Last week the life of 9-year-old Travon Williams was celebrated in a unique way, a “Memorial Mob” was held in his honor at Lincoln Elementary School, where he would have been a returning student had he not been gunned down along with his father and a family friend in a triple homicide. His murder has served as the impetus for an impassioned cry by community members for safer neighborhoods in San Bernardino, my hometown. The memorial was led by the city’s Men Mob, a group co-founded by my brother Hardy Brown II, that welcomes students to various schools throughout the region, encouraging and inspiring them as they walk on campus. The Memorial Mob, however, included other members of the community and city leadership including Mayor Carey Davis and school district head Superintendent Dale Marsden as well as the Mom Mob, a female version of the group of mothers and women community leaders.
An innocent child who was shot to death walking out of a liquor store, Travon’s murder shocked a community that has had more than its share of tragedy and violence. It also forced them to act. According to law enforcement officials, detectives received dozens of anonymous and named callers who identified the shooter. Upon the arrest of Trayvon Brown, a known gang member, Chief Burguan said, “people are outraged over this, and this just goes to show that when the community gets involved and calls us with information, we can make an arrest and hold the person accountable for their crimes.”
But what about preventing violence in the first place? How can we save lives before they are endangered? How can stop violence in a city that is now known as one of the most violent in the state of California? I believe we turn to the community for answers. We listen to community leaders who are invested in our city and in our youth. We listen and we learn.
On Sunday I read a New York Times article “How The Most Dangerous Place on Earth Got Safer,” about the transformation of a Central American city I visited with my family three years ago during a time when it had the highest homicide rate of any city in the world. The article highlighted the U.S. funded programs that are focused on creating community partnerships, job training, and empowering community leaders. Many of these leaders could no longer stand-by and listen to the screams for help, they started doing the dangerous work of saving children from falling prey to gangs and engaging gang members in positive community activities as simple as soccer games. “If they play each other, they see each other less as the enemy. They say: When’s the next game,” one of the leaders was quoted as saying. This leader’s program, funded by the U.S., is housed in a building that had previously been used by gangs for torture and murder. Now it is known as the “House of Hope.” In the two years since the programs have been implemented, homicides have plummeted 62 percent.
Like these leaders thousands of miles away, Sergio Luna of the Inland Congregations United for Change and dozens of his interfaith clergy colleagues are bringing attention to the overwhelming number of violent deaths in San Bernardino. On Monday, they presented over one thousand letters of support in their effort to address the city’s lack of violence prevention and intervention programs, with funds approved by the voters a decade ago through Measures Z and YY. Funds which were to “be used only to fund more police officers and support personnel and to fund anti-gang and anti-crime operations, including drug resistance education and supervised after-school youth activities.” The intent was to enhance, not supplant, current spending on law enforcement and crime prevention programs.”
Mr. Luna is raising some important questions regarding how to halt the rise in violent crime in the city. Studies have shown that partnership-based violence reduction strategies that employ respectful and direct communication with law enforcement and other social service agencies help reduce violent crime and deaths. The city has had the mechanisms to fund them; now the city leaders just need the will to make it happen. If it is working in the most dangerous place in the world, I’m sure it will work here.