Community groups, parents, SPD chief meet to find solutions to gun violence
If the current trend continues, Seattle is on track to see a record breaking year of deadly shootings by year’s end.
“We are at the highest level in 11 years,” interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz explained Thursday, during a community round table organized by Omari Salisbury and Converge Media.
“We’ve had 329 shots fired this year,” he continued. “Let me put that in perspective: We had 332 all last year, and we still have two and a half months left — 130 of those shots fired are actually occurring in the south precinct. So almost 40% of the shootings are in one precinct alone.”
There have been 39 murders, which is much higher than in previous years.
“When it comes down to looking at who this affects, we know it affects Black males. Forty percent of our victims are black, and 78% are male, 45% are under the age of 30, and 62% of our homicides are related to gun violence,” Diaz said.
The SPD has recovered 2,300 shell casings so far in 2020, including over 70 near Emerson Elementary School in a shooting last week. Those are astounding numbers, according to Diaz.
The question is what to do about it.
“We’ve got to figure out ways to have solutions upstream of this type of work,” Diaz said. “I’ve prided many years of my work dedicated to that upstream work and trying to find ways that we do not have to arrest our way out of these issues. But I also know that at times, when we see this type of violence, we’ve got to also figure out how do we stop it, and there are some times where that’s where the police do get involved.”
It’s an issue Salisbury is all too familiar with, but until this year had basically gotten used to, as he explained in an interview in May following the murder of a friend of his own son.
“I’ve kind of been somewhat been indifferent, like, man, that’s too bad, you know, prayers to the family. We got to do better as a community. I’m ashamed of this murder because my son, Omari, was good friends with Connor,” Salisbury explained in May. “So now it’s impacted me. But in impacting me I thought, what about all these other young people who have died? I was like, man, I hope they be all right, hope the family is good. I’m saying I kind of feel ashamed of that.”
Following a deadly weekend of gun violence in the Rainier Beach area earlier in October that left two dead and several injured, Salisbury wanted to dig into the problem at the organized round table.
One of the first guests on the more than three-hour meeting was Alicia Dassa-Holland, whose 18-year-old son Connor – an honor student studying pre-law at the University of Washington – was shot and killed on Mother’s Day as he moved a car from a spot across from the family’s Rainier Beach home. In the nearly five months since, several other young people the family is connected to have also lost their lives to this year’s gun violence.
“I’m tired of funerals,” Dassa-Holland said. “I’m tired of balloon releases for birthdays. I don’t know what’s happening right now. I don’t remember a time where it was this bad. But I feel like right now as a community and as parents, I’m just at a loss. I’m at a loss for where we are, what we can do. It’s so overwhelming in the last few months.”
“You know, Connor was killed on Mother’s Day. We got to be with our boy. Most people don’t get that, and Jimmy and I were with him right after it happened. That is not something I wish on my worst enemy. That’s not something that you recover from easily, or ever. I’m not really sure,” Dassa-Holland said, noting what she does know is her son is gone but the family, including their other young children, are still here, and something needs to change.
In the days after Connor’s murder, which remains unsolved, Dassa-Holland, spoke at a vigil for her son, telling media on-scene that whoever killed her boy needed a hug.
Salisbury asked what she meant by that. Here’s what she had to say in response:
I think that kids right now are disconnected in some way from, from feeling empathy for other people from feeling important. You know, kids who feel important or people who feel important, they don’t take other people’s gifts away. You can’t take someone’s life if you feel valued and important, and so if kids are feeling supported and loved, and families are feeling supported, so they can be the best that they can be as parents to their kids, I think that changes the dynamic. I think it changes the respect that people have for human life. I think it changes the respect that people have for community.
If you find ownership in your community and you find, you know, even if you’re not feeling safe in one place, you know that there’s all these other folks that have your back. That changes something for kids that changes something for people in general. It gives you that power and that voice back that allows you to do positive things and allows you to share in joy and in success instead of going the other way.
The family lives in a tough neighborhood. It’s a community of color, a community that has been hit by a disproportionate level of gun violence, especially among the BIPOC residents. They felt safe in the neighborhood until what happened to Connor, a white teen who could not wait to give back to his community.
“Connor was the best brother, big brother and little brother,” said, Dassa-Holland, vowing her son and his legacy would not be forgotten. “He was a freshman at the University of Washington. He was studying to be a lawyer for social justice and equity. He loved Rainier Beach. He grew up here. This is where he wanted to be. This is where he wanted to come back to and serve the community as an adult. He had very different ideas about how the world should work, and he wanted to share that with everybody.”
“Connor’s legacy will move on with his siblings and with us and his friends, and we’re here we’re in it, and we want to do everything we can to make sure that other families don’t continue to feel the way we do. I just want it to be better,” he added. “I don’t know what that looks like … but, I’m willing to get dirty to figure it out.”
Donnitta Sinclair also joined the round table. Her 19-year-old son, Lorenzo, was shot and killed at the CHOP over the summer. The family also filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Seattle and King County for creating the dangerous environment at the former occupied protest zone on Capitol Hill. But, Sinclair says the conversation about what happened to her son and so many other youth of color is about much more than money.
“We need to put our priorities in order, put the money to the side, and focus on what matters, and that’s these kids’ hearts, that’s these kids’ mind, what they’re thinking, what they eat, where they’re sleeping, how they’re getting their income because these are good kids out here,” Sinclair explained.
“Like today, I talked to a young kid that told me, ‘Auntie, I put the gun down.’ And I felt like what I’m doing is the right thing when a kid tells me he’s done with guns. This is a kid that holds them [guns], a .9 millimeter, and he said he’s done. So I say well, then that means there is hope, but like I said, I can’t do it alone, we need some type of structured program to redevelop, reframe the minds of the pain that’s been caused,” Sinclair added.
Another mother, Tee Florence, who lost her son to gun violence in that same community just three years ago, stressed the importance of those in the community also taking responsibility.
“We need more support on the streets. I am very lost and confused with this young generation that they feel that it’s normal to go to a funeral every day. I want to change the generation’s mind – [tell them] that it’s okay to speak up. I’ve noticed that a lot of people know what happened to my son, but nobody’s willing to step up and say something. I think that has to do with the distrust with the Seattle Police Department. They are showing more loyalty to the enemy than they are to their brother, their best friend, their cousin, or whatever, they make these troops in these packs,” said Florence, whose son Stephen was shot and killed in 2017.
“It’s going on three years that I’ve laid my baby to rest, and people still know who did this to my child, and nobody’s speaking up and they’re not saying anything,” she added.
“It’s genocide,” said Devitta Briscoe, who has lost multiple loved ones to gun violence, including the 2010 death of her own son.
“That’s one of the things that I keep trying to tell people is that we’re not just afraid of the police killing ourselves, we’re also afraid of putting our kids on the bus and for them getting shot by one of their own peers,” Briscoe said.
Her message to parents in the community – be present, be a parent, and without apology, be intrusive.
“I’m an old school parent. I do room checks. You live here, I’m checking everything in this room, I’m checking backpacks, I’m checking all that. I’m checking who your friends are, unprotected social interaction is one of the contributing factors in my son’s death. My son knew that there were some people he could not bring around me and he didn’t bring them around me because I asked questions. I asked, who are you? Who is your mom? What school do you go to? I’m asking all of those type of questions, and this kid who shot my son was a kid I had never met, but people told me they were homies, they were best friends,” explained Briscoe, who has worked for over a decade to turn the tragedy into a way to help others in the community and stress the importance of knowing who your child is with and everything about that kid.
“I’m just one of the parents that, I don’t have to be your friend. We can be friends later. As long as I can save your life,” she added.
Various community groups also spoke during the round table, explaining that the best way to end gun violence is to give kids something to hope for, opportunity and a path forward, connecting them with legitimate ways to earn money and dream for what the future might bring.
Some members on the panel are set on defunding police and doing away the status quo in favor of investing much more in the Black community in general, but also in community programs such as CHOOSE 180 and Community Passageways, King County Credible Messengers, and many others so that regardless of what is happening in a kid’s life, they have a path to community, and know someone always has their back.
Chief Diaz agreed that there is definitely a need for more investment in communities of color, but also stressed the need for law enforcement to intervene at a certain point if a youth becomes a threat.
“I can think of hope, the mentorship, and reasonable people that are willing to step up and guide young people into hopefully making the right decisions and seeing that they can strive to a better future,” Diaz said in closing remarks.
“We have to be vulnerable,” Diaz continued. “We have to have these types of conversations with everyone in the room. We might see differently on some things but at least we’re willing to sit down at the table being vulnerable and that’s the only way we can grow.”
Salisbury said after the meeting, his biggest takeaway was that communities, families, and police are not that far apart on solutions.
“It’s the route that is in debate, but the destination is a common one,” Salisbury said.
If you want to learn more or be a part of the solution, you can watch the entire round table discussion hosted by Omari Salisbury and Converge Media here.