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Compassion for violence’s other victims

Trauma survivors maligned by typically sensitive mayor

Mayor Tom Henry has been a strong supporter of the Center for Nonviolence and all that we stand for, and we are grateful for his compassionate leadership.

However, during his March 22 news conference, with Police Chief Rusty York standing by his side, Henry made an effort to assure our community members that we are safe because the homicide victims of 2013 were not like the rest of us. (On March 22, there were nine homicide victims. At this writing, there are 15.) Henry said that their cases “involved gangs, drugs or domestic violence.” And: “If you’re not involved in one of those activities, you should feel safe.”

We understand that Henry doesn’t want general panic, but we ask that he please not achieve this worthy goal by denigrating the victims of homicide. Our community will stand with you, Mr. Mayor, even if you don’t have all the answers. But please do not ask us – for the illusion of safety – to separate ourselves from the many thousands of brothers and sisters in our community who are survivors of these 15 homicides.

In Allen County there are more than 2,000 criminal filings annually for domestic violence, which represent probably 10,000 incidents of domestic violence in our community – if we include violence that goes unreported – every year. That is 100,000 every decade. Many homicides in Fort Wayne have been preceded by several reported or unreported misdemeanor-level acts of physical violence. Domestic violence victims read the headlines and know that homicide is a real possibility for their own future. The victims and survivors – predominantly women – who are under the shadow of domestic violence do not benefit from being disowned by their mayor and police chief. Their children are also victims of violence.

The children of gang members are victims of violence. The bystanders and neighbors who live next to a lethal shooting are in real danger, both from stray bullets and from the terrorism of anti-witness coercion. All children who grow up in a world where adults are afraid for their lives to serve as witnesses are victims of each act of violence. Everyone riding the bus from which a woman is pulled and murdered in plain sight is a homicide victim. The children on that bus may never again feel safe.

The direct and secondary victims of violence deserve all of our healing resources and future protection. We hope also that the voice of our people, the rising tide to demand accountability, does not drown our collective ability to extend compassion to those who perpetrate violence.

We at the Center for Nonviolence have worked with the young men who have been gang members, drug abusers and even drug dealers. Every child who comes to our youth program as a perpetrator has also been a victim of violence. Individually, they are often intelligent – even compassionate – individuals who have gotten caught up in a shadow system of illegal behavior, enforced by a street code that is founded upon retribution and terror. Often, they long to be free of their history of gang involvement but truly cannot see a way out.

They are unemployable because of their criminal records but also because we live in a world that does not have jobs that can support children and families. Almost without exception, these young men have been told from birth – maybe because of the legacy of racism, maybe because they come from poverty, maybe because they are alienated from school – that their very existence is a problem for society. These young men are “our” children. None of us should feel safe as long as any one of them is unsafe.

These young perpetrators and drug dealers are responsible for their actions, yes. But we, as a community, are responsible for how we address the violence that is epidemic. We are responsible for our collective failure to offer alternatives to people in need. We are responsible for choosing, as a society, to turn our backs on humane treatment alternatives in favor of military-, weapon- and prison-based interventions, which all the evidence says are ineffective at changing the culture of violence and may be part of the problem.

Henry and York are two of the finest, most compassionate men to have led our town. However, we would ask that they please choose their words carefully when seeking to bolster our sense of hope.

We can handle the truth. And we can be inspired to step up, with our leaders, to address the epidemic of violence.

John Beams wrote this on behalf of the Coordinating Panel and staff of the Center for Nonviolence for The Journal Gazette.