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Over the last year, the residents of Champaign and Urbana have been shaken by an unprecedented increase in gun violence. People are frightened and angry. And weary.
Despite our fears, anger and tiredness, we must refuse to revitalize punitive approaches that push us further toward a police state. We must reject policies and legislation that ignore structural factors, neglect the healing power of African American history and culture, expand social control through technology and increase a repressive army of occupation that serves to strengthen mass racialized incarceration.
The current wave of gun violence surging through C-U and the empire is unmatched. The number of shootings and resultant deaths are truly alarming. Nationally, in 2020, 43,551 people were killed by guns. More than 19,000 and 24,000 died from homicide and suicide, respectively, and another 21 from mass murder and 611 from mass shootings.
C-U mirrors national trends. A report compiled by Champaign City Manager Dorothy David reveals that over the nine-month period from Jan. 1 to Sept. 1, 2021, shooting incidents increased nearly 45 percent, while the number of victims grew by 41 percent. The 12 homicides were nearly two-and-a-half times greater than the the five people killed over the same period in 2020. Meanwhile, the 63 shootings in Urbana by Aug. 3, 2021, exceeded the 53 shootings during all of 2020 and resulted in five deaths.
The number of shooting incidents and people shot and killed are at record highs, but this is not the first time gun violence has dramatically soared upward in U.S. history.
Most recently, between 1985 and 1993, gun violence also spiraled to extraordinary levels. It declined just as sharply due to multiple factors; economic recovery and increased employment were significant contributors. As we search for solutions, it’s important to understand why gun-violence rates rose and declined after 1993. The path out of this epidemic necessitates that we correctly interpret and incorporate the lessons from the past.
Several aspects of contemporary gun violence reflect trends from the late 1980s and early 1990s. First, the perpetrators and the victims were and are largely young people, under 25. Secondly, they were and are mainly impoverished Black males. Then and now, most other violent crimes remained stable or declined.
Then, much of the killing was related to drug markets. Now, it’s unclear, but some appear motivated by revenge, a disproportionate irrational response to some slight or serious personal violation. Then and now, most researchers attribute the surge in homicide to easily available handguns.
Understanding the root cause of gun violence is essential to solving this problem. Most experts identify structural factors such as poverty, unemployment, a rise in gun purchases, increase in stress and alcohol consumption during COVID-19, and dislocation from gentrification. Some scholars also identify cultural factors such as the “desensitizing effect” of watching violent films and playing brutal video games. Indeed, Patrick Jamieson and David Roemer found a “positive relation between relative amount of TV violence involving guns and actual homicides due to firearms, especially among youth.”
I wonder if zero-tolerance policies and other repressive regulations that alienate youth from schooling contribute to young people’s adoption of an aggressive anti-problem-solving culture? Two generations of Black youth have been educated to expect harsh punishment for any infraction. Are they simply practicing what they’ve been taught?
Moreover, activities that might attract them to schooling and strengthen their engagement with structures in which they learn to negotiate, compromise and subordinate individualistic instincts to the common good, such as athletic participation, are denied to them by vindictive ill-conceived rules. Zero tolerance is the policy that fuels the school-to-prison pipeline.
A map of the shootings illustrates that they occur throughout C-U and at all times of the day and night. Yet Champaign police plan, in the words of city council member Alicia Beck, to build “a fence around our Black and Brown communities — a fence of technologies.” Surrounding the predominately African American neighborhood of Garden Hills (59 percent) with intrusive technologies designed to facilitate greater social control reveals it and other Black neighborhoods as communities set apart, as internal colonies.
In addition to acting as an employment bureau for retired police officers, State Rep. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, wants to go beyond surveillance and apply the most revanchist racist policies of the wrong-headed 1994 crime bill to contemporary gun violence. He would appropriate $100 million to flood the streets with ineffective police and pursue other counterproductive policies such as mandatory minimum sentences and trying juveniles as adults for gun offenses.
Rose would re-trod this worn path even though a landmark National Academy of Sciences 2012 report found “higher incarceration rates had modest effects” on crime reduction and long prison sentences “are ineffective as a crime-control measure.”
A comprehensive multi-pronged approach is needed. It must transcend teaching young Black men how to tie ties and be courteous. It must frontally challenge the racially inflicted trauma and resulting rage young Black men have inherited from previous generations and acquired from a lifetime of oppression.
The solution lies in transforming the appalling socioeconomic conditions in which most grew up. It involves creating stable employment at a living wage. It requires a broad-based program, something like a liberation school in which these human beings are taught their personal value and the value of the people from whom they are descended.
Sundiata Cha-Jua is a professor of African American studies and history at the University of Illinois and a member of the North End Breakfast Club. His email is [email protected]
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