The killing of 26 grade-school children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut catalyzed a series of much needed National discourses on the issue of gun-violence in the United States, yet these conversations have excluded the impact of excessive gun-related homicide in America’s inner cities. Instead, the dialogue has been focused on: leveraging the constitutional right of gun ownership, banning the commercial sale of high capacity magazines – an ammunition device for repeating firearms, or extending more comprehensive and universal protocol for background checks. While these are important talking points they are not indicative of a holistic approach to resolving the far-reaching command of America’s gun-related murder crisis. And if these conversations will lead to National policy or law – it is extremely important for the stories of those impacted by urban violence to enter the discussion.
The omission of urban violence from the recent proliferation of “gun talk” alludes to a looming apathy about the deaths of Black and Latino children in this Nation. It’s evident that our country’s cultural acceptance of violence has penetrated individuals in urban and rural communities alike, but the Nations attention is consumed by an interest in preventing large-scale shooting incidents such as those at Tucson, Columbine, Virginia Tech, or the Sheik Temple in Wisconsin. Although it is extremely important to identify and eliminate the causes of these rampages, the same level of thorough examination and careful thought should be applied to finding a solution to the massacres that occur on inner city streets – the bloodbaths that grip the lives of numerous young people in Compton, Chicago and Camden daily.
Violent crime in the inner city occurs with a higher frequency than the rare yet catastrophic rural shooting incidents. The annual death toll of gun related homicide in urban communities far exceeds the death toll of all the recent large scale shooting rampages combined. In 2012 Chicago’s homicide rate increased by 16 percent with 506 killings and this year the city’s death toll is at a pace that may surpass last year’s statistics. Just this week, in Chicago, 6-month-old Jonylah Watkins was shot five times as her father changed her diaper.
Amongst America’s largest cities, the homicide rate in Philadelphia continues to be the worst. Philly’s police stat sheet shows that more than 80% of the murders in “the City of Brotherly Love” are committed with a firearm and African-Americans make up 85% of the victims. Scott Charles, the creator of Philadelphia’s Cradle to Grave anti-violence education program, says “Statistics suggest that as a young black man you have a greater chance of being shot and killed in Philadelphia than you would have if you were a soldier serving the conflicts in Afghanistan or Iraq.” These horrendous conditions certainly warrant our country’s attention– they merit increased airtime on media outlets, require apt action from civic leaders, and need the same level of community outrage that catalyzed former social movements. The killing of inner city children and the lack of human concern displayed by the adolescent assailants is one a major social crisis.
As we move toward solutions to this, it’s important to note that public policy is a vital tool for social change. Constituents who are impacted by urban violence, and the politicians who represent them, must work fervently to get their action strategies on the National agenda. On January 30, 2013 the Senate Judiciary Committee hosted a hearing, “What Should America Do About Gun Violence.” No one was selected to present a case about inner city gun-related homicide despite the astronomical statistics. However, if we truly aim to answer the question, as a Nation, we must take on the nuances of gun violence across the Nation. In regards to violence in the inner city, there must be an examination of the system dynamics that catalyze or exacerbate the problem – joblessness, poverty, failing schools, policing strategies, mental/behavioral health disparities, and damaging pop-cultural media messages. In order to properly absolve violence the root causes need to be tackled.
For example, there are irrefutable linkages between the cycles of poverty, illiteracy, and criminal behavior that should enter conversations about America’s urban violence crisis. The Department of Justice states, “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.” Over 70% of inmates in America’s prisons cannot read above a fourth grade level. Arguably, the root of excessive inner-city violence and criminality is impoverishment and an education system that is not preparing our youth to be functional and whole adult citizens. Solution based strategies can begin with community-based teach-ins focused on literacy, life-skill development, anti-violence work, and post-traumatic healing through art-therapy.
Secondly, there is a divergence between the messages emitted by America’s entertainment culture and the types of value-based communities that we seek to build. Popular culture in this country — including music, television, and film – sells consumers cultural standards that are riddled with violent and nihilistic messages. Media messages have pierced youth culture worldwide and often intensify despondent attitudes and behaviors. If we are serious about improving the social disparities that impact violence everywhere but particularly in the inner-city, we must also examine the often-outlandish music and media content that exudes ignorant pathology and is directly marketed to youth who may not have the critical literacy to filter the content.
In Judith Sgarzi’s The Media’s Influence on Violence and Behavior, she writes, “Accountability for everyone and action against the problem are necessary if we are to turn back the tide of violence lapping at our doors. Every citizen has an obligation to help create a society in which people are not threatened by an entertainment culture that accepts violence as a way of life.” To her point, much of America’s music content has become a soundtrack to dejected attitudes and disruptive behaviors. While this content is detrimental to communities major corporations are profiting via advertisements.
Marginalized communities, especially in this Nation, have a history of using media as a tool for advocacy and social action – not vicious violence and buffoonery. It is critical that community members tap into this precedent by using access to social media and technology to reverse the damaging messages that dominate cable television and mainstream radio with little FCC filtering. The community has to mobilize influencers in the media, entertainment, and business industries to be a part of the solution rather than the primary producers of the problem.
At the 44th Annual NAACP Awards, actor and social activist Harry Belafonte spoke on the subject of being an artist-activist and he mentioned the importance of finally facing urban gun-violence. He said, “the group most devastated by America’s obsession with the gun is African-Americans… The river of blood that washes the streets of our nation flows mostly from the bodies of our Black children… While no one speaks of the consequences of our racial carnage.” His speech was a call to action – not only to media outlets that rarely cover these stories and political figures who have yet to thoughtfully address the issue of inner-city homicide, but also to the abled bodied and sound minded individuals who live amongst turmoil and are apathetic, to the mainstream artists who have not honored the responsibility to use their platform to positively impact local and global change, and to individuals who call themselves community leaders but are silent about the weightiest subjects.
If community members demand that our politicians and policy makers become more dynamic in their approach to issues that impact the inner city, as members within the community we must also do our part. We are all accountable for using our own power in this humanitarian effort to absolve the gun-related murder crisis. Everyone must do his or her part, for the load of social disparity has become too heavy and too nuanced for us to continuously cloak ourselves in the comfort of rhetoric. Urban violence, and other related problems, requires strategic solutions and immediate action.
The memory of the recent slaying of Chicago’s Hadiya Pendleton illuminates the madness of gun violence in inner city neighborhoods across the Nation. Pendleton was only 15 years old. She was caught in crossfire and shot dead in a park adjacent to her school – a park that should have been an absolute safe haven. Her senseless death highlights what is at stake if we do not take action against urban violence expeditiously. We may literally lose a generation of potential innovators and leaders – murdered or perpetual murderers swallowed by a culture of violence and inhumanity.
Statistics on youth violence released by the Center for Disease Control, the Federal Database and the Children’s Defense Fund state that every day in the United States 13 young people between the ages of 10 and 24 are the victims of homicide, 80% of those homicides are gun-related, and Black children account for 45 percent of all child and teen gun deaths although they are only approximately 15% of the population ( 2009). Still the daily gun violence plaguing cities like Chicago, Detroit and New Orleans do not trigger outrage or unease. Deaths in America’s poorest cities are treated like “business as usual.” This level of general indifference is both disconcerting and deplorable, for the reaction to the tragedy of children’s deaths must not be impacted by the child’s zip code or stereotypes regarding the child’s race and ethnicity.
Our political leaders should continue to consider gun laws and policies that match the changing landscape of our society. However, again, the National conversation needs to address the astronomical rates at which Black and Latino children are murdered or go missing; healing the trauma associated with living in a neighborhood where death is prevailing; disproportionate joblessness, poverty and cycles of criminality; gang warfare and open air drug trafficking; and finally, the education gap. Courageous thought leaders and activists must continue to mobilize their communities to impact lasting change while our policy makers create systems that will sustain the new neighborhoods that we envision and work toward building together.
About the Author: Glenda Smiley is a writer, producer, educator/youth advocate, and young professional in the social sector whose work aims to “educate, empower, and engage the leaders of the new school.” She is committed to using art and literature as tools for social action, critical literacy, positive identity formation, healing, and community building. Follow her on twitter @Glenda_Nicole