For Abené Clayton, who covers gun violence for the Guardian, there’s been no way to avoid shooting after shooting: shootings at the hands of police, shootings at those Atlanta spas, at a grocery, at a FedEx facility. But it’s especially overwhelming because Clayton has committed herself to keeping track of all kinds of gun deaths—not just the ones that make national headlines. When I first spoke with her, she casually mentioned four people who were killed in an office building in Orange County at the end of March. Then she told the story of an 18-year-old named Demetrius Fleming-Davis who was killed by a stray bullet a couple of weeks back. Clayton wants you to know that behind all of the victims you know are so many victims you don’t. She worries about that, about the way it warps our understanding of how to prevent the next shooting and the one after that. On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Clayton about what she believes to be better way and more accurate way to have a national conversation about gun violence. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Abené Clayton: It’s tough. It’s been really difficult to keep track. I have a running tally in my mind, but in the past few weeks, it’s all become, frankly, a bit muddled and overwhelming.
We do not know most of the names of people who are killed unless you’re plugged in. I’m on a group on Facebook called Who Murdered My Child. People will post the names of their loved ones who are on a breaking news story that’s just described as “Man Shot on X Block.” Sometimes we’ll go back and identify a victim, but it’s so rare.
There are so many lies that we tell ourselves about shootings. There are still a lot of people who work under the assumption that gun violence just happens in certain places, that it’s happenstance, a byproduct of “choosing” to live in a bad neighborhood.
Mary Harris: Do you feel like Americans are being lied to?
I don’t think that they’re getting the full picture. I think if you want to call it a lie by omission, that would be perhaps fair.
The vast majority of gun deaths are going unreported on a national level. The reason many people felt like 2020 was a kind of “cooling off period” was that the shootings that did happen were the kind that don’t get a lot of attention—the result of community violence. These are the kinds of shootings that get covered by local news, and no one else.
You wrote an op-ed that pointed out that 2020 had more gun deaths than 2019—4,000 more. But there wasn’t a major news cycle about mass shootings because a lot of these shootings were at the community level, local, reported in this anonymous way where it’s impossible to say someone’s name if you don’t know their name.
Exactly. Rarely do we get enough information to do anything meaningful. I keep reiterating that that’s why it takes being plugged in with folks. I’m grateful to now have people who send me names and phone numbers and sometimes send them without me having to ask, because they know I do good and responsible work. But that is rare.
Is it a trust issue? What do you think about why these incidents don’t get the kind of attention that they may merit?
I don’t think so, because people want their loved ones’ names out there. There is this propensity for some reporters to ask about any possible criminal background of someone who is deceased, which in most situations I don’t see as being necessary but is a fair question to ask, and I have to do it sometimes as well. But sometimes there are reporters who season on sensationalism or will only tie these deaths to the increase in gun violence without actually just doing a story about the person. It might have been a shootout and someone loses their life in retaliatory gunfire, which makes people nervous. That person still lost their life and they can be written about and you can write about the complications that come with their death. You can ask those questions.
I wonder if you think about community violence and wonder whether it would be a double-edged sword these incidents got more attention, because you saw how Donald Trump referred to violence in Chicago, talking about gang warfare. That’s not the reality of what’s happening on the ground. It’s a racist perception of reality.
I think the racist perception is the key. If you want to talk about community violence—there are gangs, there are groups, and there are people who have beef with one another and deal with those beefs with guns—talk to the community about what kind of trauma that is. Talk to the schools, which have to deal with children coming in and being traumatized. Dig into what it is like and how it affects young people to hear gun violence, to hear about people being killed, to see on the news folks their age who look exactly like them being gunned down in places that they frequent. There are so many stories of resilience, of people taking this issue on their shoulders, using their dollars solely to make it right. If you start to dig in, in a way where you want to learn and not play into any negative stereotypes, I think it could be helpful. But saturating coverage with more of “gang warfare,” “Democratic-run cities burned to the ground with gun violence,” we don’t need any more of that. It is not helpful.
You talk about how suicides are a major driver of gun violence, but they often don’t get reported as such. You’ve also alluded to the fact that some places just wouldn’t report on suicides. Can you talk about why you think this obfuscation happens?
From my understanding, there’s a worry that talking about someone dying from suicide can spark something in someone who perhaps already suicidal ideation and push them over the edge. With that worry, there is also an acknowledgment that a lot of people in news are not equipped to talk about this in a productive way that we’re comfortable with. It just adds to a negative stigma that already exists. I think the numbers in certain places may have changed a bit, but mostly it’s middle-age or boomer-age white men in rural places who are dying by suicide. So few people know that. It’s out of that caution that people stay silent.
If we were able to reduce suicides and community violence, if we focused in on those issues in particular, do we have any idea of the scope of what we could do? Like, what would it change about gun violence as a whole?
Well, it would drop it dramatically. Two-thirds of gun violence is suicides. And after that is incidents of community violence. So, if we were to address these two main drivers, the drop would just be so dramatic. It wouldn’t completely eliminate gun violence, but I think we would start to see such a steep decline that people would ask, what is going on? Because these are the two biggest ways gun violence manifests itself.
This makes painfully clear that our current approach to gun control is not designed to stop these kinds of incidents. You’ve said community violence requires community intervention, and that thinking about gun violence as a physical and a mental health problem would go a long way.
Let’s say someone was shot. You may come to school and not know why you can’t pay attention. You may come to school and be irritated. In grad school, there was a shooting that happened right by my house, and I came to school the next day. If I’d been in elementary school, they would have probably sent me to the principal’s office because I was angry that day. I did not want to talk to anybody. In so many schools with young Black and brown kids, administrators see that as being defiant or disrespectful. So, there’s a lot of education that can happen for both teachers and young people: about the realities of gun violence and how it affects them when a young person is like, “I can’t sleep, I can’t do this, I can’t do that,” and they think there’s something wrong with them. If they already had that knowledge that gun violence affects you physically and mentally, then maybe they’ll be able to talk about it a little better. They’ll be able to express themselves more. But I don’t think that’s going to happen if we don’t have these clear conversations in schools.
You come to school, you’ve got your hood on, you’re mad. You don’t want to talk. You don’t want to do your work because you’re stressed. You’re sad, you’re angry, you’re confused. That is how a lot of young people have their first brushes with police. Sometimes the police are like, “We’ve got to keep an eye on this kid. Maybe we need to talk to juvenile probation about them.” And then that just pushes them more and more into the margins. It makes it easier for those influences that are in the streets to kind of grab them.
I saw that start to happen as soon as I was 12, in middle school. I saw it happen to kids who were my age, my peers. They start to get arrested because they come to school in that state, and now all of a sudden, they’re getting referrals and getting kicked out and getting arrested, and then they get sent to a continuation school and it just goes downhill from there. I see it happen all the time, and it continues to happen.
Let’s talk a little bit about who the violence interrupters are. You reported on one anti–gun violence program that seems to be working well in Stockton, California. Can you tell me what you saw there?
They reach out and target the people who are deemed the most dangerous, the “most likely” to be shooters, who may have done some shooting in their past—they offer them resources, they are very clear and tell them they cannot continue to live their life this way, and they try to teach them to value themselves. It’s not going in there with the scared-straight, you’re-going-to-end up-in-prison stuff. It’s teaching them that they have options, they have value, they can contribute to their community. They can live a full life. They don’t have to solve their conflicts with guns. The program gives them job placement opportunities, resources for mental health car and education, food in the refrigerator, perhaps transportation to and from their job, like a bus stipend. And the program targets the very small population in a city that’s responsible for the most violence.
It sounds like they’re just taking care of people. You have reported that once this group really got going, Stockton saw a 20 percent drop in gun homicides and the city calculated that it saved $42 million from not having to respond to reports about gunshots and people harming one another.
I think a lot of people may have heard of the violence interrupters in Chicago, but it seems like these programs have been going on for a really long time. And I can’t tell how effective they’ve been because, for instance, I look at Chicago and the gun violence has gone up. I guess I’m not sure what to make of it, and I’m wondering what you’d say.
I would say that the pandemic created some incredibly difficult circumstances for folks. I actually did a story about the rise in gun violence specifically in the Bay Area. What I heard from so many violence interrupters and people who are dedicated to youth development in was that the loss of in-person interaction just took such a huge toll. A main tenet of violence prevention work is showing up consistently for young people who have been failed by every system they’ve come in contact with.
So if you disappear, it’s a problem.
Yeah. Even if you slightly disappear, because everything has to be through text and Zoom, or because one violence interrupter is out with COVID … these programs are so small as is.
Are they scalable? They seem so based on individual relationships and individual communities. So I look at that and think, is that hard to replicate?
No, I think that the Stockton story that I did really shows that it is scalable. This is something that started in Richmond, California, has started also in Sacramento, where they saw similar returns. The Stockton one is showing a lot of promise. They’re opening another branch in a city called Woodland that’s very small but is dealing with a lot of issues of gun violence in a very small pocket of the community. If it’s funded correctly and if people have the right training, it can be replicated. Every city can have one that operates outside of law enforcement and that may not even be housed within a municipality but exists and is sustainably funded. It’s so possible. That’s something I would love to see. I think we have a growing body of evidence that proves when you get the people who were the problem at one point and, once they transform, put them right back into the community so they can see their younger selves in the young folks they work with and give them what the interrupters themselves needed when they were kids—it’s so possible.
I noticed that $5 billion in the infrastructure package is earmarked for programs like this. You mentioned how funding has been a challenge for these groups. Does this make you hopeful?
I think I am. It’s really easy to become cynical in this job because I’ve seen so many nonprofits that say, X amount of grant money is supposed to go toward this, and then the majority goes toward administrative costs. There’s so much red tape for these small groups that no one actually gets much of the money in a meaningful way.
But I will say, it’s unprecedented for me to even see a president talk about the fact that the burden of gun violence in communities of color is something that needs to be addressed at the federal level. I think that even starting that conversation has made people want to talk to me about it. I’ve been talking about this for the past couple of years. Now that it’s being discussed on this national and federal scale, people are interested. They want to know what’s going on. I think that presents a really excellent opportunity to do some of the myth-busting and debunking that I try to do in my work. And I think that the $5 billion, if it is passed, would be incredible.