28 de octubre de 2020
Hispanic World

Violence, the other pandemic New York is fighting

By Jorge Fuentelsaz

By Jorge Fuentelsaz

New York, Sep 10 (efe-epa).- "My son was murdered May 5, 2014, in front of me over a parking incident." "A bullet in the back of his head and he was gone, at age 21." "Before, I used to be in the streets. I used to just be doing anything I could just to make a dollar. All the wrong things."

These are some of the admissions of victims of violence and former gang members in New York City who now share the same aim: ending the shootings that continue to bloody the city's streets.

The numbers are shocking. So far this year, police have reported 1,014 firearm killings, 87 percent more than the 541 registered between January and the end of August 2019, along with 291 other murders, or 34 percent more than the 217 perpetrated in New York during the same period last year.

Carolyn Dixon is a 64-year-old African American, tall and energetic, and she does not hesitate to tell about her experience with violence in New York.

"I'm from South Jamaica, Queens. I'm a survivor. My son was murdered May 5, 2014, in front of me over a parking incident. Through his death I had to learn how to regroup myself and how to become a new person so I've worked with Life Camp for five years and ... I learned how to meditate. I went to the New School to learn about healing and trauma," she told EFE with a strength that does not seem to have been extinguished by the years or by her family tragedy.

Last July, life once again confronted her with New York's most brutal reality when she went to help a man who had been shot and was lying on the street.

"In July, a young man was (shot) in my area while I was ... giving out PPE. My only thought was to run to him and try to save him because that's like a trauma for me. It's a reflex, it's a trigger. So the only thing I could think of was my son laying there on the ground ... The EMS came; he was shot 11 times but he survived ... and we visit him. ... He's doing well (but) he's not in New York at this time" for security reasons, said Dixon about the victim.

As part of a non-governmental organization she now heads, Dixon tries to speak with young people in her neighborhood: "To tell them, you know, all black lives matter."

The son of Oressa Napper, another middle-aged African American woman, was caught in a gun battle between gangs in Brooklyn when he went to visit some relatives: "A bullet in the back of his head and he was gone, at age 21."

"I never want another mother to feel how I feel, another family to go through what we still go through 13 years later, because it's an ongoing process for the rest of your life. It's not like you get over it. You just get through it. That's how the work of Not Another Child started," said Napper, whose loss also pushed her to found an NGO against violence.

She said that dealing with young people immersed in violence is like trying to navigate a "slippery slope" because although there may be some who want to try and make things better, there are others who "make it an excuse to do what they do."

"I quite understand that it's mostly our men, and our men are born with two strikes being African American and being male ... But you're also born with choices. As an African American mother who raised two sons I had choices to make for them. I had choices to show them the different roads to take in hopes that they would choose the right choice. So it's a slippery slope," she said with her other son, who works with her in the NGO, nearby.

In East New York, in the eastern part of Brooklyn, there are not many restaurant chains, fashionable eateries or designer stores like there are in wealthier or "hipster" zones of this New York district. You can walk in the area of the Van Siclen metro stop, at the end of Line 3, and see that there are many doors and windows to local businesses and residences that are protected by steel bars.

There, a former gang member, nowadays a social worker with the Man Up NGO, Richie Dunham, told EFE that when he was between 17 and 28 years of age he spent all his time on the streets.

"Before, I used to be in the streets. I used to just be doing anything I could just to make a dollar. All the wrong things. Anything that was wrong, I was involved. If it was something that wasn't positive I'm out there, but now I'm on the positive side. Before, I was on the other side. Now, I'm on the good side," said Dunham, who now uses all his life experience to speak to young people who, like he was once upon a time, spend the day loitering around in the places where problems often come looking for them.

The director of Man Up, Andre T. Mitchell, spent 16 years in prison for involuntary manslaughter and, when in 2003 8-year-old Daesean Hill was killed in his neighborhood, he decided to do something to change the tragic fate of the area where he lives.

On one of the walls at the Man Up headquarters, there's a photograph of Daesean Hill and a caption written by A.T. that says: "Real gansta means walking away."

Mitchell says that, apart from the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which has heavily affected the most deprived areas in East New York, the resurgence in cases has coincided with the summer months, the period of the year when gang members often resolve their problems with gunfire.

"During these summer months, it's always that time of the year. Summertime is the most intense time of the year for us that do this work because when the sun comes out the guns come out. The issues that are not being addressed, the conflicts that are not being mediated, then the people see each other they go after each other," he said.

Man Up is part of a network of NGOs in New York that since 2014 have been treating violence not as a safety problem but rather as a health question, Charles Ransford - the science and policy director for Cure Violence, the mother organization of the movement that has local chapters or projects going in the US, Central America and several Middle Eastern countries - said from Chicago.

"People that are behaving violently, what they have is a health problem. It's a problem of exposure to violence, of trauma as a result of that exposure to violence, and then adoption of these behaviors because of that exposure. It's very much a health problem. It's very similar to any other contagious problem where exposure leads to replication of whatever that is," he told EFE in a telephone conversation.

In the violent neighborhoods, he said, romantic problems, economic trials and tribulations, drugs or quarrels of almost any kind all can be quite likely to end in violence.

"So, by interrupting these conflicts, what we do is we put people in there who are credible, who are known in the community, who have influence in the community, who can hear about these conflicts and can step in and mediate it," he said.

Those people, like Richie Dunham or A.T. in East New York, receive training and learn mediation techniques to help them in their task.

Ransford said he is convinced that the coronavirus and the economic crisis have been key factors in the increasing violence.

"If you don't have a job and you have stress over money and stress over disease and then something happens violently you're just much more likely to go down that spiral," he said.

Justin Nix, a professor of criminology at the University of Nebraska, meanwhile, says that besides these problems, there can also be an element of "opportunism" that could be linked to the crisis of legitimacy facing the police right now all around the country after the death of African American George Floyd at the hands of a white officer in Minneapolis last May.

The New York City police have accused the political class and blamed the spike in violence on other factors like the cutting of $1 billion from the department's budget, the suppression of cops working undercover, the prohibition on using certain techniques now considered dangerous to immobilize suspects, the release of prisoners to avoid the spread of Covid-19 in the jails and the slowdown in the justice system due to the virus.

The busy director of the armed violence prevention department within the New York Mayor's Office, Jessica Mofield, told EFE that gun violence is just a symptom of the bigger problem of poverty and inequality that are being experienced by urban communities, not only New York but all across the country.

It is a problem that, she admits, mainly affects racial minorities and, above all, African American communities, although Hispanics are also dealing with it.

Mofield, who is in charge of coordinating the 60 NGOs that operate in the city to halt violence, emphasized that people "who are closer to the problems are also closer to the solutions" and she estimated that each year they can defuse around 3,000 conflicts that otherwise might have spiraled out of control and resulted in deaths, injuries or arrests.

"Without these de-escalation activities, who knows how many incidents of violence with firearms there could have been? If you didn't have all those men and women who are concerned about the wellbeing of their communities and who want them to be healthy and vibrant? Definitely, we think there could have been thousands" of violent incidents, she said.

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