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  • Writer's pictureKatoya R Palmer

‘Beloved’ campaign combats gun violence with activism, art – and love for community

by Rosette Royale

For Chamel Simmons and her extended family, Thanksgiving 2012 is remembered not for its food, but for its incalculable grief.

Though Simmons spent the holiday with her immediate family in Federal Way, she still felt connected to relatives in her birthplace of Richmond, Calif., a city of roughly 100,000 in the San Francisco Bay Area. That’s where she had a host of cousins, aunts, and a grandma. Even though they were separated by some 800 miles, they kept in touch.

One relative Simmons spoke with regularly was a cousin, Armond Brown, Jr. Brown, 21, a star football and basketball player, was deeply committed to family. He was raising his 1-year-old son. He’d also been recently hired at Denny’s, and Thanksgiving marked his first shift on the job.

Simmons knew all this and called that day to connect with Brown. He didn’t pick up. A while later, she tried again. Nothing. When she phoned her grandma and didn’t get a reply, Simmons wondered what was going on. The answer came at around 11 p.m., when another family member called her: Brown had been on a relative’s porch when he was killed by gunfire. It was a gruesome murder.

“They shot my cousin over thirty times,” Simmons, 35, said. “I’m talking about a stand-up, young, athletic Black man raising his son.”

For her Richmond relatives, she says, the death was deeply traumatic. Simmons’s grandma lived blocks away from the shooting, and she saw Brown’s body in the street. Brown’s mother drove a city bus, and when she made a routine stop, she noticed that cops had roped off part of a street. She parked the bus, got off — and saw her son.

“That’s how she found out,” Simmons says. “She pulled up on the scene and saw her baby out there. It don’t get no realer than that.”

What also became real is how difficult it is to calculate the extent of the loss. Simmons estimates 20 relatives in Richmond have suffered and continue to suffer due to Brown’s death. His son, going on 11, resembles Brown — down to his mannerisms. But, she says, Brown “will never see his son grow up, be able to help his son with homework. He’ll never be able to read to his son outside of the first year of his son’s life. Like, really think about that.”

Simmons thinks about it often, and even though the murder happened almost a decade ago, two states away, its repercussions still haunt her present days. When she hears about local gun violence in King County, the trauma of her experience returns. “It’s triggering because you’ve been there; you know what that feeling is like,” Simmons says. “You’re gonna live and move on, but you’re never gonna be the same. None of us have ever been the same.”

Loss and Love

While the specific circumstances Simmons recalls may be unique, to some, the grief and anguish she voices may feel all too familiar. Nationwide and locally, countless lives have been upended by firearm homicide. A recent surge in gun violence is exacting an uncalculated toll, and over the past few years, local firearm homicides have extinguished hundreds of lives — and altered the existence of those connected to both victims and perpetrators.

From Shoreline to Shorewood, from Renton to Federal Way and points in between, statistics reveal a crisis unfolding, particularly for Black men and boys and the communities that support them. In 2021 in King County:

  • 88 people were killed due to firearm homicide

  • 372 other people where shot but didn’t die

  • Of the 460 people killed or injured by firearms last year, 379 were People of Color

  • Of those 379 People of Color, 225 were Black or African American

  • Of those 225 Black or African American people, 61 — more than a quarter — were males 18–24 years old

  • Compared to 2020, 2021 saw 19 more fatal shootings and 104 more non-fatal shootings

  • The numbers do not include suicides, self-inflicted shootings, or officer-involved shootings

(Source: “2021 Year End King County Firearm Violence Report,” compiled by King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office —– Crime Strategies Unit)

While it may be difficult for some to comprehend that these numbers represent people and lives, that isn’t an issue for Erik Kalligraphy. A photographer and local activist born in Seattle, Kalligraphy, 37, says that dozens of people he knew have died from gun violence. “I know about thirty-five to about forty-five people — I’ve kind of lost count — that have been murdered,” he says.

The weight of the losses became more oppressive to Kalligraphy, who’s Black, in the wake of a prominent death: George Floyd, murdered in Minneapolis, Minn., in May 2020 by a police officer. As a long-delayed reckoning with race began in the country, and protests spread worldwide, Kalligraphy focused his activism on the Seattle streets. One result of local actions was the creation, later that summer, of CHOP/CHAZ, an autonomous zone on Capitol Hill that excluded police officers.

One day while in CHOP/CHAZ, Kalligraphy was talking to a mentor, Eleuthera Lisch, who had been an instructor of a YMCA program he attended in his teens. Kalligraphy and Lisch, who now works for Public Health — Seattle & King County, considered the communal landscape that had been, and continued to be, marked by death. “So we began talking about what we could do to end gun violence,” Kalligraphy says, “or at least start the conversation: How can we start moving in the right direction?”

The direction that felt most promising to Kalligraphy was one that highlighted the talents and skills of community members. Joined by Omari Salisbury, who along with Kalligraphy is a co-founder of Converge Media, he met with officials in Seattle’s Office of Arts & Culture. Over the course of a year, as they conferred about ways to combine passion and creativity to confront the crisis, an idea was born: an idea called “Beloved.”

“Beloved” is a concerted three-month public-heath and community-action campaign that will center mostly local voices — of artists and activists, mothers and children, public officials, and scholars — to confront the issue of gun violence. (This article is part of the “Beloved” campaign.) The campaign, which launched in mid-February, represents a partnership with the City’s Office of Arts & Culture Hope Corps program and the County’s Zero Youth Detention/Public Health team. The City has contributed $300,000 to the Beloved project from federal funds geared toward pandemic relief, and King County has given $100,000.

Over the next few months, the campaign will address four key components:

  • The problem: What does gun violence look like? How does it affect local communities?

  • The history: What historical factors have shaped gun violence? Why are some communities impacted more than others?

  • The solutions: What actions are communities pursuing to find their way out of this quagmire?

  • The dream: What would a future free of gun violence look like? How can people bring a new dream to life?

In the end, the campaign will seek to remind people that everyone lost to gun violence is someone beloved.

Kalligraphy feels there’s no better time to bring together community members, to invest in personal and communal healing. “We’re so used to making something out of nothing,” he says.

Right now, the “something” Beloved hopes to create will rely upon the work and dedication of local public health officials, researchers, attorneys, and everyday community members. Together, they aim to address what many consider a public health crisis.

Addressing the Crisis

Tony Gomez, manager of violence and injury prevention for Public Health — Seattle & King County, says that discussing firearm homicide as a public health issue means taking a holistic approach: not only assessing the data but contemplating the trauma inflicted on families, community members, bystanders, and even first responders. “And then getting deeper to what are the structural factors,” Gomez says, “like historical racism and the problem with firearm access and culture in our country.”

For an experience as deeply traumatizing as firearm homicide, Gomez says a public health approach involves community partnerships with entities such as Harborview Medical Center and organizations such as Zero Youth Detention, the countywide effort to limit and eventually eradicate local young people’s interactions with the juvenile legal system. With such a complex issue — one that can feel intractable — he believes patience may be a necessity. “And it’s frankly going to take love of community and love for each other,” he says, “to be willing to be open to address the trauma we’re experiencing.”

A clear understanding of that trauma undergirds the County’s public health approach to firearm violence, which seeks to answer three questions:

• Who is being shot?

• Why are they being shot?

• How can future shootings be prevented?

For too long, Gomez says, funding for gun-violence research wasn’t prioritized, and for a time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defunded firearm-violence research. Yet even with the recent uptick in firearm homicides, both nationally and locally, Gomez sees change. “I’m seeing the challenges are as great as they’ve ever been,” he says. “I’m also as hopeful as I’ve even been.”

Part of his hope stems from positive signs from President Biden’s administration, which Gomez says has been supportive, on the federal level, of violence-prevention efforts. Closer to home, Gomez credits public officials — from former County Executive Ron Sims, who served from 1997 to 2009, to newly elected Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, along with many others — who he says have been and are committed to ensuring gun violence wasn’t and isn’t overlooked as a critical public health issue.

Indeed, in 2018, the King County Council passed a motion requesting County Executive Dow Constantine engage and work with local youth and young adults to develop a report on how gun violence affected their lives. Focus groups involving 80 young people who have experience with gun violence, along with 26 family members, were convened. Among the report’s key findings:

  • Depictions of guns in popular culture tend to exaggerate the actual prevalence of guns and gun violence

  • Community conditions place stress on youth, and racism and discrimination can lead to a sense of powerlessness; in response, young people may turn to gun violence

  • Adolescent brain development is associated with poor decision-making, and adolescent males may respond strongly to societal expectations of masculinity, all of which can increase susceptibility to gun violence

  • Guns are easily accessible, to the degree some youth claimed it was “easier to get a gun than go get a job.”

(Source: “Report on Gun Violence among Youth and Young Adults: December 2019”)

With this last point, Lina Wheeler agrees.

Wheeler works as a resource navigator for Community Passageways, a local nonprofit, with offices in the Emerald City Bible Fellowship in South Seattle, that helps create alternatives to incarceration for young adults and youth. Both her work life and home life, she says, bring her into contact with families that have direct experience with firearm violence. Through these connections, she hears about and sees the effects of easy access to guns.

“It’s just shocking how many younger people have access to guns,” she says. “It’s like everyone.”

As if to underscore her point, Wheeler apologizes in the middle of the conversation to say her phone is pinging. The alert brings bad news: Someone has been shot.

The shooting occurs on Wed., Feb. 9 in the 200 block of James Street, in Pioneer Square. Alerted by witnesses calling 911 at 1:30 p.m., police arrive and find a 21-year-old man with multiple gunshot wounds lying on Second Avenue. The wounds aren’t life-threatening. After police provide first aid, Seattle Fire Department medics transport the victim to Harborview Medical Center. Two handguns are recovered at the scene. The victim survives.

(The following day, detectives with the Gun Violence Reduction Unit arrest two suspects in an apartment building in North Seattle. Detectives also connect the guns to the victim, who, because he’d been previously convicted of a felony, is booked into King County Public Jail.)

While Wheeler knows what she does is a job, she also knows it’s much more. “Because here’s the thing: We don’t get to clock out,” she says. “So even if I’m done for the day, true enough, my phone’s on all day, because there’s someone who could get shot.”

Numbers and Their Meanings

The shooting Wheeler learns about over her phone will eventually be listed as a nonfatal shooting in the “King County Firearm Violence Report,” a regional assessment that provides information about shootings countywide. Sometimes referred to as “Shots Fired,” the report is compiled by the Crime Strategies Unit of the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. Brian Wynne chairs the CSU.

Wynne says the data, which is collected and consolidated from more than 20 law enforcement agencies, may help people understand the enormity of the issue and its impact on public health. “Even those individuals who may say, ‘Well, I’m not impacted by gun violence,’” Wynne says, “they’re actually taking, I would say, a far too narrow view.”

The most recent report, last updated in January 2022, includes data on shooting victim demographics. Of the 460 fatal and nonfatal shooting victims in 2021, 225 — 48% — were Black or African American. Yet U.S. Census data shows that those who identify as Black or African American account for only 7% of county residents. The report notes that 2021 shooting percentages are “[s]imilar to previous years.”

What the statistics may not convey, Wynne says, are the ways firearm violence ripples outward into the lives of community members. They only hint at the physical injuries and mental-health consequences, and they may indicate the lost relationships and unfulfilled potential of parents and children, artists and businesspeople. “They are a poor stand-in for people understanding the impact of firearm violence generally,” and, he says, “in particular [on] our Black community.”

As a faculty member in the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Washington, Dr. Ali Rowhani-Rahbar spends a lot of time dealing with numbers. He says that when you place U.S. gun violence statistics against the same statistics for other comparable countries, the U.S. stands alone — and not in a positive way. “Every day, a hundred people get shot … and die,” he says. “And about 200 get shot and don’t die. Every day.”

Guns play an undeniable role in the nation’s homicide rate. A recent report by the Pew Research Center reveals that 79% of U.S. homicides committed in 2020 involved a firearm. “It’s truly a tragedy,” Rowhani-Rahbar says, “but a tragedy that is happening so often that many have become numb to it.”

The prevalence of firearm violence leads some people to consider it an epidemic, but Rowhani-Rahbar cautions against using that term. An epidemic, he explains, refers to an occurrence of disease where rates rise in an expanded area, followed by a decline as the illness goes away. In epidemiology, he says an infectious disease that exists at a certain level is called “endemic,” which refers to something people live with. He stresses that gun violence has remained steady for years and has recently increased. “So, it’s something we live with every day,” Rowhani-Rahbar says. “I’m not sure if that’s epidemic.”

But knowing that people live with gun violence as a regular occurrence, he says, begs a question: Is this acceptable? Of course, Rowhani-Rahbar says, the answer is no. The consequences are immense, for those who die, those who survive, and their loved ones and communities. The aftereffects have been under-researched and underappreciated, if not completely ignored. “We shouldn’t be living through this,” he says. “We deserve better.”

A New, Better Starting Place

For Kalligraphy, who co-created the “Beloved” campaign, part of his attention is focused on working with others to make things better here in King County. He remembers friends who’ve died due to firearm homicides and recalls a story from the past of children who saw their father killed with a gun. Not only did those children lose a parent, but so did the children of the person who pulled the trigger, who was incarcerated. “It’s not a new story,” Kalligraphy says. “Plenty of people are killed in front of their kids.”

Even so, he hopes that by joining with community members, they can turn the narrative around — help craft a new story. Granted, that’s a big goal, but he thinks it’s time to try. “To be honest with you, I don’t think a twelve-week campaign is all we need to end gun violence,” Kalligraphy says. “The Beloved campaign is really a conversation-starter, with conversation points from the community.”

And he believes it’s time for a new conversation to begin.

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