Homicides and violence: Moral crisis for our nation

Venita Haskins is grieving, again. She tragically lost her son, Damon Haskins to gun violence over Labor Day weekend in Brooklyn, New York. And she’s still grieving deeply the loss of her daughter, Tamecca who died by gun violence on July 4th weekend only a mile away.

On a typical day, 40 Americans are murdered. In 2013, over 14,000 people were victims of homicide. Like Damon and Tamecca, they are not nameless; they are our fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, children and neighbors.

After declining for a number of years following the crack-cocaine epidemic of the 1980-90s, many major urban areas are experiencing a sharp rise in rates of homicide and violence leaving behind grieving families, fearful and traumatized communities.

The U.S. has the highest murder rate among developed capitalist nations. While homicides occur among every sector of the population, (in 2010, 50 percent of homicides victims were white and 47 percent were African American) they disproportionately strike African American communities. In Chicago most homicides occur in racially segregated pockets of concentrated high poverty. 

African Americans are almost eight times as likely as whites to be homicide victims, and 12 times as likely to be murdered compared to other developed countries. Approximately 8,000 African Americans are murdered each year, 49 percent of total homicides. Since 1980, 260,000 black men have been murdered.

When a mass murder takes place like Charleston or Sandy Hook, it is a tragedy. The nation is shocked and grieves. But the violence and homicides occurring daily are also a national tragedy, a public health and moral crisis.

Aside from the attention generated by President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keepers” private sector initiative, public policy is not directed to stop the crisis. Like police murders of African Americans, unless one lives where higher rates of homicides occur, people often become used to the daily killing.

Capitalist ruling class and right wing propaganda daily bombards us with images criminalizing African Americans, particularly youth. Anti-black racist ideology convinces people, especially whites, that black lives don’t matter.

This is rooted in U.S. capitalism’s violent and bloody history of systemic racial oppression, stretching back to slavery and the genocide of Native Americans.

Racism and poverty, which are endemic to capitalism, are dehumanizing. Violence is a reflection of that oppression. In turn, racism justifies violent police repression, the death penalty and mass incarceration. The same anti-black “blame the victim” racism, which justifies police murders, also blames African Americans for the conditions that cause homicides and violence.

This is intertwined with the history of violence and militarization pervasive in U.S. society including the repression of the U.S. working class and its efforts to organize and imperialist wars of aggression.

When homicides get particularly bad, mayors and elected officials visit a neighborhood, speak at funerals and flood the community with police. The police chief makes a big announcement about some new strategy to end the violence, usually more aggressive policing. Then the cameras leave and the story recedes from the headlines until the next murder and the same thing happens again.

The cause in the spike in murders is complex and is sparking debate over how to address it. Some right wing commentators, academics and officials refer to the “Ferguson effect.” They assert the spike is a result of relaxing aggressive policing in response to protests over the last year against police killing of unarmed African Americans.

African American communities are on the horns of a dilemma – stopping the violence now often means demanding a greater police presence as the only seeming viable solution. Crime is real and law enforcement is needed to protect communities. But police departments too often respond with aggressive policing, become occupying armies leading to more abuse and killing.

Many communities are organizing “stop the violence” marches. Such efforts helped stem violence during the crack-cocaine epidemic of the 1980-90s and more recently. In some cities, most notably Newark under Mayor Ras Baraka, elected officials are rallying residents and adopting a community policing policy.

But working class and communities of color are up against much bigger forces impossible to fight alone. Some factors can’t be ignored beginning with the deadly combination of systemic racism and concentrated high poverty reflected in hyper segregation, joblessness, low wage jobs, underfunded schools, health care and affordable housing.

The proportionally higher rate of murder among African Americans and institutionalized racism, use of racial profiling and “aggressive policing” methods, mass incarceration and police murders of unarmed African Americans are part of the same history of racial oppression.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) and gun manufacturers are flooding communities with guns, reaping vast profits off the homicides. States and cities stand nearly helpless against the NRA’s ability to sway legislation and the courts with their deep pockets.

Life in American cities is shaped by massive wealth inequality and Neo-liberal policies of financialization, privatization and directing vast resources toward gentrification, creating playgrounds for the rich. Meanwhile, millions work low wage jobs without benefits.

Neo-liberal policies are like a hyena that descends on a wounded prey, in this case cities already hollowed out by de-industrialization, with millions of union wage manufacturing jobs outsourced and public sector jobs eliminated through austerity. This has disproportionately impacted the African American and Latino communities.

While the economy has improved somewhat, the recovery has bypassed the African American community where unemployment is at 10 percent (officially), double the national average. African American youth unemployment is officially 18 percent.

A true gage is the workforce participation rate – 61 percent of African Americans are employed or 38 percent are unemployed. In Chicago African American unemployment is 27percent and over 90 percent among African American male teens.

In Cincinnati Ohio, 76 percent of African American children 6 years and under grow up in poverty.

These dire conditions especially impact young people, cutting off routes to higher education, leading to hopelessness and alienation. Without options many youth fall into a life of gang activity and drug trafficking. With the flood of cheap weapons added to this toxic mix, violence and death are often the result.

These conditions are a fundamental challenge to our sense of morality and democracy. Radical reforms are needed beginning with funding for a massive WPA style jobs program to rebuild our infrastructure and construct environmentally sustainable communities and fund education, including free university tuition, mental health services, substance abuse counseling and cultural opportunities. Dialog is needed to break the social isolation with gangs.

At the same time, special additional measures are needed to target communities impacted by high concentrations of poverty and racial segregation.

It calls for changing policing policies, reformation of the drug laws, including legalization, ending mass incarceration and a mass movement to stand up to the NRA and gun manufacturers and impose stricter gun control laws.

There is much at stake in the outcome of the 2016 elections. The broad based people’s movement emerging must make ending homicides and violence, institutionalized racism and the dire conditions that help give rise to them a central aspect in the elections and beyond. It is the only way to achieve a just, peaceful, democratic and truly humane society for all.

Photo: John Minchillo/AP


John Bachtell
John Bachtell

John Bachtell is president of Long View Publishing Co., the publisher of People's World. He served as national chair of the Communist Party USA from 2014 to 2019. He is a regular writer for People's World, and active in electoral, labor, environmental, and social justice struggles. He grew up in Ohio, Pittsburgh, and Albuquerque and attended Antioch College. He currently lives in Chicago where he is an avid swimmer, cyclist, runner, and dabbler in guitar and occasional singer in a community chorus.