by Jocelynne Rainey and Omar Jackson
Since COVID-19 hit, communities like New York City’s East Harlem have been dealing with multiple diseases: a deadly virus, the ongoing effects of systemic racism and gun violence.
Stand Against Violence East Harlem (SAVE), a Cure Violence program run by Getting Out and Staying Out (GOSO), has worked to address gun violence in its East Harlem neighborhood for many years. We have viewed gun violence as a public health issue, one that must be treated in order to change community norms.
When you look beyond the headlines about gun violence in New York City and actually spend some time in neighborhoods like East Harlem, it is clear that what our community doesn’t need is increased policing and incarceration — what we need is more basic resources and opportunities.
According to a recent study by the Center for Court Innovation — and as we see at GOSO — an overwhelming number of 16- to 24-year-olds who carry guns have been subject to trauma and violence themselves. This history, along with arrests for minor, nonviolent offenses, far too many of which lead to needless incarceration, can start a cycle that eventually escalates.
This is why we must focus on treatment and investment, not just law enforcement. The Cure Violence model works to change attitudes and connect at-risk individuals to resources, with staff living in the communities where they work. They know the people and they know the circumstances. They are trusted and are able to mediate serious conflicts involving violence and specifically gun violence.
For example, when people in East Harlem had nowhere to go during the COVID-19 shutdown, our local SAVE team provided virtual workshops, comedy shows, game nights and GOSO provided laptops and tablets, kept in touch through phone calls and ran virtual job readiness workshops, and is currently open to provide these services from their storefront location.
Too many individuals in the community where SAVE works are without jobs. Others had to go to work during the stay-at-home order because they work essential jobs and have had to put themselves at risk while living with other family members. Since the pandemic hit, many in East Harlem had a family member or neighbor who got sick. We have also seen more people die because of COVID-19 than in any other community in Manhattan.
Time To Build On Our Work
Not having places to go has added to the stress of life for both youth and adults. Before, there was school and other recreational outlets for young people. During the pandemic parks, basketball courts, baseball and soccer fields, and pools were all shut down. Family budgets have been hit hard and adults also lost outlets to engage with friends and neighbors.
While some programming, pools and parks have recently reopened, activities have been limited. Despite these challenges, we have seen some amazing acts of heroism during the pandemic. Neighbors have helped neighbors and GOSO has worked to place justice-involved individuals in essential jobs in groceries and food preparation, where they quickly rose to the challenge. In turn, a catering company where these young men work has contributed meals every day to members of our community.
Our city’s young people are capable of great things and we have much to be proud of. Now is the time to build on the important work the city’s Cure Violence and reentry organizations have already done. For us to be effective as violence interrupters, SAVE went out in the field to the local public housing developments, distributing personal protective equipment and food and talking with young people about how they and their families were coping amid the crisis.
SAVE’s team of violence interrupters are now out every day of the week and some nights and weekends. We have done 42 mediations since the beginning of the year to prevent more instances of violence from breaking out. Hundreds of members of our community and faith leaders marched shoulder to shoulder with our council member, state senator, borough president and mayor, calling for peace in our community.
We recently hired eight local community members as social distancing ambassadors, including a young man who went through GOSO’s program and developed a program to provide paid digital internships to 20 young people.
The police have their role but they can’t do what the SAVE or other Cure Violence teams do — have real conversations with our neighbors to try to understand the root of the problem and work on the streets of our community to connect people to programs like GOSO and other resources they need. The shift and attention to community policing means more opportunities for SAVE to do the work that for too long has not been well-funded or given enough attention.
As a community, we need to take matters into our own hands — but our communities also need more resources to ensure that our efforts are successful. There need to be strong partnerships between the police and Cure Violence teams for the community policing model to work.
While SAVE focuses on direct violence interruption and healing, we also must also address systemic issues in communities of color — poverty, overincarceration that means family members and friends are suddenly gone for long periods of time, unequal access to resources like education, housing, jobs and career training. The Center for Court Innovation study showed that more than half of the young men who were arrested were arrested for minor crimes before they were 16.
Here as elsewhere, black and brown young people get stopped and arrested at much higher numbers than their white counterparts for crimes including nonviolent, quality of life offenses. For example, while one can observe public drinking in many neighborhoods, summons for this activity doubled in recent months, with 91% issued to individuals of color. This at a time when drinking in restaurants and bars is not allowed and there are many other issues the city is facing seems overzealous and misdirected.
We must address overpolicing and mass incarceration and empower teams like SAVE’s to engage with their own communities. We also have to ask our private businesses to lower barriers to employment that keep out young people of color who have been incarcerated. More people in our community need jobs that pay a living wage.
We are fully engaged in the effort to lift up our community from within — but in order to do so, we need real change and real help that comes with dedication and follow-through from those who make policy. To truly understand and fix gun violence, we have to address the root causes and empower our communities to do more and better work — to flatten the curve not only of the latest virus, but the plague of violence as well.