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Violence is a public health issue, but the biggest and oldest epidemic in this country isn’t COVID-1

by Derrick Wheeler-Smith

We know that the disease of racism precedes community violence, yet even now we are grappling with “reimagining” systems that have been built around the commodification of Black and Brown bodies. Before we can discuss the epidemic of gun violence, we must call out racism first. We know European colonization caused a genocide to Indigenous people, created systemically inferior healthcare, plundered Black wealth, and created a legal system that punishes Black folks more frequently and more severely. This story is not new; it is as old as this country and as racist as the design of our systems and institutions. It has always been a story about Black and Brown people.

This context is important because we often fail to connect outcomes of youth and community violence to systemic racism. Policies that yield unequal outcomes are racist and blind us from racial discrimination. Policy either erases, maintains, or reduces inequity; there is no neutrality. And yet, until we can render these systems and institutions obsolete — until we have enough treatment and vaccines for everyone — some measure of security must be provided before the broader and deeper process of recovery, healing, and community capacity to fully lead can begin.

When we think about safety, what does that really mean? What does it mean to really have a safer King County? For decades, we have attempted to address gun violence by directing resources at, rather than to, communities most impacted by this crisis. We have an opportunity to change that and to actually reduce gun violence for the long term. But to do it, we need to value life more than we do fudging numbers to look like we care.

As gun violence has surged, so too has the commentary about whether public safety concerns should compel us to return to a “tough on crime” approach. For years, the enforcement-first policing and punitive criminal justice policies — being proposed once again — have hurt the same Black and Brown people most affected by gun violence and have led to ever higher rates of incarceration and excessive uses of force. Rather than reducing violence by building trust between law enforcement and residents, these policies reinforce it by hollowing out communities of economic opportunity, family support, and a sense of safety.

If we want to stop gun violence, we cannot just turn the wheel back to the enforcement-first playbook of the past; we have to break the cycle of trauma that is driving it. We know that people living in communities with high levels of violence experience significant levels of trauma. When young men grow up seeing their fathers, uncles, or older brothers killed or jailed, that takes a psychological toll. This compounded trauma makes it challenging to succeed in school, maintain a job, and navigate high-stress situations. This cycle builds — over years and generations — and leads to more violence. Resmaa Menakem, in his book My Grandmother’s Hands, says, “Trauma in a person decontextualized over time, looks like personality. Trauma in a family decontextualized over time looks like family traits. Trauma in people decontextualized over time looks like culture.”

We’ve been led to believe there’s more violent crime in Black and Brown neighborhoods. This theory creates a direct relationship between Black people and violent crime, so we call it a “dangerous Black neighborhood,” without any insight into the fact that there is a direct correlation between impoverished neighborhoods and crime. Part of breaking the cycle is moving away from the toxic deficit framing that this allows. The idea of a “school-to-prison pipeline” suggests that some populations are born on their way to prison — a fundamentally racist idea that creates devastating and sweeping consequences.

It is our moral duty to break all cycles of systemic racism and take up the mantle of shared accountability and responsibility for our communities’ safety. We need to work together to co-create a systemic approach that addresses the health of an individual and lift up a public health approach to gun violence that cares for the rights and well-being of all individuals who are victims of systematic and deliberate harm. We must design new systems that acknowledge the importance of risk factors at the individual level AND call on our leaders and communities to address the risk factors at the societal level in order to create lasting change. We need a public health approach that centers the community in creating the path forward.

There is a better way, and we know how to do this — if we authentically come together.

As we have experienced a steady rise in gun violence here in King County, it is important to amplify the work that is already happening and understand why it is critical for our region. The Regional Peacekeepers Collective (RPKC) connects people who are most impacted by gun violence to culturally relevant and compassionate community providers who offer the support needed to help people shift away from survival mode and begin the process of healing from complex trauma. RPKC works to help people develop the skills to navigate life-or-death situations and creates access to opportunity, well-being resources — ultimately helping to decrease violence and create a future where all can thrive. Developing these skills takes time, so it is critical that we call on our leaders to invest in and sustain multi-year/long-term funding to support this work.

As part of a White House Community Violence Initiative (CVI) that combines decades of experience working on this issue, RPKC works from the grassroots to the grass tops calling us ALL to action. And here is what we know: The most effective way to stop gun violence is by funding community-based solutions — CVI programs — that reduce violence and the harms of the criminal justice system at the same time.

Communities confronting high rates of violence must start where they are, with the high rates of violence that are in front of us. The question is how do we explore more humane ways to address harm and maintain public safety in our communities? How do we offer solutions for folks who do need to be “quarantined” that are restorative, rehabilitating, and healing? There has to be a fundamental shift in how we collectively respond to harm and maintain public safety. We must move in directions that advance the dignity and freedom of folks who are directly impacted by the virus of racism and the epidemic of gun violence.

The surest path to prosperity begins with peace and delivering well-being to our community. It is the village we are calling together.

We hope to work alongside all of our community — our Beloved community — to meet the immediate needs head-on, to rally for the lives and freedom of our most vulnerable and directly impacted youth and families and collectively arrive at the “mountaintop.”


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