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Jakada Imani Headshot

It's Time For a New Approach to Violence

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Levi was a kid I knew from my street. We were the same age, about the same height, and lived in the same neighborhood. I remember when he started skipping school to hang out on the corner of 64th and MacArthur in our East Oakland neighborhood. I would pass him there on my way to and from high school.

A few times I stopped to talk to him. I encouraged him to "get off the corner" and thought maybe he was selling drugs. He would tell me that he wasn't selling, that he was "just hanging out." I believed him, but the guys who were dealing drugs a few blocks down did not. One afternoon, the other guys drove by and let off a couple of rounds to run Levi and his friends off the corner. But he didn't get to run. Levi left the corner in an ambulance that drove him first to the hospital and then the morgue.

Growing up in Oakland, I am no stranger to violence. As long as I can remember, I have known that there were places kids from my 'hood did not go alone. I learned that the most dangerous thing about hanging out on certain corners was not necessarily the police, but other young men who wanted control of those blocks

Levi and I were both sixteen when he was shot and killed. It's a day I will not forget. Officers came to question witnesses about "who done it" and asked my friends and me about what we knew about who would want to shoot Levi. But no one ever came to talk to us, to see how we were doing, how we were handling the sudden loss of our friend. Each of us was left to make meaning of it on our own.

That experience changed each of us. The kids who were with Levi that day never got any help. I imagine some of them might have felt that they needed to start carrying a gun to feel safe.

That was over 20 years ago and not much has changed. It is rare that young people who witness violence in our cities are counseled. Too many of my neighbors have attended more funerals than they have graduations for the young men in their lives. In 2007, for example, African Americans comprised 13.5 percent of the U.S. population, but 43 percent of all murder victims in 2007 were Black and largely young Black men. If there were this level of violence among young white men, we would certainly know that we had a national epidemic.

We know how to help communities heal from violence. Take, for example, tragedies such as Columbine or the Virginia Tech shootings. Those communities were immediately flooded with a level of support and care from counseling to post-traumatic stress to vigils to teach-ins. And rightly so -- these steps helped people heal from the deep trauma these shootings visited on their communities. Then I look at East L.A., North Philadelphia or West Baltimore, and have to wonder why we don't see even a fraction of that support, despite the fact that these communities go through that sort of trauma on a monthly, and sometimes weekly, basis.

Not only do the families and young people in poor Brown and Black neighborhoods lack the support needed to heal from trauma, too often the coping mechanisms that youth learn in the streets only fuel the cycle of violence. The time is long overdue for a new approach to addressing violence in our communities. The cycle is so entrenched that a public health approach is necessary for real recovery.

Looking at violence in this way, we would deal with outbreaks of violence as we would with outbreaks of disease. We would replace incarceration with inoculation. We would get in and start to help take care of people who have been infected already and try to deal with the transmission of the disease. That's not the way we deal with it in our cities. We deal with it as one-off incidents and cases of why this person shot that person, as opposed to dealing with it in a systematic way.

If we handled urban violence as a public health epidemic, we would also try to address the root causes. As our smart allies at Homeboy Industries proclaim, "Nothing stops a bullet like a job." Communities impacted by violence are most frequently also the neighborhoods with struggling schools and limited job opportunities. We can follow the ways that crime ebbs and flows in a community in direct proportion to the waves and crests of the unemployment rate in the area.

Recently, six people were shot in a span of 90 minutes in East Oakland. So far, no arrests have been made and the media has chalked up the incident as just another regular day in the Town. This past Saturday, three lives were lost in the same part of Oakland. The victims were all African American and ranged in age from 16 to 26 years old. Whenever I learn about a shooting, I mourn not only that life of the victim, but also the damage done to the family and friends and to the people who witnessed the tragedy.

There are glimmers of hope. Some jurisdictions are figuring it out. Chicago has a program with "violence interrupters," Oakland's Measure Y funds outreach workers that head right into the heart of the storm and Alameda County's new Chief Probation Officer is rolling out a new program that focuses on healing trauma for youth in the juvenile system. We can look at these as models of inspiration as we work to change our approach to urban violence nationally until we have achieved a society where every one of our communities can thrive.

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