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As Biden Pledges Police Funding to Curb Gun Violence, Activists Call for Community Investment

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Image Credit: LIFE Camp, Inc.

President Joe Biden has vowed to crack down on illegal gun dealers and to boost funding for police departments as part of an effort to combat a spike in gun violence across the country. Rejecting calls by activists to defund the police, Biden said cities could expand their police forces by diverting federal money allocated for the pandemic. He also pledged to strengthen enforcement of existing gun laws. The rise in gun violence can be traced back to “a lack of resources” in many communities, says Erica Ford, a longtime anti-violence activist in New York City and CEO and founder of LIFE Camp, Inc. “There’s no job opportunities. There’s no education opportunities,” Ford says. “These preconditions that we face in our community help the disease of violence rise to a level that is unaddressable at the time because we don’t have the tools and resources to address them.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Biden vowed Wednesday to crack down on illegal gun dealers and to boost funding for police departments as part of an effort to combat a spike in gun violence across the country. Rejecting calls by activists to defund the police, Biden said cities could expand their police forces by diverting federal money allocated for the pandemic. He also pledged to strengthen enforcement of existing gun laws.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Today, the department is announcing, as I just did, a major crackdown on — to stem the flow of guns used to commit violent crimes. It’s zero tolerance for gun dealers who willfully violate key existing laws and regulations. Let me repeat: zero tolerance. If you willfully sell a gun to someone who’s prohibited from possessing it, if you willfully fail to run a background check, if you willfully falsify a record, if you willfully fail to cooperate with the tracing requests or inspections, my message to you is this: We’ll find you, and we will seek your license to sell guns. We’ll make sure you can’t sell death and mayhem on our streets. It’s an outrage. It has to end, and we’ll end it.”

AMY GOODMAN: President Biden spoke Wednesday along with Attorney General Merrick Garland.

ATTORNEY GENERAL MERRICK GARLAND: The department is also strengthening our Project Safe Neighborhoods, our cornerstone initiative that brings together law enforcement and community stakeholders to develop solutions to pressing violent crime problems. Community-led efforts are vital to preventing violence before it occurs. The Justice Department has available over $1 billion in funding through over a dozen grant programs that can be used to support evidence-based, community violence intervention strategies.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by Erica Ford, a longtime anti-violence activist in Queens, New York. Queens is the most diverse borough in the country. Erica Ford is CEO and founder of LIFE Camp, Inc. She’s also co-creator of New York City’s Crisis Management System.

Erica, it’s great to have you with us. Thanks so much for joining us. Can you talk about what community-based anti-violence work is? And respond to what President Biden put forward yesterday.

ERICA FORD: Thanks for having me, number one. You’ve been doing great work for many years, and I love what you do.

Community-based violence is the people who are closest to the problem bringing the resolution and addressing it from the perspective of a holistic and comprehensive approach. And so, what we developed here in New York City was the New York City Crisis Management System. It is over 35 different sites, over 60 organizations, that co-produce public safety. And so, what does that mean? That means we not only take the gun out of the hands, that we help the people heal on both sides of the gun from the trauma of violence, that we deal with it from the perspective of response, recovery, mitigation and prevention.

And so, when you’re looking at the four buckets, all of the work that different organizations do, whether it’s after-school programs, whether it’s jobs, whether it’s community policings, whether it’s partnerships with clergy and organizations, whether it’s giving out food, whether it’s helping people therapeutically heal from the consistent presence of gun violence in their community, whether it’s working directly with the highest-risk individual and giving them a work plan that can — or helping develop with them a work plan that pushes them into another trajectory in life, and helping change community norms, so that when we see situations that will rise to an incident of violence, we immediately separate and intermediate and negotiate peace between those two individuals so that they don’t use a gun as a form of a weapon to heal, more importantly, that interpersonal trauma that they feel that causes them to lash out on other people. That’s one.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Erica, I’d like to ask you, as someone who has worked on this issue for decades, what you think accounts for the extraordinary rise in gun violence in the U.S. People have pointed, of course, to the pandemic in 2020 continuing into 2021 as one of the causes. But in many parts of the world — in fact, in the rest of the world — violence rates, crime rates remained stable or, in fact, fell during the pandemic, even where — places where the lockdown was far more stringent than anywhere in the U.S. What do you think explains this?

ERICA FORD: When you look at the pandemic and you look at the people who died the most from the pandemic and the “preconditions” — right? — the “preconditions” of violence is the lack of resources. So, when you have a 14-year-old young man get killed on a basketball court, and right across the street is a PAL center that is not open for that young man to go inside and play basketball, and you have two police standing on the basketball court with him, the precondition is that that community center wasn’t open. Before, after and during COVID, that community center wasn’t open. So there was no relief for this young man to go inside and play safe, right? There’s no job opportunities. There’s no education opportunities. So these preconditions that we face in our community help the disease of violence rise to a level that is unaddressable at the time because we don’t have the tools and resources to address them.

When we look at the '90s, when it was 2,000 people killed in New York City, and when we implemented this New York City Crisis Management System, we were able to bring it down to 789 people shot, right? And so — corrected: 290 people killed in 2017, right? And this happened because of the influx of resources on the issue. Although it still wasn't enough, we had resources at that time, that was never given, and a new dynamic, so people were up and eager and working hard, right?

And so, as the imbalance of resources and equity in resolving the problem didn’t rise, then the resolution that works can’t rise. And so, when you see a $6 billion police force, and you see a $43 million or $53 million New York City Crisis Management System, the equity — the imbalance doesn’t allow us to address the problem from the perspective of equity that we know will work.

And so, that’s why we met with Biden’s team, Ambassador Rice and Chiraag and all of the other — Cedric Richmond, and requested the $5 billion be put into the job plan, because we know, with the access to resources, our people can do the work that is working across the nation.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what’s also interesting, actually, Erica, is that while gun violence rates increased, other forms of crime, crime overall, including rapes, robbery, etc., actually dropped in 2020 in the U.S. by about 6%, which is one of the largest decreases ever. But, of course, gun sales went up exponentially, and, reportedly, more Americans were carrying guns with them during the pandemic. Could you comment on that?

ERICA FORD: Well, those crimes that you’re talking about — well, if people remember, in New York City, in particular, and in various other urban cities across America, on the Fourth of July weekend in 2020, there was fireworks like never before. And those fireworks were dropped in to these local communities. From where? We don’t know. And then we saw the influx of guns into our community. And as you stated, the one thing that sales rose was guns. And who is bringing them into our community? Who is putting them in the hands of our children? Who is putting it in the hands of these traumatized young men and women? And so, when we have an immediate problem, now I have a gun in my hand. And so, when I pop off, from my imbalance, from my trauma, from my pain, I have a gun that’s going to resolve this issue, because I think this gun is what makes me powerful. And so, we need to remove the guns from our community, and then we need to help people in communities heal from the trauma of gun violence.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about Biden’s history on policing. In 1994, he sponsored a sweeping crime bill, that many, including his own vice president, Kamala Harris, have said led to the mass incarceration of people of color. This is Biden back in 1993 in an archival clip that was unearthed during the presidential campaign by CNN.

SEN. JOE BIDEN: We must take back the streets. It doesn’t matter whether or not the person that is accosting your son or daughter or my son or daughter, my wife, your husband, my mother, your parents — it doesn’t matter whether or not they were deprived as a youth. It doesn’t matter or not — whether or not they had background that enabled them to have — to become social — become socialized into the fabric of society. It doesn’t matter whether or not they’re the victims of society. The end result is they’re about to knock my mother on the head with a lead pipe, shoot my sister, beat up my wife, take on my sons. So I don’t want to ask what made them do this. They must be taken off the street.

AMY GOODMAN: That was then-Senator Joe Biden speaking in 1993. In March, we spoke with longtime organizer and abolitionist Mariame Kaba, founder of the grassroots group Project NIA, which works to end incarceration of children and young adults. This is what she said.

MARIAME KABA: I always tell people that when we talk about prison-industrial complex abolition, we’re talking about a dual project. We’re talking about, on the one hand, a project that is about dismantling death-making institutions, like policing and prisons and surveillance, and creating life-affirming ones, putting resources and investing in the things we know do keep people safe — housing, healthcare, schooling, all kinds of other things, you know, living wages.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Mariame Kaba. As we wrap up, Erica Ford, can you talk about how you feel this country needs to move forward?

ERICA FORD: I think that in a crack epidemic in the '80s and ’90s, people never was able to transform. When I looked at all of my friends that died and got arrested and went to jail from the crack epidemic, I dedicated my life to doing something different. I dedicated my life to building a system and interrupting the cycle of violence that took place in our community. And with that, I gave birth to the New York City Crisis Management System, a system that works, a system that, if it's invested correctly, can really eliminate violence on a holistic level in New York City and be duplicated across the nation.

We have to believe that we have the answer, and our representatives have to believe in the people closest to the problem. In 1993, there was a mistake made. And in 2021, we have to correct that mistake by investing in the people who have the answer and the resolution, that needs the tools to go out there and face the issues of violence in our communities. We have the power to do it. We just need the resources and the tool, on a level of equity from the criminalization of our children in this America.

AMY GOODMAN: Erica Ford, I want to thank you so much for being with us, CEO, founder of LIFE Camp, a co-creator of New York City Crisis Management System.

Next up, over two dozen trans women previously detained by ICE travel to Washington to urge the Biden administration to end the detention of trans immigrants. Stay with us.

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