Nearly 50 years ago in Cleveland, Ohio, NFL Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown hosted “The Summit,” a conference during which Brown and some of the most influential Black athletes in history voiced their solidarity with Muhammad Ali and his decision to refuse enlistment into the Vietnam War.
Yesterday Brown, along with Mayor Ras Baraka, former NFL star Ray Lewis, and other community activists, convened a sequel at Newark’s NJPAC with “The Summit II.” The program included a series of panels during which political officials, policymakers and thinkers, and activists discussed the violence that has plagued communities of color across the nation, with a specific focus on Newark.
The first panel of the day, entitled “The Real Root Causes of the National Epidemic of Gangs/Black on Black Violence,” sought to unpack myths about both the causes of violence and affected communities’ reactions to it. Here are the three key takeaways from that conversation.
Violence is a public health issue and must be treated accordingly
Baraka has been describing violence as a public issue since well before he ascended to the mayor’s office. He’s not alone. The U.S. Conference of Mayors, for example, has endorsed “Cure Violence,” an organization whose aim is to “[stop] the spread of violence in communities by using the methods and strategies associated with disease control.”
Based on data through August, the year over year murder rate has increased significantly in Newark, a trend mirrored in some other locales, including Baltimore and Brooklyn. Baraka posited that conventional violence mitigation tactics won’t work if they don’t acknowledge the longstanding traumas affecting communities plagued by violence.
“The inhabitants of these neighborhoods are suffering from a disease,” Baraka said. He likened it to post traumatic stress disorder — minus the “post”. “[T]hey are still living these circumstances,” he said.
Baraka further explained that many of the people in the most violence-ravaged neighborhoods have experienced the deaths of loved ones, and that when this experience is coupled with the disenfranchisement of institutional racism and poverty, psychological trauma ensues.
Treatment of violence, the mayor added, has been impeded due to a stigma placed on those who have been affected by it – an outcome he compared to the stigmatization that hampered an aggressive public health campaign to reverse the spread of HIV, particularly in its early days. Baraka added further that the lack of broad urgency around treating violence is primarily due to its root cause: inequality.
Communities must be proactive about affirming peace
Aqeela Sherrills is the cofounder, along with Brown, of Amer-I-Can. Sherrills has been personally touched by violence and gang culture: he was once a gang member himself, and lost his first-born son in a 2004 shooting.
In 1992, Sherrills took it upon himself to help broker a treaty between rival gangs in his hometown of Watts, California. People don’t need permission to make a change if they think a solution might work, Sherrills said. Residents anywhere should feel empowered to actively engage in peace-affirming, he added.
Hakim Green, one of the founding members of “24 Hours of Peace,” underscored Sherrills prescription by describing his organization’s policy of gathering on street corners where victims are slain immediately after-the-fact to engage with community members about rooting out violence.
Changing the popular, but misinformed, “black on black violence” refrain often voiced by media
“Over 90 percent of blacks are killed by blacks, but over 80 percent of whites are killed by whites,” Sherrills explained, so the narrative of a phenomenon of intraracial violence as a problem particular to black people is a disingenuous one. In fact, proximity is a major factor in who perpetrates violence on whom. An in the U.S., where de facto segregation is still a reality, that adds up to most murders being committed by people of the same race as their victims.
Baraka went on to critique the characterization of black men and boys by the media. “You have a narrative that you’re either aggressive and prone to violence, or a clown there to entertain,” he said, adding that young men internalize this and proliferate the behavior.
One of the biggest misconceptions of black communities’ response to violence, panelists noted, was the perception black lives only mattered when lost at the hands of law enforcement. High attendance at recent rallies and peace events, vigorous debates about violence mitigation tactics on social media, and the existence of the panel itself all point to an intense passion about intracommunity violence among community members.