Stopping the Cycle of Violence In Our Communities: An Open Letter To Those Who Really Care

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Peacemaking activist in Brooklyn

My heart is extremely heavy this morning. I woke up to news that yet another black man had been gunned down in the streets of my city yesterday evening. As was the case a few weeks ago, the murder took place just up the road from where my family & I reside. As always, I began searching for info on just who had been taken from us & the circumstances surrounding the incident. Within a few minutes of googling & texting friends who keep their ears to the streets the incident became much more painful than I anticipated. The 20 year old victim, Leon Conrad Jr is my cousin. But the pain does not stop there. The tragic irony of this young man’s death is that his dad (who I grew up with) had been murdered in a robbery 10 years ago on almost the same exact date!

Memories flashed through my mind. Leon Conrad Sr & I went to the same elementary school & for various reasons he was one of my favorite cousins growing up. We lost contact in our adult years but I remember running into him shortly before his death at the BP on Liberty Street. He yelled out at me, “What’s up cuz!” with that big smile, made all the more striking by his shiny “gold grillz”. We dapped each other up, hugged, & stood there a good little while catching up on life. I never would have imagined that that would be the last time I’d see him.

Now his son—who publicly lamented the absence of his father on social media just hours before yesterday’s incident—is gone too.

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Some read headlines like this and lose track of the humanity of the people lost, the families fractured, the communities that are traumatized. Media pundits & politicians far removed from the problem use the “statistics” for their own agendas. But these two (and all victims of gun violence) were more than mere “statistics”. They were living, breathing, loved, image-of-God bearing humans full of purpose, worth, & potential.

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Left to right- Leon Conrad Sr holding his son as a toddler & Leon Jr his senior in high school.

I cannot imagine the shock & sorrow that his closest of kin are feeling right now. This is pain upon pain, grief upon grief. Like me, I’m sure you’ll be diligently praying for them over the coming weeks but that’s just not enough. This tragedy  and others like it, point to a cycle of intra-community violence that we must work to STOP!

It’s well documented that the last couple months or so in my city have been uncharacteristically violent. It’s as if a dam has broken somewhere. Many in our communities are rightfully expressing outrage & concern over all that has occurred recently. While these important dialogues are happening online, in our barber shops/beauty salons, our schools, our homes, & our churches I want to contribute a few thoughts. The following is an open letter I wrote a few weeks ago but never published. I guess it wasn’t time. Now with great urgency I share this with hopes that it will help spark thoughtful action in my city & beyond.

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Men in Baltimore gather for vigil during a recent ‘cease fire’ weekend.

To Those Who Really Care about Peer-on-Peer Violence in Communities of Color,

First, let me say with the deepest sincerity that I’m so glad you care! I’m grateful for those of you who are actively working to interrupt violence by addressing root causes & modeling creative alternatives to it. You are the moms, dads, aunties, uncles, grandmas/abuelas, community organizers, pastors, counselors, school teachers, & youth workers that labor day in & day out on the front lines. Over the years it is folks like you have taught me the importance of taking personal AND communal responsibility for our freedom, peace, justice, & flourishing! Even though I don’t always agree with your critiques & solutions I appreciate the authenticity of your passion. It’s actually quite refreshing given the fact that I’m often in spaces outside of our communities where people disingenuously bring up crime rates in the hood & the barrio to derail conversations & discredit activism against systemic racial oppression.

As we continue our work & rally others to join us I just want to put 3 things on the table for reflection & consideration.

1) Let’s reject the false dichotomy between state violence & peer-on-peer violence. In a very real sense, these two issues are two sides of the same coin. The best of our freedom fighters & sociologist have gone through great lengths to effectively demonstrate how the historic & systemic deprivation & exploitation of our communities has helped engender the violence & crime we grieve. Read chapter 4 of Martin Luther King’s last book “Where Do We Go From Here”, study the work of renowned sociologist William Julius Wilson, & watch this short clip of the BRILLIANT & courageous Michelle Alexander.

Think with me on this. The assassinations & political imprisonment of our brightest leaders in the 60s & 70s was a form of state violence. The systemic subjection of communities of color to environmental hazards like lead poisoning at disproportionate rates is a form of violence. Quarantining our communities into food deserts, divesting from development resources that create (livable wage-paying) jobs, & infesting them with predatory businesses is violent. Health & mental care inequity is violent. Educational apartheid is violent. The US criminal (in)justice system is violent. Far from being a means of rehabilitation & restoration, it is a punitive, racist, classist, family destroying cancer that reproduces the very things it claims to counteract. (For example: People of all colors & cultures use drugs at roughly the same rate, yet black people are 5x more likely to do time for drug offenses.)

All that said, we are going to have to walk & chew gum at the same time.  We must metaphorically “kneel” in protest of systemic injustices while working to heal both self & state-inflicted wounds. Contrary to popular opinion, these pursuits are not at odds with each other.

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2) As we do our work & have our dialogues let’s rigorously reject the use of the racist & propagandistic term “black on black crime”. It is a term that presupposes an inherent criminality in black folks. There are those that argue that “we have put this on ourselves” by perpetuating the worst stereotypes of blackness through rap music. Certainly, we must grapple with the ways in which much of mainstream hip-hop has been a tool of social control & spiritual blackout. Still, it MUST be firmly stated that the narrative of innate black criminality & immorality pre-dates gangster & trap rap. Centuries before rappers like ‘Chief Keef’ or ‘21 Savage’ grabbed a microphone, the white supremacist lie that black, brown, & red people are ‘dangerous savages’ was one of the chief ideas that shaped this country. This myth is as old as America itself & has been used to justify everything from chattel slavery, the genocide of indigenous peoples, Jim Crow, Juan Crow, eugenics, & the hyper surveillance & incarceration of our communities. Let’s be CLEAR: the disproportionate violence in communities of color is NOT a “racial trait”, it is environmental. Research demonstrates that when you control the data on violent crimes for joblessness, black & brown men commit crimes at the same rates as their white counterparts. Due to racism, communities of color suffer the worst from poverty & the various forms of desperation that accompanies it. (Not to mention that due to the living legacy of slavery & segregation it will take the average black family 228 years to build the average wealth of a white family today.)

3) Last but definitely NOT least, let’s commit to doing our work with compassion & in collaboration with each other. If our efforts to cure violence are not rooted in love they are bankrupt. Leaders of people must first be lovers of people. If you don’t love the people you have no business trying to lead the people. Too often, we brow-beat our most vulnerable & speak about them with disdain & disgust. That’s gotta stop! Let’s not get so caught up in the “gory details” of their behavior that we miss the fact that they often have an even gorier life story of pain & isolation that helped lead them to the destructive decisions they are currently making. As we have in-house dialogues about toxic masculinity, gang culture, fatherlessness, & internalized oppression lets resist every wave of self-righteousness that bubbles up within our souls. By all means speak the Truth, but do it with the humility that should flow from the heart of someone who recognizes their own frailties & flaws.

In closing, we cannot afford to engage in non-profit org competition. We simply do not have the “luxury” to let our egos cause us to work in silos! The most effective work gets done when we stop worrying about which leader, which organization, which initiative, which church is going to get the credit. We need each other & I’m not just talking about educated “respectable” folks. We need the wisdom, insights, input, & leadership of the “Tyrones”, “Tomeikas”, “Juans”, & “Marias” of our neighborhoods.

With Love, Hope, & Respect,

T. Hawkins

#WagePeace #StopTheViolence #StopTheKilling #StartTheHealing