Washington, D.C. and Gun Violence Among Black Youth: A Bellwether City at a Crossroads

Members of a coalition of local activists, church groups and community leaders try to promote peace amongst rival street gang
Members of a coalition of local activists, church groups and community leaders try to promote peace amongst rival street gangs in an area known as ``death alley,'' where the highest rates of homicide in the city occur, in Los Angeles, California on August 7, 2015. Gang violence has increased in Los Angeles in 2015 with reports of two gangs allegedly entering into a competition to see which one can kill 100 people in the next 100 days. AFP PHOTO / MARK RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

While driving to work at a hospital in Southeast, D.C., the district's seat of poverty, as I sat at a traffic light I heard a loud bang. Unfazed by the noise, I was horrified to witness that for two children donning backpacks likely on a walk to school, this sound signaled a dire warning. At the instant of the bang, they both instinctively bolted across the street and down the block. As the light turned green and I turned the corner, I could see them up ahead--still running. I was embarrassed by my naïveté. For me the sound stirred a fond childhood memory of old cars backfiring, but to these children the sounds could only be gunshots. They were running in fear. The incident will stay with me forever because of what it signifies.

I don't imagine children in Georgetown or Chevy Chase would have similar reactions to the same sound. The episode is evidence of glaring disparities in safety and gun violence in Washington, D.C. This city the seat of international power and influence, yet parts of it, particularly the poorest parts, are being terrorized by gun violence. We desperately need solutions to this crisis. As the world watches, what will we do about it?

Gun violence is on the rise in Washington, D.C. and the perpetrators are emboldened with violence spreading across the city. Those who pull the triggers are largely young black men, many from Southeast, D.C.

From 2011 to 2014, homicide watch D.C. tracked both homicide victims and suspects in great detail. Its data illustrates the disproportionate impact of gun violence in the district's black community. For example, a sample of suspects in 2014 shows 65 percent of the homicide perpetrators were young black men, under age 30 with the majority of the homicides clustered in Southeast D.C. City officials often convene press conferences and town hall meetings to hear concerns and attempt to reassure the public yet the problem persists. As highlighted in a recent press conference, city officials are at a loss to understand recent spikes in crime or to devise sustainable solutions. The social contributors to violence such as mental illness, drug use, poor or absent parenting are well known, but the magnitude of these social problems is overwhelming and organizational responses seem intangible when a new homicide is committed almost daily.

Given the above-stated, here are two suggestions for community and political leaders to consider in devising strategies to help disrupt the culture of gun violence among young, black men in our city.

1. Integrate perpetrators and those at risk of inflicting gun violence into community and policy conversations. Many young black and Latino men already feel marginalized from mainstream society. News coverage, press conferences and town hall meetings consistently talk about them rather than to them. These actions further entrench the district in an "us against them" mentality.

One day, while walking with a long-time resident shortly after I first moved to D.C., we passed three similarly-dressed, young black men with locks; I greeted them and she advised, "Don't speak to them. Just look straight ahead when you walk by them." Herein lies part of our problem -- do they disregard us because we disregard them? Does this contribute to the lack of concern when innocent bystanders are struck by stray bullets? Maybe the answer is not to isolate them but rather include and embrace them. I am sure eyes will roll at this suggestion but consider the impact of the continued exclusion of their voices from these conversations.

What would happen if we exert the effort to build trust among a few and invite them into the conversation without judgment -- not once or twice but consistently? What if we carefully listened to the stories of young men in jail, particularly those accused of gun-related crimes, to deeply understand their motivations or sought their advice about how to solve these problems? Which mayor or city council person has gone into the jail or Department of Youth Rehabilitative Services to genuinely sit and listen to juvenile offenders -- without flashing lights and media -- and asked young men why they see guns as the best option to resolve differences, and what it would take to support them to make a different choice? What if the mayor bestowed upon them a sense of ownership, influence and shared responsibility for public safety? What if these young men knew the city is willing to invest in them and their productivity? Somehow we need to find the right messengers to connect with them.

Understandably it is difficult to empathize with the young men committing reckless acts of violence. However, this culture can not be changed without understanding root causes and deep-seated motivations of their behavior, why shooters have no regard for the lives of innocents and what can be done to change this. Changing this culture will require listening...to them.

2. Develop and implement a non-partisan, 10-year development strategy for our youth and their families. We clearly have such a strategy for the city's economic development. Last week, I stood on the rooftop of my building in Mount Vernon Triangle and counted nine cranes! Where are the cranes to build and develop the district's young people, including perpetrators of gun violence? Youth need structure, support and developmental activity to keep them engaged. They need sustainable, year-round alternatives to crime. How can we instill a sense of purpose in them, particularly if they are not receiving this structure and support at home? How many of these young men know how proud it may feel to dress in a suit and tie or to be responsible and held accountable? This kind of support could be transformational for many young men. This is possible through an investment in human development.

Some will scoff at these simplistic suggestions and say they are unrealistic or that this isn't the government's problem. In the long run, the residents of D.C. will continue to pay for our lack of an effective response either financially or in lost lives across the city. I admit at times, particularly when riding the Metro, when I witness the attitudes and social behaviors among some of our youth, I feel discouraged. But we can not give up on them. The Mayor's Audacity of Hope challenge and vision to establish the Boys and Men of Color Initiative are laudable. These efforts should be augmented to directly engage the young people who commit gun-related crimes. They are part of our society too. Sadly, we perceive young, black men with guns as operating in a parallel universe. Our fear of their weapons has paralyzed us, thereby rendering us incapable of reaching out to them. Addressing this problem means we must somehow muster courage -- together -- to disrupt the culture and mindset among young men like this one who accept the status quo and says, "this is just the way it is [out here]." Something has to change. Even if to some degree these things have been tried before it is worth the effort. The solution is not simply more policing. We have to try new things that might work.

When I met with Rahman Branch, the new director of the Mayor's Office of African American Affairs, he recounted times when the nature of his previous job as a high school principal thrust him out of his office and onto the doorstep and into the homes of truant students to engage parents. Implementation of genuine and unorthodox approaches like this, albeit time and labor-intensive, are vital if we are serious about addressing gun violence in the District.

The need for safety is atop each of our basic hierarchy of needs. When you don't feel safe, few things matter. We've known the problem with gun violence for many years, yet here we are. Still. When are we going to be bold and brave enough to address our gun violence problem? We are small enough, we are mighty enough and we sure are rich enough. Our city is a bellwether for many cities. As our rates of gun violence continue to rise, we are standing at a crossroads as the world watches. The signal is growing louder and louder but will we pivot in time to help our young men before we lose too many more of our citizens?