Avalos is the executive director of Verde, co-founder of the Black Millennial Movement and chairman of the Citizen Review Committee of Portland. A Portland resident, she also sits on the city’s Charter Review Board. his chronicle appears on the fourth Sunday of the month.
Bombed with numbers, statistics and stories about the value of brands and companies on people’s quality of life, we are at a critical juncture. It is undeniable that we are facing a gun violence crisis in Portland, reflecting a national push and causing fear, uncertainty and despair. At the same time, we must place this problem in the larger context of a global pandemic that has ravaged our communities, a toxic gun culture that permeates all aspects of social and political life in America, and the severe lack of opportunities available to many people, especially in black and brown communities.
As we continue to seek to fundamentally change policing and community safety, we must remain grounded in our values ââof justice while seeking solutions to our local crises. We cannot continue to look to the police and prison as responses to a crisis of gun violence rooted in social and economic causes. Instead, in times like these, we need to resist the same band-aid solutions that got us here in the first place and show our commitment to the hard work of long-term change.
First, it is important to understand that gun violence is a public health problem rooted in societal and economic causes and a history of community trauma. Research, including a 2019 study by an epidemiologist from Northeastern University, showed a correlation between low social mobility, income inequality, racial and economic segregation and other factors with a high incidence of gun violence. Other factors include structural violence, such as underinvestment in schools, health care and housing, coupled with the historic violence of the legacy of slavery and predatory housing and bank loans that have contributed to the ever-growing gap in income inequality.
The current story is that Portland needs 200 more police officers to answer calls and curb gun violence. But how will adding 200 more workers to the payroll make a systemic difference in tackling lack of access to health services or discriminatory housing practices? And how will 200 other officers make a difference now when there are over 100 vacancies the Portland Police Department cannot fill? Police make some people feel safe, but for communities most affected by gun violence, police reinforce the trauma, helping to criminalize black and brown Portlanders. Isn’t that what people all over the world marched against last year? We should not fool ourselves into thinking that adding 200 officers will be a quicker or more effective solution to our gun violence crisis than addressing the central problem of lack of opportunity.
So what are the solutions? Invest in community groups that meet some of the physical and social infrastructure needs that richer communities never have to think about. Reshaping a criminal justice system that has repeatedly inflicted a harsher form of justice on people of color than those who are white. Adopt different disciplinary models in educational institutions that emphasize restorative justice rather than simply expelling a student from school. Empower communities by reinvesting directly in their environmental environment, for example by creating more green spaces and cleaning up vacant lots, which promotes healthier activities. Hold the police accountable for institutional violence that has created generational prejudice and mistrust. None of these solutions are quick, but did Portlanders believe that dismantling racist systems would be?
The reality we face right now is that we need to completely overhaul the systems that continue to block opportunities for economic prosperity and upward mobility – which in turn fosters gun violence. And although it is easy to direct our anger at the local leaders who oversee the day–To–day services we rely on, we have let state and national leaders off the hook for the critical role they must play in solutions. When we talk about looking for upstream solutions, it also means looking at the upstream leaders of the political system who let our national infrastructure deteriorate and let our municipalities pick up the pieces and the blame.
It’s easy to get into a state of mind where we see a problem and think there is an equation that leads to a simple answer. Instead of resorting to fear and despair, we need to focus on a healing process that leads to a vision of a future where we all have an equal opportunity to prosper. It forces us to stop pointing our fingers outward and looking inward to dig deep and build a supportive environment. It is time to roll up our sleeves and ask ourselves how we contribute to the problems and therefore can also contribute to the solutions. The point is, the police will not crack down on violence in our communities. The real answers are long term and community based. Our thinking and support must be too.