Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Activists Connect Gun Violence to Wider Culture

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Activists Connect Gun Violence to Wider Culture

Article excerpt

For the Rev. Damita Davis-Howard, assistant pastor at First Mount Sinai Missionary Baptist Church in Oakland, California, gun violence is a personal issue. She has lost several family members, including a 19-year-old brother, to shootings and said the number of homicides in her community had become "unacceptable."

While she described attempts to pass stricter gun control laws as "part of the effort" to end the violence, Davis-Howard, who does faith-based social, racial and economic justice work with Oakland Community Organizations, is one of a number of activists who combat gun violence with targeted efforts to promote a more peaceful culture.

"There are laws... about shooting each other," said Davis-Howard, "but then in places like Oakland some people go out and shoot each other no matter what the policy said. So, unless we get to those folks who are making those choices to violate policies and rules, all the policy and rules we have ... won't have maximum effect."

Davis-Howard tries to reach those individuals through the Ceasefire strategy, a plan developed by criminologist David Kennedy and implemented with success in other cities, such as Boston and Richmond, California.

The central component involves targeted meetings with people considered most likely to be victims or perpetrators of violence. According to the Oakland Community Organizations website, faith leaders, members of law enforcement and service providers communicate that "they care about these individuals, but need the violence to stop."

They offer support to those who want to change and describe law enforcement action they will take against those who do not.

"I believe that changing the behavior of individuals is also having those folks create an atmosphere of peace," said Davis-Howard. "So, we talk to folks who will not only will hear and hopefully heed the message but will also take the message back to other folks."

Another part of the effort to create an atmosphere of peace is a weekly night walk based at various churches in East Oakland neighborhoods where most of the violence occurs.

The walks "provide a message of hope that Ceasefire can stop the killings without sending more people to jail and build a culture of peace and healing in our community," the Oakland Community Organizations website said.

On a recent walk, the group stopped to pray with members of a small homeless encampment and was joined by a new resident who wanted to understand her neighborhood; she had been told it was dangerous and "she needed to lock herself in," Davis-Howard said. "Those are all examples of things that could happen on the walks but the one consistent thing is that residents of Oakland show their care and love for residents of Oakland."

The results of the Ceasefire strategy have been dramatic. In 2012, when the program started, there were 127 homicides in Oakland. In 2016, the number dropped to 85. When Davis-Howard spoke with NCR in early December 2017, the decline continued; only 65 homicides had been recorded.

Various strategies are needed to further reduce gun violence, Davis-Howard said. "We always think there's only one way to skin a cat, so to speak, and I think it really is a cohesive effort. ... I don't believe that any one of those efforts all by itself will give us the kind of reduction of violence that we need."

While the Ceasefire strategy in Oakland targets those who are already at risk of violence, other groups around the country take a broader approach. Pace e Bene, a Franciscan-founded organization, launched the Nonviolent Cities Project to emphasize that issues like poverty, racism and environmental destruction are connected and contribute to a culture of violence. …

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