American Friends Service Committee
Patrica Watson, Editor
Sara Burke, Assistant Editor
Pat Farren, Founding Editor
2161 Massachusetts Ave.
Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.
Views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of the AFSC.
Dodging Bullets: Building an Urban Peace Movement
Dominique Robinson is co-director of the AFSC Baltimore Nonviolence, Peace, and Economic Justice Program Team.
The police report reads like an indictment: "Darien Ward...B/M--15 yrs--Homicide ...Handgun...." Since 1969 homicide has been the leading cause of death among African-American males aged 15 to 19. In Baltimore, African-American males between 15 and 24 are at highest risk for gun-related homicide. Shootings like these are often labeled "drug-related," or in the words of Patricia Jessamy, Baltimore City State's Attorney, "one bad boy killing another." This suggests much of the city's gun violence is a kind of victimless crime. But too often the race of the victim colors the perceived motive. That Jessamy, a black woman, would make such a statement without apology says a great deal about institutional racism.
The criminal justice system in America is heavily biased against African-Americans, and there is a callousness towards African-Americans, especially males, in our society. "One officer almost tripped over Darien's body," remembers Beverly Ward, who lost her son to gun violence one icy evening in January 1998. "He made a joke about it." Police called the shooting "a botched robbery." By all accounts, Darien was an affable young man who avoided trouble. He didn't deserve to die that way, but neither do many gun violence victims in Baltimore. One in three children here grows up in poverty, amid drug use and traffic, violence, and in isolation from other segments of society. Such oppression is inseparable from the city's violence.
Lorenzo Cooper, co-founder of the IAMWE Theater Arts Collective, notes that poor African-Americans in Baltimore are so hyper-segregated that children in these communities have very little contact with other groups--including the African-American middle class, which has fled to the suburbs. Cooper points out that our culture abounds with violent images of young people, especially African-American males, so that many in this isolated group grow up viewing themselves as prone to bloodshed. "The expectation is that urban youth are violent, so some of them buy into it," he says. "I was told by a teacher, herself an African-American, 'Before you are 20, you'll probably be dead.'"
"Baltimore is parochial, southern, and angry," says Gary Gillespie, a lifetime resident who has watched economic injustice and racism explode in the city's streets. Children become the victims of this rage. They suffer most from welfare reform, which punishes women who have more babies by denying the children benefits. They must contend with overcrowded classrooms and a failing educational system; with lead poisoning, abuse, neglect, hunger, drugs, and violence. Factor in firearms, and the money available from selling drugs, and you have a deadly equation. The burgeoning drug trade represents for many poor youth in Baltimore the only viable economic option.
African-American lives have long been considered cheap in America, as demonstrated in countless beatings, lynchings, and burnings. Photographs depict smiling white mobs, parents lifting their children to see black bodies burning, or hanging limp from magnolia trees. Civil rights workers being beaten, children threatened by angry whites on their way to school, police clubbings; these images have been seen by children repeatedly. One teacher in a Baltimore school showed her fifth-grade class a videotape with a segment depicting Emmett Till's brutally disfigured body. Combine these images with numbers that say African-Americans are the poorest, least educated, worst-off medically, and most imprisoned group in America, and the implicit conclusion is hard to miss: These people are dispensable.
Enter the gun: Powerful, sleek, and masculine. An equalizer for those without authority or privilege. A weapon so intertwined with American history and culture that it is probably more symbolic of this country than the eagle. Like poor communities around the globe, America's urban poor face decimation from disease and poverty, made worse by the easy availability of weapons. But here, the expectations are different. Spurred by the American dream, some seek their fortune in the back streets and alleys, thinking it will lead to Main Street. Though there are many positive African-American role models in Baltimore, the negative images tend to dominate. Media feed on the image of the roughneck, Timberland-wearing, gunslinging black male.
"I think the media has more influence now than ever. The exposure is greater," says Mark Hughes, an emerging community leader in West Baltimore. "As a young person, you are searching for role models, people like yourself. But that is limited when all you see are sports and entertainment figures or thugs."
Materialism, violence, and racism, "the giant triplets" identified by Martin Luther King, Jr., nurse greedily at the breasts of a society that places little value on the lives of its poor. Poverty wears a feminine face, bruised by workfare programs that don't work, violence, substance abuse, jail, and a government that assigns little importance to mothering. Welfare is forcing choices on women that affect not only their lives but those of their children. A poor woman cannot elect to stay home and take care of her children rather than work. Because many poor women cannot find affordable childcare, the number of unsupervised children has increased also.
"The first thing I'd like to say is mandate, my ass." --Musician and poet Gil Scott Heron.
Politicians reminded everyone in 1996 that "there are limits" to welfare--as if the grants given to recipients were not already consigning them so far down the economic ladder that sociologists have labeled them the underclass. Welfare accounts for only 1% of the national budget. Not coincidentally, 80% of political contributions come from less than 1% of the population. The "Contract With America" was carried out with all the ruthlessness of a mob hit, by the people with the money.
Among the hardest hit were blacks. The disparity in income between African-Americans and whites strongly suggests that there now exist two separate middle classes, with the African-American middle class--the rung of the ladder between the white middle class and the poor--sharing space with working-class whites. At the top of the ladder is 1 % of this nations' households, with a firm grip on 40%of the wealth.
"Carter G. Woodson once said something like, 'a people accustomed to going in the back door will, when faced with the removal of it, create a back door,'" observes Ora Graham, Baltimore Program Committee member who has worked with women and youth for over twenty-five years. Graham believes education and training are essential tools for overcoming poverty. "We must go to school; we have no choice," she says. "People living in poverty need the opportunity to increase their skills and education." She points out, however, that 75% of Baltimore city's eighth-graders are failing at least one subject.
Studies have shown a correlation between income inequality and increased mortality rates, as well as increased firearm deaths and violent crime, for all economic levels. The widening gap between the "haves" and "have nots" has resulted in disinvestment in communities, and worn bare the social fabric. Poor communities are walled in by violence, so that when the residents fire a gun the bullets richochet inward. Poverty is about dodging bullets.
And the end result of oppressive poverty and racism is spiritual bankruptcy. "How can we talk about loving a God that we've never seen, but not love our brothers and sisters daily?" asks the Rev. Thomas Hagin, an organizer for The Center for Poverty Solutions. "Are the churches doing enough? No. We must become pro-active, and stop giving politicians the authority to speak for us in our communities. The black church is the only institution we truly own. Historically the church has done many things in communities that other institutions have not. Education, insurance, and even policing. Over the years we have lost our fervor for the social gospel."
Hagin believes ministers and churches have failed to make the best use of their ability to "holistically" influence members of their communities, from cradle to grave. "When there is trouble, congregants seek the advice of the minister, rabbi, priest," he says. "Yet that person on the street--the underserved--we have not touched their lives or assisted them in that holistic manner. We often preach to the choir, and take an 'us against them' stance." Though Hagin thinks the church has been weakened by this posture, he still feels its role in healing communities should not be underestimated. "Community policing can happen here," he insists. "Churches are attempting to take back communities."
There is a balm in Gilead
Healing is a necessary component of any campaign to end gun violence.
There has been much trauma inflicted upon large segments of the
population in this country. Whether guided by fear, personal loss,
grief, or conscience, each individual has a responsibility to
work for peace and equity. Personal power may be limited but collectively
it commands authority. Building an urban peace movement is about
reaching marginalized individuals as well as the mainstream and
placing ownership of the prosperity and life of the community
in their hands.