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Gun violence is surging in cities, and hitting communities of color hardest

Communities of color have endured the weight of COVID-19, the recession and social unrest. They’re also bearing the brunt of a surge in gun violence.
Image: New York City Sees Large Spike In Gun Violence
A woman who knew the victim of a shooting cries at the scene, in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Tuesday, July 7, 2020.Spencer Platt / Getty Images

CHICAGO — For many major U.S. cities, this year has been marked by bullets and bloodshed.

Over 1,500 people have been shot in Chicago, almost 900 in Philadelphia, and more than 500 in New York City so far in 2020 — all up significantly from the same time last year (1,018 in Chicago, 701 in Philadelphia and 355 in New York).

The surge in shootings has been particularly painful for communities of color, which have disproportionately endured the weight of the COVID-19 crisis, the economic recession and social unrest following the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis in May.

In New York City, after the number of shooting victims more than doubled from June 2019 to this June, every person who has been shot this July, nearly 100 in total, has been a member of the minority community, according to the police department. And in June, 97 percent of the shooting victims were minorities, the department said.

In Chicago, where minority communities have long struggled with deadly gun violence, shootings have increased 76 percent from the same time last year, with nearly all the bloodshed concentrated in the city's predominantly Black and brown communities on the South and West Sides.

101 pairs of shoes and a casket are laid out during a vigil to represent the 101 shooting victims in the 74 gun violence incidents that took place over the past week throughout New York City, at Borough Hall in New York on July 8, 2020.Angela Weiss / AFP - Getty Images

Among the victims was a 7-year-old girl, Natalia Wallace, who was fatally shot at a family gathering over the Fourth of July weekend on the West Side.

While a rise in shootings is common during warm months, this year has been much more complex, said Christopher Herrmann, a former crime analyst supervisor with the NYPD and professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

“There is a multiplication factor happening right now. Not only is it summertime violence, but there is COVID-19, police protests and job loss,” he said. “All of those factors are going to exacerbate violence, especially in communities that were already vulnerable.”

Predominantly Black neighborhoods in recent decades have averaged five times as many violent crimes as predominantly white communities, according to a 2016 study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

These communities — already facing structural racism and barriers to opportunities — are now dealing with huge added causes of stress, Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, said.

“People who get involved in violence, many of them are financially insecure, housing insecure, food insecure — their whole life is insecure," he said.

In Louisville, as protests persist over the death of Breonna Taylor, who was shot in her home by Louisville Metro Police Department officers in March, there has been a doubling of nonfatal shootings compared to the same time last year, and a 40 percent increase in gun deaths.

From January to May this year, almost 75 percent of homicide victims were Black, according to the Louisville Police Department.

In Philadelphia, more than 30 people were shot over the Fourth of July weekend and 23 were shot within a 24-hour period. The city has seen a nearly 30 percent jump in homicides from the same time in 2019.

Bilal Qayyum, an anti-violence advocate in the city, said job loss and the lack of opportunity before the pandemic had left minority communities particularly vulnerable this summer.

“That kind of pressure consistently on a community, without any signs of changing, I really believe is helping drive the violence we’re seeing right now,” he told the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Ronnie Dunn, a professor of urban policy at Cleveland State University, called the surge in bloodshed "a perfect storm, a confluence of events that exposed all the societal inequities that exist."

“The Black community lives in a state of trauma when you look at all the maladies that adversely impact them,” he said. "These communities are the most vulnerable in our society, so a lot of these social and societal ills are going to manifest there earlier and more prominently.”

Atlanta had a 20 percent spike in shootings from the same time in 2019, with one of the youngest victims being an8-year-old girl, Secoriea Turner, who was shot while riding in a car with her mother over Fourth of July weekend. The violence comes amid unrest from the police killing of Rayshard Brooks, a Black man who was shot by a white office in a Wendy's parking lot on June 12.

Alethea Carter, 65, who has lived in Atlanta's Edgewood neighborhood all of her life, has been left shaken by the recent spate of violence.

“If they don’t kill us,” she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “we’re going to kill one another. It’s sad.”

Floyd's death has stoked a national reckoning about policing tactics and fueled calls to defund the police and reroute funds to community and social wellness causes.

Because of police mistrust, Webster said, people may be less inclined to call 911 if they see a crime occurring. In worse cases, officers themselves could step back and be less proactive as they face public backlash, he said.

“One thing that’s been observed in a number of cities after there is a very high profile incident of police abuse, there is a fairly substantial uprising in response to that, where you commonly do see increases in violence in communities that are most often plagued by this problem,” Webster said.

As shootings swell across the country, addressing the issue requires action on several fronts, including a federal response, Webster added.

“Communities are desperate for resources, particularly at this time, and it goes beyond what a city can do. This is really a national public policy issue,” he said. “People have to ask themselves how they can help the most vulnerable affected by the pandemic and economic impact of it.”

Another fundamental piece of the solution will also be confronting the issues surrounding policing, he said. “To reduce this violence we are going to have to come up with policing models and public safety models that extend beyond police these communities feel invested in and trust.”

Despite the uncertainty and unrest across the country, there are ways to curb the desperation that drives a lot of the violence, Webster said, and help bring opportunities and hope to communities of color.

“You have a lot of stressed-out people living on the edge that are not having a great deal of faith that the government has got their back,” Webster said.