Tragic stories such as theirs are occurring in cities across the country, as alarm bells ring in city halls and state capitols about rising violent crime. The problem is due in large part to a loss of trust between communities and law enforcement; disinvestment in neighborhoods and schools where more help, not less, is needed; and decades of failure to keep guns off the streets.
Every day, more lives are lost, and this loss hits Black communities hardest.
Too many leaders are responding by adopting a Nixonian “tough on crime” stance — which usually translates into over-policing and under-supporting these communities. That is a shortsighted non-solution — George Floyd’s murder beneath the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis last year can be traced directly back to policies that respond to crime by emboldening and insulating the police from the community rather than encouraging deeper engagement with the community.
Being a violence interrupter isn’t the only answer, but it is clearly helping in Minneapolis.
In late May, we joined dozens of community members like Howard as churches and neighborhood associations mobilized in the effort called 21 Days of Peace — based on the idea that it would take at least three weeks for habits to start changing.
Our group asked the Minneapolis Police Department to identify the most dangerous spots in our neighborhood, the 4th Precinct, and then we went there, pulled out our chairs and sat down. For the past three months, we have conferred daily with the precinct about the number of volunteers (two to 15, usually) and hours needed. We work in shifts, using a sign-up log online. In the winter, we’ll work on relationship-building with young people in the community.
The precinct’s police inspector, Charlie Adams, tells us that since 21 Days of Peace began setting up in the Northside in “hot spots,” the precinct “has seen a reduction in violent crimes in those areas.” He notes that in April, before the initiative began, seven people were shot in and around those dangerous areas; in July, there were two gunshot victims.
The city’s overall violent-crime statistics have improved across the summer. In June, homicides in Minneapolis declined from June 2020, the first such drop this year. Then the same thing happened in July and August, according to the Minneapolis Police Department. Rape and aggravated assault also declined year-over-year in June and July. We hope the conspicuous effort at violence interruption in the Northside has had a ripple effect across the city.
What makes this simple act of sitting apparently so powerful?
The people sitting on these corners in their chairs are members of the community. We know our young people, and they know us. But more important, we represent one of the strongest bastions of moral authority left in these areas: the Black church. We draw on the power of congregation — of family, of friends and of community — to try to interrupt the violence. And our faith gives us the courage to put ourselves in harm’s way.
In Baltimore, organizations including ROCA and Safe Streets are putting trusted congregants and community members on patrol in tough neighborhoods and providing off-ramps for those who seek a way out of the violence. An Aug. 7 report by the Associated Press on the violence-interrupters movement focused on Gideon’s Army in Nashville.
These groups recognize that the work of stopping violence isn’t about sound-bite debates over police department budgets or Washington’s issue of the week. It’s about the lives of our neighbors, the lives of our children.
We’re not declaring victory, by any means. But as elected officials look for answers to end the violence, they would be wise to pull up a chair and take a look at what’s working.