A public health emergency of gun violence has been surging across the country, which has been both overshadowed and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Violent crimes sharply increased as the virus spread, with rates of gun assault over the summer as much as 16% higher than they were in summer 2019. In some cities, such as Nashville, Tennessee, firearm homicides increased nearly 50% from March through September of 2020 compared to the same time last year.
The parallel public health emergencies of the coronavirus and gun violence epidemic have shone a spotlight on some of the glaring inequities faced by Black communities and the disproportionate harm they suffer as a result. But in the face of these grim realities, grassroots advocates—Black women in particular—are working harder than ever to implement violence prevention and intervention programs.
Since losing her only son to gun violence in 2003, Clemmie Greenlee has devoted herself to promoting peace to Nashville’s communities of color through unconditional love. She founded Nashville Peacemakers, which has a two-fold mission: to foster a sense of self-worth and hope among young people in the community, and to support those who have experienced gun violence. The organization includes programs like Back to Basics and Straight Talk, which provide guidance to young people as they navigate the tumultuous years of adolescence, and Mothers Over Murder, which offers grief support and counseling for parents who have lost children to violence.
For Greenlee, this is more than work; it is a calling, and her drive to answer that call sets Nashville Peacemakers apart from a lot of other organizations. “All the things I deal with are personal to me,” she explained. “This was my life experience that brought my intervention, that brought about this organization.” Her leadership is informed not only by the loss of her child, but also her own encounters with drug addiction, homelessness, sex trafficking, and other challenges.
Rasheedat Fetuga, a former teacher in Metro Nashville Public Schools, was also moved to step into grassroots advocacy by personal tragedy. Fetuga co-founded Gideon’s Army alongside one of her students to memorialize the student’s brother Lamar Hughes, who lost his life to gun violence. Named for the unexpected biblical hero, Gideon’s Army is made up of children, families, and community members affected by the school-to-prison pipeline, making their dedication to Nashville’s youth not just a matter of politics, but a matter of the heart.
As the Gideon’s Army website explains, the 37208 zip code of Davidson County, which includes parts of Nashville, has the highest incarceration rate in the country. The dedicated members of Gideon’s Army are working hard to protect the future of Black children, by dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline through restorative justice work, which offers creative pathways to success for youth to interrupt cycles of violence. In 2019, the organization launched its Violence Interrupters program, which, inspired by the Cure Violence public health initiative in Chicago, approaches gun violence as a contagion that is spread through exposure. Violence Interrupters help limit this exposure by being present in Nashville neighborhoods, and available as needed to de-escalate growing arguments, offer support to victims’ loved ones, and prevent retaliatory shootings.
These Black women-led organizations have devoted years to interrupting the cycle of violence in Nashville, which has been fueled by generations of poverty, systemic racism, easy access to firearms and under-resourced public education and services. However, the root causes of violence run deeper than any one organization can repair. In order to seriously address gun violence, public health organizations and political leaders must do their part to engage impacted communities—especially the Black and Hispanic communities that are being harmed at disproportionate rates—in dismantling structural inequities that fuel gun violence, ensure consistent funding for violence intervention and prevention programs, pass comprehensive gun safety laws, and implement them using procedurally just policing practices.
To their credit, some are trying. During Tennessee’s 2020 legislative session, state Sena. Jeff Yarbro and Rep. Harold Love, Jr. co-sponsored a bill to create a special violence intervention program within the state’s Office of Criminal Justice. Through this bill, SB 2046 in the Senate and its House companion HB 2104, funding would be provided to community-based violence reduction programs, such as Nashville Peacemakers and Gideon’s Army. Unfortunately, this bill, which would have provided crucial support to groups on the ground, did not pass the Senate.
State lawmakers will have another opportunity in the upcoming 2021 legislative session to reintroduce and advance this urgently-needed bill. Tennesseans must call upon their elected officials to address the growing public health threat of gun violence by supporting community funding legislation like SB 2046. It is long past time for state lawmakers to open their eyes to the devastating effects of gun violence on communities of color. Tennesseans like Greenlee and Fetuga are working hard to protect their community; now it’s time for meaningful policy reform to ensure their work is adequately supported.