1. Environmental
May 15, 2020updated 16 Jul 2021 12:19pm

A very American form of essential work: Gun-violence prevention

There's another epidemic in American cities, and it's only gotten harder to address.

By Jake Blumgart

Brian Muhammad has been glued to social media since the coronavirus pandemic swept over his home town of Stockton, California.

Since the state’s lockdown went into effect, he’s been monitoring Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat for brewing conflicts. Everyone’s nerves are frayed by uncertainty, scarcity, and fear, which could make city residents all the more vulnerable to the epidemic of gun violence that Muhammad spends his days trying to stanch.

“We’ve seen more potential violence [since Covid-19] that we’ve had to get in front of – a lot more,” says Muhammad, who is the program director with the Stockton branch of Advance Peace, an organisation that seeks to de-escalate conflicts and ensure they don’t end in bloodshed. “Our work has increased, definitely.”

Advance Peace is part of a larger system of public and non-profit programs that seek to interrupt cycles of violence without recourse to law enforcement. During the pandemic, Muhammad, his co-workers, and their counterparts in cities across California, have been declared essential workers, and their services have proven as necessary as ever.

When they get wind of a potential conflict, they try to intervene as quickly and respectfully as possible. A “neighbourhood change associate” – a credible messenger who usually has a past experience of violence and background in the community – will be dispatched to navigate the terrain between the two sides. They’ll talk with friends and family, and try to get to the antagonists and talk them down before the worst happens. Once they get to know the people involved, and win their trust, they try to connect them with services like cognitive behavioural therapy.

It’s still too early to say what, exactly, the relationship between the pandemic and gun violence will be in US cities. The federal government does not supply reliable month-by-month data on shootings across the United States, and only some city police departments release such numbers to the public. The Trace, a newsroom covering gun violence in the country, reports a 6% increase nationwide in comparison with the available data during the same time period in the last three years. Shootings in many US cities, including Philadelphia, Chicago, Dallas, and Oakland, have remained persistently high during lockdown. In others, like New York, they have fallen.

Even under normal circumstances, gun violence takes a consistent, harrowing toll on many American neighbourhoods, particularly in hyper-segregated black and Latino communities, where the formal economy offers fewer opportunities and public infrastructure is weakened by years of private-sector divestment.

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“The communities that are being hit hardest by the pandemic are the exact same communities that are at greatest risk from gun violence,” says Elinore Kaufman, a doctor who surgically treats physical trauma and studies its causes at the University of Pennsylvania. “These are the exact same communities that are most affected by an overall lack of resources and lack of societal investment. This crisis just reveals and amplifies what was already going on.”

In Stockton – a post-industrial corner of the San Francisco Bay Area with a poverty rate of more than 20 percent – Muhammad and his team usually already know the people likely to be embroiled in a potentially deadly conflict. As in most American cities, a tiny portion of Stockton’s population accounts for much of the gun violence. Some anti-violence advocates refer to this sliver of the population as the “one-percenters.” They are the most likely to shoot or be shot, and therefore the ones who need the most attention.

An anti-violence protester in Chicago. (Jim Young/Getty Images)

Advance Peace and its allies in government think that part of the reason for the uptick in violence in some American cities during the pandemic is that while a lot of the people are staying inside, the one-percenters and their social circles are less likely to do so. With fewer people on the streets, they are easier targets. (New York, where gun violence is down, is also the American city hit hardest by the pandemic, which Kaufman suggests might mean there is an inflection point beyond which even the most at-risk are less likely to go out.)

“Now everybody else is staying at home, so if you’re outside, you stand out like a sore thumb,” says Sam Vaughn, program manager for the city of Richmond, California’s Office of Neighborhood Safety. “You can’t hide in crowds. You can’t hide in traffic. And I know where you’re going to be. All I gotta do is be patient and wait it out. I’m going to see you, I don’t need to get lucky, I just got to be patient.”

The extreme social and interpersonal tension that can be brought out by the pressures of the pandemic may also be exacerbating the causes of violence. Murders in American cities are not usually the result of gang wars or other kinds of organised crime, but are more likely to stem from personal conflicts where outside authority is not trusted to intercede.

“Most of the time when there’s violence, it’s often retaliatory, even if it’s not gang violence,” says Khaalid Muttaqi, chief operating officer with Advance Peace, and former director of Sacramento’s Office of Violence Prevention.

“If I find out about a domestic violence situation with my sister, I want to do something to that guy,” says Muttaqi. “Or If I’m mad because he’s dissing me on social media. Or he shot my cousin two years ago. Matter of fact, I know where he is now, because he can’t go anywhere. So I’m getting ready to roll up on him.”

All of the Advance Peace workers interviewed for this article say that insults on social media are spilling into real-life bloodshed. That is a troubling dynamic during normal times, but these days they say it’s grown even worse. With less to do, social media is being used even more heavily – hence Muhammed’s constant vigilance over Instagram.

“Most of the time, people that we’re watching are people we already know,” says Muhammad. “We do try to stay abreast of the people that we’ve highlighted to be prone to gun violence, and we’ll follow them. It’s not a secret that we are following them, we try to befriend them.”

But even as demand for their anti-violence interventions is remaining persistently intense, these essential workers are also taking on more duties. Even before the lockdown, Advance Peace workers across California realized that the low-income black and Latino communities they operate within would be especially vulnerable and that they were uniquely situated to lend assistance.

In many of these communities they are known figures, respected by both those they are trying to help and their loved ones. People like Muhammad are leaders. They are distributing resources and, in areas where trust of public officials and the medical establishment is low, preaching the realities of Covid-19.

“They’re going way beyond their job description, they’re giving out food, they are delivering supplies and shelter-in-place orders,” says Jason Corburn, professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning and School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley. “They’re also doing things that didn’t use to be the focus of the program but are critical now, like domestic violence conflict resolution.”

Corburn is part of a team of UC Berkeley researchers who are evaluating the Advance Peace strategy.He is extremely familiar with the work, but he’s never seen anything like what they are doing now.

“These guys are stretched real thin,” he says.

There are limits to doing more with less. As state and local budgets contract under the shock of the pandemic’s economic effects, austerity could threaten the programs – which are often politically controversial. Budgetary reductions could also worsen the plight in the communities Advance Peace serves, heighting the stressors that can escalate conflict.

For now, though, Muhammad and his team are working extreme hours to keep up with their heavier-than-ever workload. They see their efforts to bring food, medicine, and protective gear as a means to alleviate some of the stressors that come with sheltering in place.

The Advance Peace office is mostly empty now, of course, although Muhammad still comes in every morning at the usual time in case anyone comes by in need of services. The team has tried to replace as many in-person meetings with Facetime or Zoom calls, but much of their work is unavoidably personal. When they are in the field, Muhammad’s guys try to practice social distancing as much as they can.

But he isn’t under any illusions: Their job is more dangerous and more necessary than ever.

“I have to commend them for their bravery and courage and just having a love for their community,” says Muhammad. “We are trying to mediate in the middle of gunfire and now with the added stresses of potentially coming down with the coronavirus, and maybe taking it home to our loved ones. These people are putting their life on the line.”

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer for CityMetric.

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