with Lori Ann Doyon
Gun violence has gripped the city and appears to have been a factor in the mayoral primary. Recent headlines have proclaimed gun violence is on the rise. Some statistics bear this out as NYPD noted a 95% rise in shootings during January to November of 2020 compared with the same period during 2019. However, gun violence has long made its presence known. A more modern point of view sees crime and violence are a public health issue.
In late July, a town hall of forty-some community members organized by Assembly Member Davila convened to discuss ways to decrease gun violence in Williamsburg and to organize an upcoming march. “Gun violence unfortunately touches too many people in our neighborhoods. We need to send a message that our community is stronger together by tackling this emergency head on.” Her intentions for The March Against Gun Violence on Sunday, August 15 are to set a strong local precedent that addresses the mental, physical, physiological, and emotional impact that results from violence and to welcome resources that make positive change. The march will process through the NYCHA public housing developments of Bushwick and Williamsburg. For more info, contact AM Davila’s office at (718) 443 -1205.
Juan Ramos, executive director of Southside United HDFC – Los Sures and leader of Wick Against Violence assisted Davila in organizing the town hall. Ramos believes that more needs to be done to help address violence in communities impacted by divestment and the revolving doors into the criminal justice system for young men of color. “The only way to eradicate violence in our community is by engaging and challenging those who use violence to become part of the solution in ending violence. In order to do that we need real resources and solutions for them, not sound bites that lead to no change,” said Ramos.
Lohoma Shipman, president of the Bushwick Houses Residents Council, met Juan Ramos in 2017 during that year’s Stop the Violence Rally that made stops in five NYCHA developments in Williamsburg. Shortly thereafter Los Sures acted as violence interrupters at Bushwick Houses and formed Wick Against Violence. Shipman has seen a difference for the better since this initiative began. “Once they see something they go over and de-escalate the situation, usually at a point before the police become involved. If we were able to get additional funding to have a full cure violence program, then we could have more people [working as violence interrupters] and have 24/7 coverage. This work could be staggered among more people instead of [overburdening] a few,” said Shipman. She and Los Sures have been working together to bring more programs to those who might choose a dark path. “Idle time is a devil’s work tool. We want to get them training, get them some jobs. It’s a work in progress, but progress is being made. The Wick has also hired people in the development. They have a huge stake in where they live,” she said.
Cooper Park Houses recently experienced the shooting of a resident. “When are we going to start being concerned about everyone’s lives? Everyone’s lives matter. I don’t care what color you are,” says Debra Benders, president of the Cooper Park Residents Council, a responsibility she doesn’t take lightly. She sees gun violence as a systemic and multifaceted issue — stemming from not only lack of opportunity but a lack of guidance to steer kids in the right direction. “These are learned behaviors,” she says. “You have to be the person inspiring them to do something, showing them the way to go. People try to attribute it to COVID, but it’s something else. Last three or four years, lots of shootings going on. I’ve never seen it like this before,” she says.
“At the Cooper Park Houses, everybody knows everybody. Generations of families there. By the time there’s police interaction, we’re acting at a disadvantage,” said Captain Kathleen Fahey, 94th Precinct Commanding Officer. Fahey is troubled by the patterns of the past year, but she describes 2020 as an outlier, with its increase of shootings in Cooper Park and throughout the command. She offered that shootings were calculated, carried off by repeat perpetrators often passing through from other neighborhoods. “Investigations cross precincts, sometimes involving the same individual,” Fahey says, describing pot deals which turned into car jackings at Blue Slip over by Commercial and a shooting under the Kosciuszko Bridge during a rave. Fahey is optimistic, “A few repeat offenders, the worst of the worst, have finally been indicted, put away. The backlog in the criminal justice system is clearing up,” she says.
Fahey and her command are redoubling their efforts, committed to community engagement and allied with community leaders in confronting the root causes of gun violence with an eclectic and still expanding range of programs targeting at-risk youth and including the continuing violence interruption programs led by former gang members. Youth coordination officers collaborate with city agencies and local organizations like Los Sures to elevate youth on a multidimensional level. “A lot of these kids have overcome challenges, but need a mentor to allow them to realize they can succeed, whether an officer, relative, or violence interrupter,” Fahey emphasizes.
Local hospitals address the public health aspect of gun violence. In 2016, NYC Health + Hospitals|Woodhull leadership was concerned enough about gun violence to host a forum as part of National Preparedness Month, framing safety as part of the hospital’s broader public health mission. While that focus has not abated, the hospital has had to conserve its resources with the coronavirus epidemic. Nonetheless, Dr. Regina Hammock, vice chair of the emergency department, is aware of the trend, noting a 5%–6% increase in random shootings between May and July. The focus is of course on treatment, but the hospital also plays another role. “We help the police wherever we can,” Hammock said, “if we have information, we get them up to speed.” Hammock has been seeing people killed in their mid-20s to mid-50s. “If we continue to see an increase, we’ll have to reconsider our approach,” she said.
The battle against gun violence also rages on in government. Since 2017, Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez has introduced groundbreaking bills that enhance background checks, trace lost and stolen firearms, and fund CDC research, but passing bills through the federal legislative branch can take time. New York State is currently a different story. NY State Senator Brian Kavanagh worked alongside NY State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and other colleagues to inaugurate this summer’s Gun Violence Awareness Month by advancing similar legislation, with additional measures targeting sales to individuals with outstanding warrants and ghost guns, which are assembled from parts and have no serial numbers hence untraceable. Mayoral frontrunner Eric Adams has also taken a stand, appearing alongside President Biden, Governor Cuomo, and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in press conferences reaffirming the commitment to confront this from the local ground on up.