Part Two of a Continuing Series
Mayor Muriel Bowser’s new program aimed at addressing the District’s recently issued state of emergency regarding crime and violence in D.C., while praised as innovative by supporters, has been met with pointed criticism by others long engaged in efforts to make communities safer.
On Feb. 17, the mayor, with members of her Cabinet, D.C. Police Chief Robert Contee III, Director of Gun Violence Prevention Linda Harllee Harper and Councilmembers Trayon White (D-Ward 8) and Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), introduced the $15 million Building Blocks DC program. The initiative includes a gun violence prevention emergency operations center that will be housed in the Anacostia neighborhood of Ward 8 and uses city government workers to address ways to engage people and places most at-risk for gun violence.
“This is the first of its kind in the country using the public health approach,” Harper said. “We are focusing on people, places and process. We know that hurt people hurt people and communities. We plan to do this with a data-driven approach.”
The program focuses on 151 District blocks which represent about two percent of the city’s blocks but 41 percent of violent offenses where guns have been fired. The targeted blocks will be scoured to zero in on areas known for extensive gun violence in efforts to reduce the disturbing rise in homicides.
Those identified as at-risk for being either a victim or a perpetrator of gun violence will be engaged by the Building Blocks DC staff for programs dealing in trauma, violence prevention, job training and procurement, housing and neighborhood infrastructure. Two advisory groups will be created — one dealing with science led by Mannone Butler and the Rev. Dr. Roger Mitchell Jr., the other focusing on the community shepherded by activist Tony Lewis and the Rev. Donald Isaac.
Program supporters believe it will lead to more positive outcomes those who are confronted with incidents involving the use of guns by providing government resources to help them overcome financial and emotional challenges they face.
Jury Out on Impact of Building Blocks DC
White voiced his endorsement for the program, labeling it as a start, while Allen expressed excitement.
“This is a big deal and an incredibly important step for our city. This can absolutely save lives,” Allen said.
Contee, who has voiced his support of Harper, said, “this is what many people in the city have cried for.”
Ronald Hampton, a retired police officer who works as a criminal justice and security consultant and serves on the District’s Police Reform Commission, said Building Blocks DC “is an interesting concept.”
“This will be a good program if Harper has what she needs to make it work,” Hampton said. “The emergency center could be a good thing as a single place where people impacted by gun violence can go for resources whether they have been the victims of crime or perpetrators.”
Alternatively, some activists remain unconvinced that the new initiative will prove effective.
The Rev. Steven Young of The House of Praise in Northeast has become known throughout the city for putting the funeral programs of people who have died from gun violence on the walls of his church. He believes incarcerating youth involved in gun violence may be the best way to deal with the problem.
“Even those who used to be on the front lines are afraid of the youngsters,” he said. “There are a whole lot of parents who are afraid of their children. The only way a lot of these children can be disciplined is if you lock them up.”
One longtime Ward 8 violence prevention activist, the Rev. Anthony Motley, said often the government exacerbates the problem.
“The government has to get out of the way,” Motley said. “Officials think they know so much but they’ve failed to realize that if they are going to do this thing, the government is not the player. It is a team effort with the faith community. My old professor used to say ‘teamwork makes the dream work.’”
Roach Brown, a prison reform advocate who regularly interacts with at-risk youth, identifies “jobs, jobs, jobs” as the solution to gun violence in the District.
“Jobs reduce crime; jobs also improve public safety,” Brown said. “We need jobs. This is an all-hands-on-deck issue. Folks have to drop their attitudes and egos. We have to come together. This is about saving our race.”
Some citizens say they’re dissatisfied with how the mayor has approached the problem of surging gun violence.
Kemi Morten, president of the Bellevue Neighborhood Civic Association, questioned why Bowser put the program in Anacostia when her neighborhood, also in Ward 8, has been plagued the most by homicides.
“Anacostia is a gentrifying neighborhood but we, in Bellevue, are the ones dealing with gun violence every day,” Morten said. “Plus, why didn’t the mayor come to us about this program before she made this big announcement? While this program sounds good, it won’t mean anything unless the people in the community support it.”
Former Ward 8 advisory neighborhood commissioner Christopher Hawthorne dismissed the Building Blocks DC program, refusing to take it seriously.
“This is just a publicity stunt by the mayor,” he said. “We need to remove guns from people’s hands and get them off the streets. Educational resources and job opportunities should be provided to the impoverished people who live here. However, I am afraid it may be too late to change things.”