There’s little doubt that this year will go down in the annals of American history as one of the nation’s most tumultuous. Think the election, Covid-19 and a racial reckoning that galvanized diverse crowds to take to the streets on behalf of Black lives lost at the hands of police.
While reasonable people understand the outrage that erupted following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other victims, there is just as much need to talk about – and act on – gun violence affecting the Black community.
In St. Petersburg, this troubling issue was again at the forefront after the shootings, within hours of each other, of a 26-year-old man, Deauntazies Ramsey, and a 23-year-old mother of two, Arnieceia Milton.
Of the 14 homicides in the city so far this year, nine have been by guns. All but one of the nine victims were Black.
Last year, guns were used in 13 of 17 homicides, according to data provided by Police Department spokesperson Yolanda Fernandez. Of those who died, 12 were Black.
In 2018, a year with 21 homicides, 15 were by guns. Ten of the 15 people who perished by gun violence were Black.
Predictably, the latest killings brought out community leaders, who gathered to talk and pray and plead.
“We have to take back our streets,” urged the Rev. Louis Murphy, his voice a crescendo of emotion. He suggested a proactive response that would have a positive impact in the community and that would turn 16th Street S around – a site of partying crowds and murder – and make it “safe for our babies.”
The American Public Health Association calls gun violence a public health crisis. Tragically, while it affects people of all ages and races in the U.S., the association says it has a disproportionate impact on young adults, males and racial and ethnic minorities.
That’s borne out by Everytown for Gun Safety, described as the largest gun violence prevention organization in the country. Seventy-four percent of homicides, which the group says cluster in cities, “involve guns, and the majority affect young Black and Latino men living in historically underfunded neighborhoods.”
As if there’s not enough calamity, Everytown states that recent “unprecedented increases in gun sales, combined with economic distress and social isolation due to Covid-19, are intensifying the country’s gun violence crisis.”
There’s more bad news. Here in Florida, Black people are six times as likely to die by gun homicide as whites, the organization says.
St. Petersburg has introduced programs aimed at stemming gun violence. The Rev. Kenny Irby is director of community intervention and juvenile outreach for the Police Department, coordinating crime prevention programs such as the Not My Son Safe Summer campaign. He says the programs focus on restoring hope and teaching life skills and conflict resolution without firearms to youth and young adults.
“They see so much violence in video games and in the culture,” he said. “We are attempting to break that cycle on a personal level.”
The programs have shown results since they began in 2016, Irby said. Importantly, there’s been a reduction in youth murders, an increase in community participation with tips and other communication and a growing involvement by faith groups, he said.
Jaabar Edmond, an independent filmmaker and senior program director for the Community Development and Training Center, a nonprofit with the mission of “bridging the gap and filling the void between the resources and the people to whom the resources are being targeted,” lauds the city’s programs. Still, he believes it’s missing some young people.
“You have to think of some unconventional ways to reach the hard-to-reach, those that can’t be saved with regular programs. Targeting them with job opportunities, mental health. A lot of times, these youth are dealing with issues that go beyond the traditional programs,” said Edmond, who also is vice president of the Childs Park Neighborhood Association.
He would like to root out causes of conflict, emphasize de-escalation tools, anger management and problem solving.
Meanwhile, how to soothe the families of those who’ve been gunned down? The murdered mother was the cousin of City Council Member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, who lost her son, Cabretti, 21, to gun violence in 2008. Wheeler-Bowman, who was at this week’s gathering, launched an indefatigable crusade after her son’s murder. In 2013, the Department of Justice honored her with a Special Courage Award for “exceptional perseverance and determination” and challenging the community’s “no snitching” code of silence.
Speaking to those gathered at one of the murder sites on 18th Avenue S, Mayor Rick Kriseman declared that there’s been enough gun violence.
He later tweeted that violent crime has been down 33 percent since he took office. “Opportunity creation, poverty reduction, community-oriented policing, etc., have helped,” he said. “But when it comes to someone’s life being taken, 1 is too many, and so we came together earlier to say ‘enough.’ No more.”
What’s disheartening, though, is that all of the programs, marches and gatherings of fervent preaching and prayer have not yet been enough.