Over the past few weeks, the rise in shootings across New York City have left officials pledging to do more to end gun violence and advocates demanding that the city increase funding for anti-violence work.
Shootings in June have risen 130 percent compared to June 2019. Just this past weekend there were 65 shootings that left many injured, and resulted in the death of one-year-old Davell Gardner Jr., in Bed-Stuy. On Tuesday there were multiple shootings across Queens, Manhattan, and Brooklyn. Gun violence has also risen across the country.
During Mayor Bill de Blasio's Wednesday press conference, Ife Charles, the director of anti-violence projects and capacity building for Save Our Streets Bed-Stuy and described as “an unsung hero” by de Blasio, gave an impassioned speech about the work that she and others in the cure violence movement do. “Part of this work, people have this notion that [ending gun violence] happens immediately,” she said. "It does not.”
Charles, who has also led Cure Violence work in other parts of the city, had been asked by de Blasio to explain how they convince “folks who are unfortunately caught up in a life of violence” to put their guns down. Her response, unedited, is below. If you want to watch the video, her response starts at 24:42.
Mayor Bill de Blasio: ... [Y]ou're dealing with folks who are unfortunately caught up in that life of violence and trying to pull them away from it. I've talked to some of the people who have come away from that life because of Cure Violence. But if you could talk about – just take us there, take us to the grassroots level, what it means to intervene with someone and help them to a different path. And what the challenges are with that is that?
Ife Charles: It's a layer. And I call it a layer, strategizing around helping someone who is in that mindset and it does not happen overnight. And so, identifying where or what those beefs are, what those current conflicts are, and then start to work with parties in those conflicts. Some of this stuff might be historical Mayor, some of it may be attitudes post-covid that we've talked about with the pandemic.
We're talking about a group of individuals, not many, who are struggling and for them, respond into conflict. The only thing for their attitudes to deal with this is to pick up a weapon. Our goal is to always have folks have conversations about what is driving this feeling and then within that process work with them. Because you can't just work with the individual, you have to work with the network.
So when we talk about strategizing, you can't just go out there and say to someone "put the gun down," because that's what people believe you automatically do. No, there's got to be layers of conversations. You have to understand where the source of the argument is coming from and once you understand where that source is, you realize the other parties.
Now, our credible messengers, there are some, I always say to folks, we have 36,000 police officers and about 300 cure violence workers, if you think about the ratio of cure violence workers to police officers, and the capacity of the area we're covering, at times, we have to go in and spend time with the individuals for them to trust.
You may have relationships with these individuals but at that particular time what they're experiencing, we may not be able to understand and it will take an opportunity for us to be there with them long-term and then that trust is built, and then we have other avenues to give to them.
Take my gun and do what? is the question that many ask. For us, take my gun and here's an opportunity for you, here is some mental health services, here is the opportunity for some job training, here's the opportunity for some long-term job employment, these are the things we're trying to get for our young people and individuals that are in these particular gangs or in these particular sets that we're working with."
De Blasio: I’ll just pull out one more point of this and tell me if you have this at the top of your mind or else we'll come back. I think [the] question is really important and really earnest to try and help New Yorkers understand, is there a specific example that sort of you've cherished of someone who was in the middle of that life of violence, who you witnessed the process of how they were convinced on a better path? Do you have an example in your mind?
Charles: I can speak to one of our staff and, I hope she's okay I'm going to use her first name, Faith. And this is how long sometimes this work, and we're in a situation right now where we need this to happen expeditiously, we have to think about how we do it because then people revert back.
Faith is a 30-something-year-old woman, but Faith was that person out on the streets years ago. When I was young, I was in my mid-20s or 30s, I'm giving my age right now, but part of that was that I had to work with Faith along with other individuals that were out there every single day, Mayor, running in my car to get her off street corners. It took years.
Even in that time, I remember when she turned and had her first child and she said to me “I'm not ready yet,” cause you can force someone to something and then revert back quickly. Ten years down the line, Faith is now an employee. She's actually working with us, but it took years of us having conversations and her doing trial and error. You didn't want to be in school, what is the alternative to that? What else can we do? Now you have a young woman who has said I don't want this life anymore, this is not what I want to do but it did not happen overnight.
If we're thinking that this is going to happen overnight, because we want it to, it's in our hearts, we no longer want shootings, we're telling everyone, put the guns down, but there's got to be some alternatives to that. That work happens every single day, you don't get a break from it. Changing the mindset of someone, you cannot get a break of it.
When I think of the work that we do, I think about Narcotics Anonymous. You have a sponsor and you're able to reach out to that sponsor. It's the responsibility of the sponsor to work with you continuously even when you fall. Because automatically when someone falls, we want to say they're out. That is not the attitude we have with this work because people are going to fall numerous amounts of times.
If I was to ask anyone in this room have you made mistakes, you have, but you've also had people around you to support you. That's what we're saying. We're not saying to give people free stuff, constantly, we're saying here is a model, here's a pattern and we mimic and model the behavior, Mayor. We've all been there. We mimic and model behaviors and allow them to be exposed. A lot of our young people have not been exposed to other ways of life. So our role in this work is exposing people to an opportunity other than what they know