A very American form of essential work: Gun-violence prevention

Brian Muhammad has been glued to social media since the coronavirus pandemic swept over his home town of Stockton, California.

Since the state’s lockdown went into effect, he’s been monitoring Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat for brewing conflicts. Everyone’s nerves are frayed by uncertainty, scarcity, and fear, which could make city residents all the more vulnerable to the epidemic of gun violence that Muhammad spends his days trying to stanch.

“We've seen more potential violence [since Covid-19] that we've had to get in front of – a lot more,” says Muhammad, who is the program director with the Stockton branch of Advance Peace, an organisation that seeks to de-escalate conflicts and ensure they don’t end in bloodshed. “Our work has increased, definitely.”

Advance Peace is part of a larger system of public and non-profit programs that seek to interrupt cycles of violence without recourse to law enforcement. During the pandemic, Muhammad, his co-workers, and their counterparts in cities across California, have been declared essential workers, and their services have proven as necessary as ever.

When they get wind of a potential conflict, they try to intervene as quickly and respectfully as possible. A “neighbourhood change associate” – a credible messenger who usually has a past experience of violence and background in the community – will be dispatched to navigate the terrain between the two sides. They’ll talk with friends and family, and try to get to the antagonists and talk them down before the worst happens. Once they get to know the people involved, and win their trust, they try to connect them with services like cognitive behavioural therapy.

It’s still too early to say what, exactly, the relationship between the pandemic and gun violence will be in US cities. The federal government does not supply reliable month-by-month data on shootings across the United States, and only some city police departments release such numbers to the public. The Trace, a newsroom covering gun violence in the country, reports a 6% increase nationwide in comparison with the available data during the same time period in the last three years. Shootings in many US cities, including Philadelphia, Chicago, Dallas, and Oakland, have remained persistently high during lockdown. In others, like New York, they have fallen.

Even under normal circumstances, gun violence takes a consistent, harrowing toll on many American neighbourhoods, particularly in hyper-segregated black and Latino communities, where the formal economy offers fewer opportunities and public infrastructure is weakened by years of private-sector divestment.

“The communities that are being hit hardest by the pandemic are the exact same communities that are at greatest risk from gun violence,” says Elinore Kaufman, a doctor who surgically treats physical trauma and studies its causes at the University of Pennsylvania. “These are the exact same communities that are most affected by an overall lack of resources and lack of societal investment. This crisis just reveals and amplifies what was already going on.”

In Stockton – a post-industrial corner of the San Francisco Bay Area with a poverty rate of more than 20 percent – Muhammad and his team usually already know the people likely to be embroiled in a potentially deadly conflict. As in most American cities, a tiny portion of Stockton’s population accounts for much of the gun violence. Some anti-violence advocates refer to this sliver of the population as the “one-percenters.” They are the most likely to shoot or be shot, and therefore the ones who need the most attention. 

An anti-violence protester in Chicago. (Jim Young/Getty Images)

Advance Peace and its allies in government think that part of the reason for the uptick in violence in some American cities during the pandemic is that while a lot of the people are staying inside, the one-percenters and their social circles are less likely to do so. With fewer people on the streets, they are easier targets. (New York, where gun violence is down, is also the American city hit hardest by the pandemic, which Kaufman suggests might mean there is an inflection point beyond which even the most at-risk are less likely to go out.)

“Now everybody else is staying at home, so if you're outside, you stand out like a sore thumb,” says Sam Vaughn, program manager for the city of Richmond, California’s Office of Neighborhood Safety. “You can't hide in crowds. You can't hide in traffic. And I know where you're going to be. All I gotta do is be patient and wait it out. I'm going to see you, I don't need to get lucky, I just got to be patient.”

The extreme social and interpersonal tension that can be brought out by the pressures of the pandemic may also be exacerbating the causes of violence. Murders in American cities are not usually the result of gang wars or other kinds of organised crime, but are more likely to stem from personal conflicts where outside authority is not trusted to intercede. 

“Most of the time when there's violence, it’s often retaliatory, even if it's not gang violence,” says Khaalid Muttaqi, chief operating officer with Advance Peace, and former director of Sacramento’s Office of Violence Prevention.

“If I find out about a domestic violence situation with my sister, I want to do something to that guy,” says Muttaqi. “Or If I’m mad because he's dissing me on social media. Or he shot my cousin two years ago. Matter of fact, I know where he is now, because he can't go anywhere. So I'm getting ready to roll up on him.”

All of the Advance Peace workers interviewed for this article say that insults on social media are spilling into real-life bloodshed. That is a troubling dynamic during normal times, but these days they say it's grown even worse. With less to do, social media is being used even more heavily – hence Muhammed’s constant vigilance over Instagram.

“Most of the time, people that we're watching are people we already know,” says Muhammad. “We do try to stay abreast of the people that we've highlighted to be prone to gun violence, and we'll follow them. It's not a secret that we are following them, we try to befriend them.”

But even as demand for their anti-violence interventions is remaining persistently intense, these essential workers are also taking on more duties. Even before the lockdown, Advance Peace workers across California realized that the low-income black and Latino communities they operate within would be especially vulnerable and that they were uniquely situated to lend assistance.

In many of these communities they are known figures, respected by both those they are trying to help and their loved ones. People like Muhammad are leaders. They are distributing resources and, in areas where trust of public officials and the medical establishment is low, preaching the realities of Covid-19.

“They're going way beyond their job description, they're giving out food, they are delivering supplies and shelter-in-place orders,” says Jason Corburn, professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning and School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley. “They're also doing things that didn’t use to be the focus of the program but are critical now, like domestic violence conflict resolution.”

Corburn is part of a team of UC Berkeley researchers who are evaluating the Advance Peace strategy.He is extremely familiar with the work, but he’s never seen anything like what they are doing now.

“These guys are stretched real thin,” he says.

There are limits to doing more with less. As state and local budgets contract under the shock of the pandemic’s economic effects, austerity could threaten the programs – which are often politically controversial. Budgetary reductions could also worsen the plight in the communities Advance Peace serves, heighting the stressors that can escalate conflict. 

For now, though, Muhammad and his team are working extreme hours to keep up with their heavier-than-ever workload. They see their efforts to bring food, medicine, and protective gear as a means to alleviate some of the stressors that come with sheltering in place.

The Advance Peace office is mostly empty now, of course, although Muhammad still comes in every morning at the usual time in case anyone comes by in need of services. The team has tried to replace as many in-person meetings with Facetime or Zoom calls, but much of their work is unavoidably personal. When they are in the field, Muhammad’s guys try to practice social distancing as much as they can.

But he isn’t under any illusions: Their job is more dangerous and more necessary than ever.

“I have to commend them for their bravery and courage and just having a love for their community,” says Muhammad. “We are trying to mediate in the middle of gunfire and now with the added stresses of potentially coming down with the coronavirus, and maybe taking it home to our loved ones. These people are putting their life on the line.”

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer for CityMetric.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.