Columbia, South Carolina, Mayor Steve Benjamin (Photo: Courtesy Steve Benjamin)
Recalling the shooting death of his nephew Christopher, the pain etched on the face of Rep. Elijah Cummings at a recent news conference to promote his gun trafficking bill was in as sharp relief as it was when the incident occurred in 2011. As he explained, it's the sort of thing people who've experienced that sort of loss never get over, particularly when victims, like Christopher, a college student with a bright future, are targeted for no reason.
"We are not only mourning what we've lost, we are mourning what could have been," the Maryland lawmaker said.
Before the shootings in a theater in Aurora, Colorado, before the collective trauma the nation experienced after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School that ended the lives of 20 children and six adults, black communities big and small, urban and rural, have grappled daily with gun violence, most often among young males
"I think what happens a lot of times is that folks assume that these boys are in some instances dealing in drugs or that they're involved in some kind of criminal activity. That happens in a lot of instances," Cummings said in an interview with BET.com. "In other instances, you have many basically good kids who have never been involved in any kind of illegal activity and because of jealousy and in many cases just being in the wrong place at the wrong time, they find themselves being harmed or murdered."
California Rep. Barbara Lee believes that too many African-American communities, like her district, are similar to war zones. She attributes it to inadequate investment in schools that result in high dropout rates, as well as a depressed economy.
"These young people are displaying post-traumatic stress syndrome, because that's all they know. When you look at a full disinvestment of resources in a community, young people pick that up and life doesn't have a lot of value in many respects," she said. "I'm not saying this is the whole reason, but you have young people who think that violence is the only option."
Marilyn Strickland, mayor of Tacoma, Washington, has found that prevention is a successful way to approach gun violence in her city, which in the '80s was known for a plethora of gang activity. When she first came into office four years ago, she conducted a citywide gang assessment that included input from parents, educators, social services professionals and even former and current gang members.
"We're taking a very common-sense and preventive approach to having programs and getting into schools and really focusing on the middle school level because that's where kids tend to become gang involved," she said. "As a city, we're working with the Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to come up with a comprehensive strategy to really dig into how we prevent young kids from joining gangs."
The city also implemented a mental health sales tax that's generating about $4 million in revenue that can be used for mental health programs.
"We understand that gang and gun violence isn't something that you just react to when there's an incident. This is something that has to be at the core of how we conduct business every day," Strickland said, adding that while she's still "knocking on wood," violence has gone down.
Columbia, South Carolina, has experienced more than its fair share of gun violence. In 2012, there were 432 gun crimes. Like Strickland, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin also has involved various stakeholders, particularly the faith community, in the city's efforts to reduce gun violence.
"We have invested heavily as a city and I as the mayor in mentoring and trying to find ways to engage young people in more productive activity," he told BET.com.
Two years ago, Benjamin created the Mayor's Mentoring Network, a coalition of traditional national organizations like Big Brothers and Big Sisters, Concerned Black Men of America and newer, local groups.
"We all work together to recruit volunteers that help teach young people everything from masonry to fishing to urban gardening – some sort of strong, positive outlet for young people that keeps them off of the streets and out of a life of crime," Benjamin explained.
The city also started a very successful program called Prime Time in the Parks that keeps four city recreation centers open late on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. In addition to providing a DJ and pizza, volunteers work with kids on a range of skills from etiquette to sports.
"We keep the centers open late, hopefully to their hearts' content, and they're tired as heck and take their butts home to go to bed afterward," Benjamin added.
A youth commission is another initiative he's added that's been successful. Kids from every demographic and both public and private schools have demonstrated an interest in helping to make their city a better place to live and came up with the idea for Prime Time in the Parks. They also serve as a sounding board for Benjamin.
"So, we're reaching out to our young people and engaging them in truly enjoying the quality of life that the city has to offer," he said. "And, as a result, we've seen crime going down in every statistical category.
While not depending on the federal government to help them curb gun violence in their cities, Strickland, Benjamin and other African-American mayors around the nation still want it to do more. They are frustrated that Congress is not only immersed in its own form of in-fighting, but also that they're cutting much needed federal funding to help keep their streets safe.
"I think most of us are a bit jaded about productivity in Washington right now, but we remain optimistic that something can happen," Benjamin said.
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