Op-ed | Saving Lives Starts With Community

REUTERS/Hannah Mckay

By MAYA WILEY

For Shyheim McLean, a 22-year-old from Bed-Stuy, a late afternoon trip to the neighborhood store cost him his life.

Like many gun violence victims, Shyheim’s death was preventable. Does the person who shot him bear responsibility? Of course. Yet, Shyheim’s family and researchers agree that leaders must understand our communities experiencing gun violence and address the root causes of a preventable illness.

In response to unimaginable tragedy and loss, Shyheim’s family has not only remembered him as the kid who his principal said was always the first at school and who was a loving son, nephew, cousin, but they’ve also sounded the alarm and mounted public demands for a real response to the interrelated health crises that face New Yorkers: COVID-19 and gun violence. As Mayor, I will take these crises head-on.

Data shows that gun violence is at an estimated five-year high. It also shows that gun violence is not a crime of opportunity, but a result of inopportunity and lack of social mobility. When people live in communities with underfunded schools, overcrowded housing, and other stressful conditions for years — and then a pandemic comes along driving unemployment rates up to 25%, driving up hunger, trauma of death, and loss in communities with little in the way of mental health support, and human services are cut — crime rates rise.

In some cases, this turns deadly. As we enter a second wave of the pandemic, economic pain will continue to inflict battered communities of color and could lead to violence. The same approach to gun violence will yield the same tragic ends. We need to think creatively to keep our streets and citizens safe.

To start, my plan will set aside millions to invest in and employ those who want to work with us to end gun violence in their community through a participatory justice fund. Similar to participatory budgeting, the participatory justice fund would allocate funds to communities identified by high gun violence rates and support a democratic process to support existing and new programs that have proven track records or promising evaluations. This process will also allow impacted communities to identify and develop proposals to reduce gun violence — transforming potential perpetrators into community investors and shareholders of public safety.

Additionally, a Wiley administration will create and expand priority placements for at-risk youth and young adults in communities experiencing high rates of gun violence in existing workforce development and education programs. This will include doubling the number of slots allocated to at-risk youths in the Summer Youth Employment Program, resulting in 10,000 slots designated for young people at the highest risk of being involved in gun violence.

I also know that we cannot meaningfully talk about reducing and addressing gun violence until we put the public back in public safety, and that includes addressing issues of police violence. Ending gun violence requires us to be strategic and work to prevent deaths, not react in fear. This is why, as mayor, I will commit to holding officers accountable for their actions, while focusing police resources in appropriate areas, like keeping guns out of our communities, to begin with. As we look for innovative and community-based solutions to end gun violence, we need to ensure our police officers and everyday New Yorkers are working to support each other, and stop deadly gun violence before it ever takes place.

We know coronavirus has only worsened the poverty and the pain in communities like Bed-Stuy, Brownsville, and the South Bronx. Many New Yorkers are worried for good reason. And we can turn our worry into effective action so that no one has to fear being shot for going to the corner store. We can do better. Be better. It is on all of us to protect our neighbors and our children. We can save many New Yorkers by providing them the resources to succeed and stay out of harm’s way. This plan will achieve it.

Maya Wiley is a NYC-based lawyer and activist who is running for mayor.

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