By David Muhammad
Like President Obama and many others across the country, I too wiped away tears as I watched the horrifying news coverage of the tragic shootings in Newton, Conn. I immediately called my children who were still in school. I sat watching the television trying to fathom how I would respond if I got a call that a shooting had occurred at my children’s school. This brought on more tears. But for the parents of 20 children and six other families in Newton, it wasn’t an exercise; it was an excruciating reality.
I then watched and listened to our President, and like parents around the world, the shooting had affected him emotionally as well. Twenty children gunned down. He struggled to hold back tears.
It was then that my phone buzzed. I quickly grabbed it to see if it was one of my children calling back. But it wasn’t. It was a colleague in Chicago. I had emailed her the day before asking for research into one of the mentoring programs in the city’s schools for youth with the highest risk of being shot.
She provided me with the information I was seeking. Then she included a P.S.: “What a devastating horrible day in CT. But frankly I wish people cared this much when it was children on the south and west sides of Chicago.”
I was snapped back into reality with the email. The tragedy in Newtown was truly horrific. But there is similar carnage carried out every day in the streets of America’s cities, especially in the President’s hometown of Chicago, where I work in Oakland, in Philadelphia, and many other cities across the nation.
In 2010, nearly 700 Chicago school children were shot and 66 of them died. Last year, Mayor Rahm Emanuel attended a memorial for 260 school children who had been killed in just the previous three years. On several occasions in the past year, tens of people have been shot in a single weekend on the streets of the city. The worst three-day stretch saw 10 killed and 37 wounded in gun fire. But Google the term “Chicago weekend shootings” and the results are far too many deadly weekends to count.
Oakland, Calif. has seen a huge increase in shootings. Last year, three small children were murdered in shootings. The youngest victim hadn’t yet turned 2. Oakland has become the first city in the country to have its police force taken over by a federal court. Because of a lack of resources, the city has one of the lowest police to resident ratios in the country.
Gun violence in America is a pandemic, but there is no round-the-clock news coverage. No national address from the President with tears. No pledge for urgent change.
Why? Is it because the children who die on the streets of America’s cities are black and brown? Is it because they are poor? What makes the victims of everyday inner-city gun violence expendable?
Like the horrendous shooting in Newton, easy access to guns and the challenges of mental illness contribute to the violence on America’s streets. Like the calls for change in guns laws that have been heard following this massacre, so too do we need tighter gun control because of the death and destruction that touches the hearts of mourning mothers in American cities every day.
Speaking at a prayer vigil in Newton, Obama said, “Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children, all of them, safe from harm? The answer is no, we’re not doing enough. And we’ll have to change.”
Mr. President, this is so very true. But it is not only these one-day mass shootings that cause us to cry out for the need to change, but also the daily gun violence that plagues our cities.
“We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true,” Obama said. “No single law, no set of laws, can eliminate evil or prevent every act, but that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely, we can do better than this.”
We can do better in Chicago, in Oakland, in Philadelphia, and in every city in America.
(David Muhammad is the former Chief Probation Officer of Alameda County in California and the former Deputy Commissioner of Probation in New York City. He now consults with philanthropic foundations on juvenile justice issues)