hashim-benford_web.jpgThere is a crisis in Liberty City. Two boys are dead, their killers are still out there, people are angry, and the safety of the community is in jeopardy, threatened by further gun violence in the form of retribution or repeats.

The knee-jerk reaction of many, including the government as well as some of the residents and victims, is to call for more “protection,” i.e. more cops.

But this solution doesn’t dig down and deal with the root of what is going on in poor black neighborhoods across the country. We need to go much deeper than calling for an end to the “don’t snitch” culture and rolling out more cops onto our streets.

To snitch or not to snitch is not the question here. The issue is the lack of trust in police and in the criminal justice system in poor black communities.

And why should there be trust? Millions of black people are behind bars and millions more are somehow tied up in a criminal justice system that is, on the whole, broken. Whether it is racist drug laws, police killings of unarmed black youth or daily racial profiling, we as black Americans come into constant conflict with a criminal justice system that automatically sees us as criminals. It is no wonder that nobody wants to talk to the police.

As residents deal with the terror of street violence, politicians and law-enforcement officials in Miami are treating these deaths as an opportunity to push for a federal ban on assault weapons. The merits of weapons bans aside, the legislation being called for by Miami Police Chief John Timoney will easily translate into the militarization of the police and a crackdown on people living in inner-city communities.

This approach merely greases the hinges on the revolving door that cycles black and brown people into and out of jail.

In order to effectively respond to this crisis, we have to be real about the conditions in our communities that foster violence in the first place.

Poverty itself is a type of violence that manifests in the form of hunger pangs, slumlords, homelessness, police brutality and hopelessness. But rather than building up our neighborhoods to root out poverty, there is continued divestment. Public housing is constantly under attack and destroyed, food stamps are cut while the price of groceries increases.

Schools are gutted of academic and arts programs that provide needed hope and inspiration to our youth. All this combines to paint a bleak vision of the future for so many of our young people.

It is no surprise that some people turn to underground economies. And it’s no surprise that, under constant attack from the system around them, people erupt into violence. On the street, this violence has become an expected outcome, a regular reality.

So what do we do to immediately curb violence while also working toward long-term solutions?

In the short term, we need to focus our energies on healing and intervention. We need to remember that these incidents are highly traumatic.

Can we shift our thinking and be creative in our solutions? Can we put faith in our people and give them the tools to find peaceful resolutions to interpersonal conflicts? Can we envision a community healing process that dissipates anger and honors individuals’ experiences? Instead of police saturation on the streets of Liberty City, let us flood the neighborhood with social workers armed with housing vouchers on their hips instead of guns.

Instead of arresting more young black men,  let us train an inner-city corps of conflict resolution workers and violence interventionists who can teach their peers to communicate and peacefully end confrontations. Solutions such as these require re-envisioning how we collectively deal with conflict, but they also offer us the opportunity to increase employment and foster greater self-respect.

In the rush to increase discipline and feel “safer,” we must not increase the reach of the police state.  We must not unleash an even bigger bully onto our streets. 

Instead, we must train our youth on the basics of communication; but we must listen to them as well. While instilling in them skills to peacefully resolve conflict, we must be humble enough to hear their perspectives and incorporate them into our solutions, our visions. They are the future and we must honor their capacity to create, for themselves, a future ripe with opportunity and free from both interpersonal and systemic violence.

Hashim Benford is an organizer for the Miami Workers Center, a grassroots strategy and action center that works for racial and economic justice in Miami and beyond.