Gun Violence In America: A Call For The Beloved Community

Our nation and our world were roiled by horrifying and widely publicized killings of innocent good people during 2016. We witnessed killings by police, and killings of police; deliberate mass killings of LGBTQ people and disabled people; killings by self-proclaimed terrorists and killings by loners who are mentally ill. It was hard to sort out intellectually, and hard to absorb emotionally.

Given how much attention has gone to the presidential election, we have stopped talking about it. But we must continue to think about it, and decide what actions would diminish the destructive violence committed by humans against humans. We should not forget about it when a few weeks go by without violence.

The deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the two innocent black men killed by police in shocking videotaped events hit particularly close to home in communities of color and among their white allies actively opposed to racism. They echoed and magnified the many widely visible killings of young black men through excessive police force over the past three years. Many people of color and residents of low-income communities have experienced being targeted by police and have absorbed police bias and brutality. There are many more killings and abuses that are invisible to the general public but that residents of low-income communities know intimately.

Since 1980 I have worked with low-income young adults to help them define their recommended policy goals for elected officials. Every single one of these agendas called for better police-community relations. They also called for stronger police accountability. These two issues are inextricably linked. They are both essential to solve the current problems. Nothing about the issue of police-community relations is new.

Perhaps what is new is that everyone has seen videotapes of horrifying events. National consciousness has risen. It's much like what happened in the sixties. Many white people are learning for the first time what most black people always knew. Many black people are organizing to change things. Some white people are supporting them. Other whites are blaming Black Lives Matter for organizing and are incorrectly accusing them of causing the recent brutal killings of police.

Of course, there are lots of things that we don't yet know. For example, I did a little digging and discovered that in 2014 there were 233 African Americans who died in interactions with police. Then I found that there were 414 white people, 138 Latinos, 15 Asians, and another 311 people whose ethnicities were unreported, who were also killed by police. We don't know anything about those 878 people who were not black, but I would be willing to bet that a majority of them were poor.

Is poverty part of this overall picture? Yes. Is poverty a result of systematic injustices and inequality of opportunity in America? Yes. Is violence in low income communities one of the results of poverty? Yes. Is police violence partially a result of bias and stereotyping against black people? Yes. Does it extend to other people of color, and to poor people? Yes.

But violence is even bigger than that. Over 33,000 Americans die each year of gun violence. Relatively few of these are at the hands of the police. What is this about? Mental Illness? Excessive availability of guns? Poverty? Sexism? Gangs? Homophobia? Depression? Suicide? Terrorism? American cultural weaknesses? Extreme inequality? Unemployment? All of the above? Yes.

Some interesting facts: Two thirds of these deaths are by suicide: in 2013 there were a stunning twenty-one thousand suicides (21,135) with guns. Regarding sexism: 34% of female homicide victims are killed by an intimate male partner, compared to only 2.5% of male homicide victims killed by a female partner. Regarding gang violence: there are about 2,000 gang related gun homicides each year. Overall, dramatically more Americans die of our own gun violence than from terrorism each year. In 2005, The 20 to 24-year-old age group accounted for 7.1% of the population, while accounting for 22.5% of firearm homicides. The 20 to 24 age group also accounted for 17.7% of all homicide offenses.[54] Unemployed young people were much more likely to be both victims and offenders.

My own life's work has been related to these issues. I have orchestrated the expansion of the YouthBuild program in urban and rural low-income communities that include black, white, Latino, Native American, and Asian residents. 140,000 young people in the USA have come through YouthBuild programs in hundreds of hard-pressed communities. Our core constituency is low-income 16 - 24 year olds, about 80% people of color and 20% white, who are unemployed and under-educated, and about 30 percent court-involved. Many have experienced gang violence. Many have experienced various levels of disrespect or brutality from police. We don't experience much suicide, but we are very close to the police and gang violence.

To address violence among young people, comprehensive programs like YouthBuild, Service and Conservation Corps, Year Up, Public Allies, and ChalleNGe are direct solutions: safe, caring, respectful communities full of love, opportunity, positive values of responsibility and inclusion, healing connections, mentors, education, job training, service, leadership training, placements in jobs and college - wide pathways to productive adulthood and civic leadership. YouthBuild deliberately counteracts the conditions of poverty and mistreatment which low-income young people have faced. As a result, we experience virtually no violence among our students.

These programs are an essential method of breaking the cruel and vicious cycle of poverty. These programs empower young people entering adulthood to seize control of their lives, transcend the conditions in which they were born and raised, and become a positive force in their communities. These all need to be radically expanded, and in addition, major public national investment in education, jobs, infrastructure, affordable housing, and health care are needed to address poverty and the resulting violence.

To specifically address the more limited problem of excessive and biased use of force by police, the three critical elements are police training, police-community relations, and holding police accountable for their actions. To hold police accountable for excessive force will require independent prosecutors at state and municipal levels as well as continued attention from the federal Department of Justice. To improve police training and community relations, the recommendations of the White House

Commission on Police Community Relations are a good start. Of course, those of us who work locally need to participate wherever possible in building positive relations between the police and the community through dialogues and joint activities. There are wonderful examples of successful efforts.
In the society as a whole, we need to create caring communities in which all people are valued and offered opportunities to fulfill their potential while belonging to a community they can believe in that exemplifies positive values. The Beloved Community everywhere would decrease all forms of violence in America. It would even reduce suicide. Let us work to create the Beloved Community everywhere.

Once that is done, we can see what problems remain and move on to tackle them systematically. We might be surprised at how much is solved.