chiefs to implement sensitivity and implicit bias training.
Yet he insisted that much work remained to be done, including in ensuring that policemen live in or near the neighborhoods where they serve.
Sara Tyberg, an education justice fellow at Repair the World who organized the event, said gun violence is a “complex” problem that can fester due to long-term neglect of certain communities and a lack of opportunity.
“I think a lot of people are too quick to blame communities themselves when incidents of gun violence occur, without really looking at the structures that are in place that allow violence incidents to happen,” Tyberg said.
For some violence prevention activists, there seemed to be a sense that Monday’s tragedy could have been averted, that a man on the cusp of breaking out of the chain of violence couldn’t quite make it out in time. Michael Logan, a life skills outreach coordinator at a local nonprofit, said he spoke with Wopo’s mother last Wednesday about possibly meeting with her son to “talk about the things that were going on” in his life that could be threatening his safety.
According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Wopo was “about to sign a contract that would have taken him out of Pittsburgh.”
Ultimately, though, it was too little too late. PJC
This story has been updated.
Jonah Berger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.