As Center for Race and Social Problems Associate Director Ralph Bangs often points out, African-Americans in Pittsburgh often lag behind their White counterparts in most areas of social and economic achievement.
One area where they do not is Black male gun violence. This grim reality was the focus of a June 2 symposium Black Male Gun Violence hosted by the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work.
The daylong session was designed to inform academics and front-line personnel of the contributing factors and possible means of reducing the trend that saw Pennsylvania reach the highest percentage of Black homicides in the nation.
In one respect, the timing of the symposium was fortuitous because the Pittsburgh police annual crime report (for 2010) was released just a week earlier. Bureau Chief Nathan Harper included some of that data in his presentation on the bureau’s strategies for reducing Black gun violence.
“Our data over a 10-year span shows that we can expect, on average, around 52 homicides a year. Philadelphia has about 300 a year, which is why Pennsylvania was number one in Black homicides,” he said. “If not for Black-on-Black violence, we’d only have about 10 homicides a year.”
Another disturbing stat Harper presented involved the ages of shooters—they are getting younger.
“The average age is 15-29,” he said. “The most violent are the 17-year-olds, 18-year-olds and 20-year-olds.”
Harper noted this is often due to effective policing which has removed drug-dealing fathers from households. With the breadwinners gone, the children are filling the void.
Richard Garland, executive director of One Vision One Life, noted this phenomenon also during his presentation on his group’s efforts to mediate potentially explosive relationships in Black communities throughout the city and Allegheny County, and prevent shootings.
As he explained to the audience, his group does this by using former gang members, who have “juice on the street” and who know the group dynamics of their neighborhoods to get ahead of situations before they result in gunfire.
This unique approach makes his organization a critical part of the Pittsburgh Initiative Against Crime, which offers youth a way out of group violence by providing social, educational and employment service help to those who quit, and by delivering swift and complete police action against all group members for any violence done by any member.
But when such action takes a large number of men off the street, it again leaves younger men to take their place. Garland noted this situation was again in play after a raid in Manchester, when 30 parents were arrested in a single morning.
“When I first started this, I knew all players,” he said. “Now. I’m seeing kids 15, 16, who just jumped off the porch. So we have to connect with these families who are not living the same lifestyle after mom or dad has been put away.”
Is anyone doing this? Apparently not.
“That’s a good question,” said Dean of the School of Social Work Larry Davis. “You’re taking the bread winners out of the community, and now the kids have to be bread winners? I don’t know of anyone doing that immediate intervention.”
Dave Adams of the Conscience Group, who was among the attendees, was more direct.
“No one is looking at this,” he said.
While Harper has called for Black churches to open their doors and address these kids, Garland said it’s a unique dilemma.
“On the one hand you have to stop the drug crimes contributing to the violence, but if you take them off the street, you get a new crop of younger guys,” he said. “And when the old guys get out and try to come back, little Johnny says this is my corner. And the violence starts again.”
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