It Only Works with Love
The first thing I have had to ask myself in the last month regarding Don’t Shoot is “Why does this matter so much to me?” I just moved here, and I will be moving away again in June. I have yet to explore the city of Peoria beyond the 4-mile drive between my apartment and the church and finding grocery stores, Target, and Petco. Why should a short 30-year-old white woman with an apartment in a nice neighborhood be on fire about a new attempt to end gun violence in the city of Peoria?
The first answer is the flippant one: “Why shouldn’t I?”
But, it is also important to identify the connections, to go deeper, to probe my inner self and history to better understand my own actions.
What I have found is that while gun violence has never entered my life directly, it has affected the lives of others not so far away.
In 2004, while I was attending Meadville-Lombard Theological School in Hyde Park on the South Side of Chicago, one of my colleagues went out in the evening to buy milk and watched a man gunned down on the street right in front of him. When he spoke of the experience in class, of the fear, his greatest relief was that he had not brought his two small children with him that night.
My father proudly tutors elementary school students at Whitehead School in Rockford. He works hard to get problem kids interested in learning, to believe that they are smart, and to prove to them that they can learn their multiplication tables and how to read. That they can excel. He was crushed one day years ago to learn from the newspaper that one of his students, then a teenager, had been shot execution style and killed.
A couple of years ago, in January, my partner and I were playing board games with friends in the kitchen of our Minneapolis home when I looked out the window to see not one, not two, but three police cars scream past on our residential street at breakneck speed with sirens blaring. The next morning I learned that there had been a triple homicide at a corner grocery store only three blocks away. Three shots fired, three bodies, three police cars, three blocks from our home.
Just this Friday, I bumped into one of my neighbors in my apartment building and spoke with her about Don’t Shoot. After a few minutes, she expressed thankfulness that her immediate family has not suffered the devastating loss of deaths. And then she told me that her cousin’s two sons were both shot and killed on the street within two years of each other. She said that they had gotten involved in the wrong crowd, as if that lessened the tragedy, and then she spoke of her cousin’s pain. His two sons are dead.
I never met any of these people who have died, I do not know their parents or their sisters or brothers or grandmothers, but as I see the ripples moving out from the hole in the world left by their absence, I, too, am washed over by the grief, by the outrage.
The more I have delved into learning about Don’t Shoot her in Peoria, listening to addresses about it at the Interfaith Alliance’s Stop the Hate Vigil, reading David Kennedy’s book Don’t Shoot, spending time at dontshootpeoria.com, the more I care.
The local statistics as of last Monday:
This year there have been 10 shooting deaths, 59 people shot, 727 gun-related crimes in the city of Peoria.
What seems crazy to me is that news reports come and go, into consciousness and back out, with only a brief moment of thought – “what a terrible thing.” Five hours later, I might remember when someone else mentions it on Facebook or it comes up in conversation. I’ll respond, “Yeah, I heard something about that on NPR.” We’ll comment “what a terrible thing,” and we move on. I’m wondering if this seems familiar to any of you. Maybe?
But now, a new program is beginning here in Peoria. You’ve seen the billboards. Maybe you bought the book, participated in Peoria Reads, took a pamphlet, attended a meeting, rally or vigil, maybe you attended the congregational meeting here on September 30 and voted for this to be a social justice project of this church. And, maybe, just maybe, some of all of this began to touch you as it did me. Maybe, just maybe, when you heard that three weeks ago, two boys, 15- and 16-years-old, shot two men in a robbery, killing one, allegedly over little more than a pack of cigarettes, you paid a little more attention. Maybe you, like me, became angry. Maybe you hoped and prayed that Don’t Shoot Peoria might just make a difference. That it might stop the shootings. That you, we, should find a way to get involved.
And, maybe, this is the first opportunity you have had to find out what this Don’t Shoot project is all about. My apologies if you have heard all of this before.
Peoria is following suit after a long string of cities to apply an entirely different model of addressing street violence. David Kennedy, who has devoted his life to ending street violence and wrote the book, believes in deterrence, and has found that it is a lot easier than you might think.
His basic premise is two-fold. First, that in communities where a majority of the violence occurs, only a few individuals are responsible for it. And, second, here’s the clincher, that most of the violence is committed by perfectly rational people for rational reasons. That street thugs are rational human beings who have value. I think that this makes a lot of sense, especially within our first Unitarian Universalist principle to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of each person. And yet, David Kennedy has had a lot of difficulties convincing most people of it. For years, academics and the media have blanketed these communities as senseless and sociopathic. Law enforcement has assumed that nothing can be done to deter the violence, that it is impossible to get through to criminals. That nobody cares and that every young black man on the street is up to no good.
David Kennedy’s work has proven otherwise, that working with drug dealers and young men in gangs as rational individuals who honestly do not want to be shooting or getting shot at, works.
Here are the nuts and bolts as applies to what is happening here in Peoria. The vast majority of gun violence occurs within a mere four neighborhoods in the city. These four neighborhoods combined represent about 20% of the city’s population. Within those neighborhoods, only about 5% are involved in violent crime. 5% of the 20% represents no more than 1% of the population of Peoria – 200 some odd individuals. Are you still with me? About 200 individuals are responsible for the vast majority of gun violence. That’s it. It’s a different spin on the 1%, for sure. 200 individuals. And, most of these people, if given the chance, will put down the guns.
I anticipate some disbelief at this point. I anticipate that you may question in the way that I have. “But, guns are deeply embedded in the group and gang culture in which these young people immerse themselves. If one puts down the guns, won’t he become a target? He has no incentive to do so.”
I am reminded of a famous verse from the Hebrew Bible, Micah chapter 4, verse 3:
They shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;
But they shall all sit under their own vines and fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid.
“And no one shall make them afraid.” Be it war or guns on the streets, violence stems from fear. These young people, most of them are young, most of them are male, and most of them are black, these young people are afraid. They are afraid to join gangs or groups; they are afraid not to; they have faced a horrific reality that they will probably not live to see the age of 25. They are afraid for their families, they are afraid for their friends. What they don’t know is that all of their friends, all of the other gang and group members, are afraid too. They are afraid to lose face, to be the one who says, “Maybe we shouldn’t respond to that slight with shooting.” And, because no one else says it, they each believe that the others actually think it’s a good idea, which most of them don’t. They crave respect, and they are all afraid.
“But they shall all sit under their own vines and fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.”
This, at its root, is what Don’t Shoot is trying to change. The police already know who the gang and group members are. They can identify exactly who among them is most violent, and most likely to keep shooting no matter what. So, here’s what they are going to do. The police will arrest those very few individuals and throw the book at them. They will be removed from the streets to serve significant time very far from here. Then, they will call in a number of the known offenders and have a meeting. In that meeting, the police will state in no uncertain terms that gun violence is not acceptable – gun violence is wrong – and that it will no longer be tolerated. This message will not come from the police alone – it will be backed up by social service agencies and members of the community most influential in these young people’s lives. They will tell them that they love them, that they care and that the violence has to stop. The consequences are real, both in the death tolls, and the seriousness of law enforcement’s efforts.
There’s a lot more to it than this, but right here you have the very basics. I encourage all of you to attend programming here in the next few months to understand its complexities.
The interesting thing about this is that in every city that has followed this method, it’s worked. The streets have gone quiet. Gun violence has dropped by 50% - it’s huge. Word gets out that there will be severe consequences for using guns, and these rational young men decide they don’t want to face them.
But, where do we fit in? As a church, we have voted to support this project, but what does that even mean? It seems as if all of this is about law enforcement and certain communities.
The mayor has been very clear that community involvement and buy-in are key to this working. I asked the State’s Attorney, Jerry Brady, this week, when he spoke with our Social Impact committee about Don’t Shoot, what plans there are for involving the wider community, for involving us, a mostly white, liberal church. His response was that those plans do not yet exist. Their priority is to start the process, have the call-ins, and work from there.
So, right now, it is up to us how we are going to get involved. It’s tricky. This issue sits squarely within the realm multi-culturalism, and it would be so easy for us to try to swoop in and make things right for those other people suffering from gun violence. But, I don’t think that’s a good idea. As a congregation, and many of us as individuals, we come from a place of privilege, and we have no right to try to judge and then fix the ways in which others live their lives.
Our first task is to fight the impulse to identify those “other” people. Just as I have been affected by those ripples caused by the holes in the world where people once lived, we all need to reflect upon our connections to the violence. Violence exists in my neighborhood; it exists in yours. The entire city has been touched, and as the violence ends, the entire city will benefit.
I believe that our truest point of entry, the place where the work of Don’t Shoot squarely intersects with the root of our faith, is in love. Mayor Ardis specified that the police will specifically say “I love you” to gun offenders during the call-ins. I do not think that such words are foreign to us. “Love is the spirit of this church, and service its law.” Universalists have asserted through the centuries that God is Love, and that our truly loving God could never damn anyone for an eternity. We are Standing on the Side of Love. Nothing could be more central to our faith, and it is something powerful upon which we might base our work, something powerful that we might share with the world.
We already know that love is something that we share with everyone involved in Don’t Shoot. We share the experience and depth of love with the police, the prosecutors, the social service agencies, the entire community of Peoria, and those young people who have been driven to feel that gun violence is their only choice. It is love that will continue to bind us together in an inextricable web of mutuality. If our work in support of Don’t Shoot comes out of this place of the truest, deepest love and connection, it will be beneficial. If our love connects us to other organizations and other churches, we will all be enriched by it. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
I am hopeful. I hope that you might join in our shared efforts to offer support to the task of ending gun violence. Please see me if you are, send me an e-mail, call me here at the church. I want your help as we figure out how to reach out in love.
The waters may calm, and our community may find some relief from the waves of grief. I want to believe the words of the prophet Micah.
“And into plowshares beat their swords, nations shall learn war no more.
And every one ‘neath their vine and fig tree shall live in peace and unafraid.”
I want to believe that it is possible. We must believe that it is possible with love.
Blessed be, and Amen.