In addressing the shooting deaths of three women in Dorchester last weekend, the Rev. Jeffrey Brown, executive director of the Ten Point Coalition, said at a community meeting Wednesday night, “We need a cultural game changer.” The next day at another community meeting, he exhorted, “A line has been crossed!”
For many, the killing of three women at once is unprecedented. But Brown’s words were themselves a tragedy because nothing thus far has truly changed the game. The cycle of gun tragedy is the cobra that will not die, from 12-year-old Darlene Tiffany Moore in 1988 to 9-year-old Eric Shepard and honors student Louis Brown in the 1990s, from 10-year-old Trina Persad in 2002 to the 2010 Mattapan massacre that claimed a toddler. Now, once again, there are community meetings calling for unity and courage, rallies against violence, and nightwalks telling perpetrators who owns the streets.
What is tragic is that Boston has been as good as it gets in dealing with violent crime, with one of the lowest per-capita murder rates in the United States.
The Ten Point Coalition, the Nation of Islam, and other community groups worked with the police to create a climate where several years passed in the 1990s without a juvenile being killed.
So the fact that it is Boston doing the handwringing this week is a supreme sign of how it is not just the culture of an inner city community that is out of control. It is the culture of America.
It is instructive that the killings came on the heels of the Aurora movie massacre in Colorado and the massacre at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Men — and it almost always is men — who are mentally disturbed, filled with racial or religious hatred, or filled with hopelessness and despair, have easy access to guns to settle their gripes and disputes.
The shootings in Boston have ministers bemoaning the rot of black culture from within. But black folks are mere outliers in the most violent developed nation in the world. It is a result of, as James Baldwin once wrote, a national “moral apathy which pretends it isn’t happening.”
We pretend whenever we say a shooter in a massacre “acted alone.” We pretend by blaming the one-by-one killings in inner cities on single mothers who don’t know where their children are. We pretend by not dealing properly with racial hatred and religious bigotry.
The biggest pretense of all is that we as a nation can live peacefully with guns. Boston’s relatively low murder rate in a state with some of the nation’s strongest gun laws could be lower still if handguns were not so easy to purchase in other states. After one of the community meetings at the Twelfth Baptist Church, Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley said, “I’d like to think of myself as an optimist, but it will be very difficult to drive the murder rate down much more unless we have uniform laws. When we have to go up against the National Rifle Association and a dysfunctional Congress, it’s really hard.”
Brown is correct that we need a cultural game changer. Some solutions undeniably must address problems that disproportionately afflict low-income African Americans. For instance, the Boston NAACP Friday called for a “unified strategy” to attack the root causes of violence, such as “poverty, unemployment, a flawed public education system, broken families, and untreated mental health conditions.” It is now abundantly clear that any such coordinated effort would have to be institutionalized to a much more serious degree than what became nationally known as the Boston Miracle of the 1990s.
Just as important, the NAACP said that one of the major issues that need to be addressed is “the availability of guns.” That is an issue not just for aggrieved black Boston residents. The proliferation of guns starts at the top, with Congress and the presidential candidates politically fearing the NRA, just like inner city residents fear gangs.
All the strategizing by community groups about urban violence will mean precious little until the NRA is shamed into a compromise on gun control. Reducing guns will not in and of itself end the desolation, hate, or insane impulsiveness behind a violent act. But it sure will bring down the level of carnage. In America, that alone would be cultural game changer.