“BLM. Really? Your own paper reports the ridiculousness of that acronym this morning. Three black men killed a black CHILD and her mother plus injured several others.... here in Richmond!!!”
The email arrived in the aftermath of Tuesday’s horrific mass shooting at a South Richmond apartment complex that killed Sharnez Hill, 30, and her 3-month-old daughter, Neziah. It was not the first time a reader scoffed at Black Lives Matter and questioned why I was writing about police misconduct when Black people in Richmond and elsewhere are killing each other.
Anyone who’d spray gunfire into a group of innocent bystanders and kill an infant is beneath contempt. Three men have been arrested.
“This is a tragedy that no community should have to experience,” said Mayor Levar Stoney. “My heart aches for our families. If you know anything, please say something.”
April was a particularly violent month in Richmond, with 10 homicides by the official count of the Richmond Police Department and at least 12 killings. That pace mirrors that of an era the city thought it had left behind, when triple-digit annual homicides were the norm.
If I had the solution to the complex issue of random violence in Richmond, I’d bottle it for every city in America.
As citizens, we have the right to demand that our public servants sworn to uphold the law are held accountable when they behave lawlessly. As journalists, our role is to challenge authority — particularly when it concerns institutions granted more power, immunity and impunity than is healthy in a free society.
But beyond lamentation, outrage and a sense of utter helplessness, what can I provide as a balm for the sort of unspeakable tragedy that occurred Tuesday? And how does that serve the traumatized people who are most proximate to that violence?
There is no more grotesque lie than the assertion that Black people are uncaring about the violence in their own communities. Each tear-soaked vigil is a study in their grief, pain and palpable rage.
“I’m pissed off. I’m mad,” Hill’s cousin, the Rev. Donte McCutchen, said at Tuesday’s vigil.
We all should be.
But too often, the homicide of African Americans at the hands of their own is viewed less as an American problem, to be addressed with resolve and compassion, than an affront to the majority community that Black people need to fix. Or a convenient tool to change the subject from unwarranted and disproportionate police violence against Black people.
Maybe that logic would fly if the same folks who rail about “Black-on-Black crime” were as vociferous about eradicating institutional racism, whose accumulated toll in no small way has contributed to the destructive behavior in our community. But Black people historically have been expected to fix racism, too.
The answers are difficult and complex, involving poverty, stunted mobility and breakdowns in the family, schools and social services.
The connective thread in the violence is the easy availability of firearms in our nation to violent, unstable and dangerous individuals. Richmond Police Chief Gerald Smith estimated that more than 50 shell casings would be recovered from the scene of Tuesday’s crime from at least three different weapons: an assault rifle and two handguns. But consequential gun regulation is a nonstarter in our political environment.
Our response to gun violence, in all communities, has been deeply unserious. We must turn rage and grief into action.
Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, offered a holistic solution during a recent Richmond Forum: healthy communities.
“I want to abolish crime. I want to live in a community where people don’t hurt each other because they’ve been traumatized and they haven’t gotten the treatment they need for trauma,” he said.
“Where people aren’t suffering from addiction and dependency without care and treatment. Where we respect one another and we don’t have to worry about the domestic violence that we see too often in our community. Where people understand that you don’t take from each other.”
“I want to live in a space where we respect one another. And when we live in that kind of community, we won’t need police, we won’t need jails and prisons, we won’t need the kind of apparatus that we have ... I think that’s what informs my thinking. I want to use a health care model to deal with many of the issues we see happening around us.”
As it stands, communities most plagued by violence too often mistrust the very police they must turn to for help. And each time a Black person kills another, they provide ammunition to those who would undermine a movement.
Until Black lives matter to all, this vicious cycle will continue.