I was recently robbed at gunpoint. That experience has raised many personal and political questions. Progressives believe that every person deserves to be safe and protected in his or her community. But as the violent crime and robbery rates skyrocket across the country, can we craft an inspired policy agenda driven by politicians with the heart and will to stop the cycle of violence?
Those were the central questions behind the recent PAC+ gathering “Peace in the Hood, Power at the Polls” held in downtown Oakland, California. Oakland is the perfect lab to examine the solutions to community violence because it has both a long history of progressive activism and the dubious distinction of being named the nation’s robbery capital.
For many of us, the call for a political solution is driven by personal experience, shared by those attending this diverse gathering. One out of 91 Oakland residents was robbed last year. Stories abound. One older woman told of being robbed on her stoop in the early evening, another young man experienced a rash of car break-ins. Still others shared their experience getting cell phones snatched, and the regular gunshots that echo near their home.
I’d had my own recent brush with violent crime when my friend and I were held up at gunpoint near my home by three young men. After the initial shock, and weeks recovering my voice and sense of safety, I reflected on what that experience meant for my hometown, Oakland. I wondered what had happened to those young men in hoodies that led them to commit the crime in the first place.
In the face of this kind of trauma, and generalized fear in the city, there is a marked tendency to turn inward or to be consumed by a powerless feeling of frustration. In Oakland, some invest in short-term fixes like the private security companies selling safety to neighborhoods who can pay a premium. Some call for more police as a panacea, when the local police department is fraught with misdeeds and cost overruns. Others call for youth curfews and stop and frisk policies.
But the Oakland leaders that gathered to discuss peace in the ‘hood saw another possibility. To double down on the commitment towards the community, young people and safety. To demand that elected leadership be held accountable to proven policy approaches to safety.
There are progressive polices being adopted in other cities that may inspire local action to deal with violence. For example, in Sunnyvale, a Silicon Valley city south of Oakland, voters passed a law that requires reporting of ammunition sales, requires gun owners to keep their weapons under lock and key, and requires reporting the theft of a firearm within 48 hours. The National Rifle Association is threatening to sue. The law goes into effect January 2014.
Street violence is a regional problem. Lax gun control in neighboring states makes stolen and unregistered guns easily available. The guns on Oakland’s streets and used in California crimes can be traced to purchase in Nevada, Arizona, Texas and Florida, according to a UC Davis study State legislation making private sales by unregistered gun dealers illegal could cut into the easy movement of guns into cities.
Nationally, groups like Progressive Majority are battling the National Rifle Association who uses its tremendous lobbying power to kill or gut gun control legislation. NRA and their ilk promote gun ownership as a path to safety in communities that are suffering from violence, especially in the wake of tragic school shootings. President Gloria Totten, one of the guests at the gathering, calls the struggle for gun control a war of words and perception. Her organization has crafted a free downloadable guide for advocates and politicians to convince swing voters to support gun control measures.
The conversation about solutions is just beginning. The PAC+ gathering on progressive solutions to violent crime has sparked an interest in deeper examination of local and state models - and talk of partnerships with local community and church organizations working everyday in the neighborhoods. Early next year, as the local and state races begin, we’ll gather again. We’re doubling down on community safety while staying true to our progressive ideals.