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Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Smith: Stopping the violence

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If we want to prevent low-income Black male teens and young men from dying from COVID-19, there is a near certain way to do so: Get them vaccinated.

With very few exceptions, if you get vaccinated, you’re not only highly unlikely to contract the coronavirus; you’re also extremely unlikely to die if you do. There are multiple sites throughout the United States that will perform the service quickly and free of charge. Recognizing the urgency of the threat, several states are offering various types of financial incentives to address this health crisis.

Things are much more complicated if we want to succeed in attacking another health crisis: preventing low-income Black male teens and young adults from being shot by their peers. I deeply dread the fact that the remedy for this crisis is not nearly as simple as a couple of doses of a vaccine.

Is the answer greater economic opportunity? More alternative activities? More police? More involvement from the church? There is merit to all of these approaches. Still, none of them has proven to be sufficient. Most importantly, empirical data show that stable, intact families and greater access to trauma-informed psychological services are crucial to steering young men away from behaviors that are deadly to themselves — and to others.

Here’s a reality check. Indianapolis set a record for homicides last year with 245 such deaths — which is 37% more than the previous despicable record of 179 homicides in 2017. (The totals were 178 and 172 for 2018 and 2019, respectively.) Of the homicides last year, 218 — roughly 9 in 10 — were from gunshots. (America’s obsession with firearms is the gift that keeps on giving.) On the one hand, there was a pandemic; on the other hand, gun-related violence was endemic.

Demographically, 205 of the homicide victims were male. More than a third were 18-25. Most tragically, roughly 6% were 17 or younger. Further, in a city in which Blacks account for less than 30% of the population, a total of 184 homicide victims — 3 in every 4 — were Black. Of that number, 160 were male. People who look like I do are leading in the wrong category, in Indianapolis and across the nation.

So, what can we do to stem the rising tide of violence? In attempting to work toward a solution, a coalition of organizations has come together under the banner of Stand Together for a Safer Indianapolis. The partners in this public-nonprofit venture are Steward Speakers, Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, Health & Hospital Corporation and the Indianapolis Public Safety Foundation.

Matt Steward, a retired IMPD sergeant who founded Steward Speakers more than three decades ago, is the driving force behind this initiative. (In the spirit of full disclosure, Steward is a good friend of mine and I’ve worked with his organization for several years.)

This coalition is starting from the proposition that, despite the fact that people rarely seem to agree on much these days, we should all agree that 1) Indianapolis is experiencing an unprecedented increase in violent crime, and 2) it is in our collective best interest to ensure Indianapolis is a safe place to live and work.

The initiative began with a series of discussions with several stakeholders — including those who have been incarcerated — regarding effective ways to address youth violence. From these discussions came energy, commitment, ideas and (ultimately) funding.

The coalition has engaged Frontline Media, a local public relations and communications firm, to launch a citywide campaign that will consist of digital content including video, graphics, music, public service announcements and other programming. Frontline will also use print, radio, window signage and billboards to deliver a message of solidarity and healing. Wisely, the coalition will also engage “interrupters” — men and women who have “lived that life” and now want to prevent our youth from going down the same path.

As a man of faith, I pray that this and other efforts will be successful. As a concerned citizen, I applaud this coalition and will actively support it. As someone who was reared in a so-called “broken home” and in a low-income family, I understand firsthand what it means to have caring adults who are dedicating their time to help Black youth succeed. This summer promises to be very hot. Perhaps it will be less deadly.

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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