In the empty gym of a community center in Brownsville, Brooklyn, a small group of local residents in hunter green polo shirts and jackets read out some numbers.
“Sixty-four days, no shootings. Nineteen days, no killings.”
“Three days, no shootings. Three hundred and 10 days, no killings.”
And on it went, around the room.
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In this part of New York City, a day without a gun death isn’t taken for granted. Brownsville and its surrounding neighborhoods have long been plagued by gang violence, gun deaths and police brutality. And like most other cities in the country, some crime statistics, especially homicides and assaults, have been increasing this summer – with murder up by 50% in the city this year, the highest it’s been since 2014.
Those sitting in the gym that day, a community anti-violence street team with the non-profit ManUp Inc, know this intimately. They spend their days meeting with people in their catchment areas, meeting neighbors and trying to mediate conflict.
But they said what they experience every day feels far removed from the narrative being espoused by Donald Trump, who, in recent weeks has blamed every issue of increasing violence on Democratic leadership and protests against police brutality. This week, his justice department even released a list of cities it deemed “anarchist jurisdictions” – a list which includes New York, Portland and Seattle.
As many experts have pointed out, these claims are baseless: big American cities are largely run by Democrats, with only few under Republican leadership, making comparisons almost impossible, and the increase in crime has hit Republican areas too. Meanwhile, the large majority of the anti-racism protests have been peaceful.
But Trump’s “law-and-order” narrative is now successfully deepening political fissures in the country, without addressing the actual issue of community violence at time of a pandemic which has cost 200,000 American lives, an economic collapse that has killed millions of jobs and widespread civic unrest.
“Folks have been losing a lot – jobs, housing, their loved ones,” said AT Mitchell, the founder of ManUp. “You’re going to see a lot of rhetoric and hype between the GOP and the Dems. But we’ve been unable to properly grieve.”
Crime in US cities has been steadily trending down in recent decades, even with prevalent mass shootings and gun violence. This year, however, is an anomaly. At the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, as cities such as New York and Chicago went under various types of lockdown, certain types of crime – murder and burglary – dropped precipitously.
A worker grasps a piece of wood for a project in a church in Brownsville. Photograph: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images" src="https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/U0kjD.7g9lobVVx9yCVEaA--/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTcwNTtoPTQ3MC45NA--/https:/media.zenfs.com/en-GB/the_guardian_765/f2ec03fa36749deb2180c33486d5753c" class="caas-img" />
Then, as the summer started, things changed.
“What we’re seeing in the US is a lot of communities under significant stress related to Covid and the economy. Stress causes violence to get worse,” said Charles Ransford, the director of policy and science at Cure Violence, an international anti-violence organization which has been credited with driving down gun violence in Chicago by more than 30% in 2008 by treating is as a disease.
In a report of 27 large cities in the US, researchers found that aggravated assault rose by 35%, homicides by 37%, and commercial burglaries saw a 200% spike in May and June, and then a quick drop right after. This applied to Democrat- and Republican-led cities, such as Jacksonville, Florida, Fort Worth, Texas, and Lexington, Kentucky.
Richard Rosenfeld, the lead author of the report, said the pandemic was at the center of the increase in violence. The virus has affected every segment of society, he said, including police forces, many of which have changed the way they carry out their work because of social distancing or quarantine. “If you reduce police contact with the public, you will get some increase in crime,” he said. That goes for red and blue cities alike, which Rosenfeld said utilize law enforcement largely the same way.
But there are also some more reliable criminological factors that apply even outside a pandemic year. For one, homicide rates almost almost go up during the summer, and this summer had the added phenomena of people leaving their homes after being cooped up for months.
“There’s no refuge, there’s no way out,” when people are stuck at home, said Shnequa “Coco” Purvis, one of the community outreach workers with ManUp, whose sister was killed by a stray bullet in her Bed-Stuy neighborhood some years ago. She blamed “boredom and isolation” for the violence in her own community, adding that some people living in unstable home situations, or with abusive family members.
Crime almost always increases when more people are interacting, which happens when the weather warms up, or when more people are together at gatherings such concerts, parades, bars, and, this year, the hundreds of protests that broke out after George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis.sonos sonos One (Gen 2) - Voice Controlled Smart Speaker with Amazon Alexa Built-in - Black read more
“In the past patterns in crime, when you have people interacting more, especially those communities more prone to acting out aggressively, you will get more crime,” said Sherry Towers, a statistician who studies and computes criminological data.
But Towers emphasized that there was no political difference in the cities experiencing more crime for these reasons. In fact, she said, the cities often thought of as most dangerous, such as Chicago, don’t hold up when the data is broken down per capita.
“All of these cities that are painted as needing the national guard – they aren’t in the top 10 [most dangerous] by far,” she said. “When you look at the most dangerous, you’re seeing a mix of cities that are blue and also red.” Towers cited Memphis, Kansas City and Indianapolis as examples.
The surging misinformation around the relationship between protests and crime is an important part of the debate around law and order this summer.
Towers and Rosenfeld pointed out that the “George Floyd” effect of protests in cities likely led to more violence there. But not because the protests themselves were violent or because, as Republicans have speculated, that police cannot do their jobs amid the civil unrest.
In fact, the same conversation happened after the protests in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, when Michael Brown was shot by police. Many speculated that an increase in crime in Chicago, a few hundred miles away, after the Ferguson protests was because activists and citizens had obstructed the police department or because more people felt free to loot or vandalize.
Later, criminologists found the real reason. “There was no merit in that,” Towers said. “But around the same time guns were flying off the shelves. And even if people had no intent of using those guns for crime, these guns end up on the black market.” This year saw a similar surge in firearm sales, starting early in the pandemic. And while criminologists don’t yet know the impact of those sales, Rosenfeld characterized them as a “major contributor” to this year’s crime.
“The more firearms there are circulating in a population, the easier it is for someone to get their hands on a gun that shouldn’t have one,” he said. The George Floyd effect, instead, is simply that more people are interacting as a whole. And as Towers had pointed out, more interaction leads to more crime.
Rosenfeld said the calls for defunding the police – the same calls that the Trump administration blames for “anarchy” in cities like Portland – play a role in the violence as well, but not because of cutting budgets. In Black communities that have a historically poor relationship with law enforcement, the protests have highlighted old wounds and led people to take matters into their own hands more often.
Police patrol officers in Brooklyn. Photograph: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post/Getty Images" src="https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/6B_l9At_ItH5Qyif1QnKVg--/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTcwNTtoPTQ3MC4yMzU-/https:/media.zenfs.com/en-GB/the_guardian_765/32fe5bdff2b05830236fc0c6d09ca532" class="caas-img" />
“What you get in some communities is an even greater alienation between members and the local police department,” he said. “And that creates a void – and a void can be filled by street justice.”
Police departments across the country have also changed their behavior in light of the protests. As ProPublica found, some departments, including the New York Police Department pulled back after the protests, either to avoid scrutiny, or to intentionally underpolice. That can further fracture the relationship with a community if done without cooperation, but it doesn’t always cause a steep increase in crime.
“It’s obvious that the NYPD have taken a position against the public outcry and their response has been slower, lax and they don’t seem to rush to aid,” said Mitchell, whose organization is based in the same neighborhood where he grew up. But Mitchell also sees room for building out the Cure Violence model through organization in that absence. “I’m a very strong advocate of community empowerment. We had to step up our presence,” he said.
Meanwhile, Rosenfeld said the cities that invest more in police reform are more likely to see drops in crime longterm. “The idea is that if people have confidence and trust in the police, then the police be effective and fair,” he said. “The main argument is one of strengthening the accountability of police for misconduct.
“The other is seriously thinking what it is we need or want, and if other agencies could handle some of the policing better.”
As Coco Purvis got ready for her shift after the meeting in the gym, she said the phrases “violent, anarchist Democratic cities” and “defund the police” meant little to her. She said she and most of her neighbors “want Trump out”. But what matters to her, she said, was the set of numbers she said in the group briefing. How many of her neighbors had been shot? How many had been lost?
“It made me focus on the real,” she said. “Life, it’s not about revenge, it’s about coming together as a community and fixing where we messed up.”
And the memory of her 28-year-old sister, and the son she left behind, that Purvis raised as her own, keep her committed. Because in the pandemic, she said it’s clearer than ever that her community can be easily separated, isolated and torn apart if people like her don’t act.
“My life and my story coincide with what happens and what’s going on right now,” she said. “It all fits together.”
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