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Spike in Homicides Adds Urgency to Violence Prevention Work

It was just after 8 p.m. on February 15 when Robert McManus lashed out. The 21-year-old father was evidently going through some sort of episode, but he would never get the chance to explain himself; within minutes, McManus would be dead.

According to a police report, McManus was walking down Nathan Lane in north Charlotte when he smashed the window of an unoccupied car with his fist. He then approached a woman sitting in another car parked on the road and allegedly punched her in the face. The woman would later tell police she had never met McManus.

After the assault, McManus jogged down Gibbons Link Road, where he jumped on the hood of a passing car. According to the report, McManus smashed out the window of that car as well, at which time the driver shot him. McManus later died in the hospital.

The incident was the first in a string of homicides — 12 killings in 12 days — that put the city on pace to see its deadliest year on record. By the time February ended, the city would see 25 homicides in the first two months of 2019.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department Chief Kerr Putney released a statement on Friday, March 1, acknowledging the rash of violence and emphasizing that the killings had been especially hard to prevent.

“Sadly, most of the violent activity that we have experienced in our community has involved victims and suspects who are known acquaintances engaged in high-risk behavior or others who were involved in personal relationships that turned violent,” Putney wrote. “Despite monumental efforts, it is challenging for law enforcement alone to predict and prevent this type of activity. Public safety requires a shared effort between police, community members and our partners.”

Putney listed a number of actions CMPD has taken to curb the violence, including increasing the number of Crime Reduction Unit officers in certain areas, creating follow-up tasks for officers in response to shooting incidents to prevent retaliatory attacks and partnering with mental health professionals to form Community Policing Crisis Response Teams, which are expected to launch in May.

To make a real difference, however, the community has to get involved, as those close to the issue proved just last year.

It was just two years ago in 2017 when the homicide rate saw an alarming spike, similar to what’s happening this year. Charlotte saw 87 murders that year, the most since 1995. In response, the city launched JumpStart, a microgrant project that helped fund small nonprofits and advocacy groups working to prevent gun violence in the community.

Robert Dawkins (Photo by Hector Vaca)

Robert Dawkins, a community organizer with the SAFE Coalition, helped the city’s Community Relations Committee with outreach, finding where the problems were and who was working to solve them. Dawkins and fellow organizers canvassed neighborhoods up and down the socioeconomic spectrum, going door-to-door, visiting local businesses, asking residents why they thought violence had spiked.

“We brought that back and the city studied it and looked at it and they decided, ‘There’s all these groups that we know — grassroots groups, small nonprofits and advocacy groups — that have experience in the neighborhoods doing this type of work. We should start a mini-grant program so that they can build the capacity to do events, lectures, dialogue series, mentoring, all-around violence prevention.”

And that’s what they did. Offering $500 for a one-time event or $1,000 to run a program, JumpStart helped fund 60 local organizations in 2018, ranging from neighborhood associations like Belmont Community Association to youth groups like Ketchmore Kids to arts organizations like Creationz Gone Wild.

Each program or event focused on one of JumpStart’s five themes: conflict resolution and mediation, crime fighting and prevention, opportunities for youth and/or parents, family stability or addressing racial segregation.

Gary Crump is the executive director of Men of Destiny, an organization that received funding through JumpStart in 2018. Crump works on connecting community organizations with city officials. He used the JumpStart funding to hold a series of events in which young men and boys met with CMPD officers to discuss community issues.

Gary Crump (foreground) at a Men of Destiny event. (Photo courtesy of Men of Destiny)

While Men of Destiny continues to do the same type of work, Crump said the JumpStart funding allowed them to increase the engagement last year, taking young people to the CMPD training academy and hosting intramural events, for example.

“We did quite a bit with the CMPD to try to educate the youth and give them the perspective from the actual officers point of view, and then have the officers hear from the youth, which we don’t hear from a lot,” Crump said.

For Apryl Smith, founder of Affected by Eve, the JumpStart funding went toward t-shirts and materials for the students participating in her UpRoar Youth Advisory Council, which focuses on conflict resolution, peer mediation and communicating with adults.

More important to Lewis than the materials the funding bought was the message the grant sent to her students.

Apryl Lewis (Photo courtesy of Affected by Eve)

“When I applied for the grant, it was honestly just to show the kids that other people believed in what they had going on,” Lewis said. “I was able to bring back a check to them and show them that we got money, and that really got them focused and they took it a step further to get even more serious as far as the youth council. So that’s how I used the funding, to basically reinforce the work of the kids, so they could see that they can do whatever.”

In 2018, Charlotte’s homicide rate dropped more than 30 percent. Dawkins believes JumpStart played a role in that.

“We believe that it was a contributing factor for the homicide rate at least returning back to normal,” Dawkins said. “It wasn’t the whole thing. There was good work being done by Safe Alliance on domestic violence, and just the fact that sometimes there are spikes in homicides, but the community itself started getting invested and doing more work on homicide prevention.”

This year, the problem seems even more dire than in 2017. To put it in perspective, there were 15 homicides by March 1 of that year, compared to the 25 at the same time this year. Dawkins has paired up once again with the CRC, and will be hitting the streets to help get funding for the grassroots organizations doing the work on the ground.

On April 20, Dawkins and others will host a screening of Charm City, a documentary that depicts the on-the-ground efforts of city leaders and violence prevention advocates over three years of escalating gun violence in Baltimore.

The film won’t just be an education as to what happened in that city, Dawkins said, it will be an education about what needs to happen here. He and others will be canvassing neighborhoods in the lead-up to the screening to find the people that need to hear about JumpStart.

“We’re not showing the film just to show it,” Dawkins said. “We’re going to knock on doors and invite as many people from different communities that are experiencing violence to watch the film, but more importantly sign up and know the services that the city’s giving these smaller groups — this startup capital in support to use in the communities.”

Dawkins is also bringing in the Center for American Progress, a national advocacy group that works on social justice and economic issues, to help train the local organizations that want to help prevent neighborhood violence in Charlotte.

“When you do get people in the room, right now they’re speaking off of the knowledge that they have and emotions,” Dawkins said of the local grassroots organizers. “How can we develop these groups with more skills to do gun violence work? So we’re going to rely on our partner Center for American Progress, that has this experience to help us, offering webinars to these groups, information that they can give back to the community.”

A meeting of the UpRoar Youth Advisory Council. (Photo courtesy of Affected by Eve)

In the never-ending fight against violent crime, community organizers could use all the help they can get. Most people who aren’t affected by this wave of crime only see 12 homicides in 12 days as a statistic. They can’t grasp the ripple effect that each killing has on countless families, friends and loved ones, not to mention the community as a whole.

For organizers like Dawkins, whose SAFE Coalition focuses on varying issues including neighborhood violence, criminal justice and police accountability, it can be disappointing to watch the responses of the community when one issue overshadows another in the public eye.

For example, mainstream media will often make the reaction to a police killing a top story, while ignoring the daily work being done around violence prevention in the community. This allows police violence apologists who have never visited those communities to feign empathy for victims of community violence — or “black-on-black violence” as it’s often framed — while wrongfully claiming that organizers on the ground don’t care about those victims.

“The police accountability gets the attention, but this is the exact same model and methodology that we use on police accountability,” Dawkins said of his community violence work. “Our different issue with police accountability is that they’re the ones that are supposed to protect and serve us, and we point out when they do wrong and try to pass policy to fix that part of systemic oppression, but also, those same things that have police kill us are the same systemic things that have us kill us. We would be wrong not to work on both sides, but nobody sees that. They don’t want to see that — they mean to not see it.”

Those who mean not to see it mean not to help it, but those on the ground will continue the work regardless.

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