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Where were anti-gun violence advocates when cops shot, killed 1,000 people a year?

NBC News logo NBC News 6/16/2020 Amber Goodwin and Chico Tillmon
a group of people standing around a table: Image: Protests Erupt In Atlanta After The Police Killing Of Rayshard Brooks © Dustin Chambers Image: Protests Erupt In Atlanta After The Police Killing Of Rayshard Brooks

We are experienced Black organizers in anti-violence and gun violence prevention work, and it has long been clear to us that the broad movement of which we have been a part has a huge hole in it. Police violence — in instances when officers use their guns to intimidate, shoot or kill Black or brown people — is also gun violence. And it rightly has a place in the movement against gun violence that is often celebrated by liberal politicians at the highest levels.

But for far too many years, Black voices have been silenced and pushed out of the conversation on ending gun violence in America because we also wanted to talk about policing. For too long, communities of color have been othered within conversations about ending gun violence by those who wanted to victim-blame and reduce our experiences of gun violence to "Black on Black crime."

As one of a few Black women leading national gun violence prevention organizations and a Black activist who has worked on the front lines of Chicago violence intervention, we never had to question whether police violence was a gun violence issue.

Too many incidents to name more than a few — Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Philando Castile, Atatiana Jefferson, Breonna Taylor and now Rayshard Brooks — have proven that any interaction with police can quickly become fatal for Black people. Police armed with guns and any perception of noncompliance (which studies suggest also has a significant racial component) often means Black lives lost.

Police take the lives of more than 1,000 people every year, a disproportionate number of whom are people of color. In 2017, police shot and killed 986 people, 22 percent of whom were Black, even though African Americans make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population. Study after study has shown that weak gun laws and higher levels of gun ownership are correlated with increased shootings by police.

Still, when Black organizers and movement leaders within the gun violence movement first began participating in Black Lives Matter, we were broadly shunned by political and philanthropic circles, further reducing our ability to have an impact within the movement to end gun violence. As millions now cry out for justice and reform because police violence is trending, that has changed — but it has left us years behind.

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Systems of oppression have a direct line: from guns flowing into our communities to shooting violence to over-policing to mass incarceration. But when Black-led organizations connected the dots between civilian and police gun violence, many of our "progressive allies" historically stayed quiet.

We're tired of seeing police murder us with impunity. We're tired of our names becoming hashtags without anything being done. We're tired of Black trans people being abused by police, misgendered and then forgotten.

And we're tired of politicians and advocacy organizations treating the issue of police gun violence as a third rail in the gun violence movement.

Black communities were over-policed for decades in the name of being "tough on crime," even as Black organizers in those communities trying to effect change were under-resourced. Our voices, calling for people to see that police gun violence is part of the larger problem of gun violence, were dismissed because the political cost of not seeming "tough on crime" was seen as too high, even though it meant our lives were being lost.

As our nation grapples with the issue of police violence once again, leaders in the traditionally white-led gun violence prevention space need to clear the stage and their pocketbooks for Black-led organizations working to make systemic change. As we work to dismantle the systems of oppression, we must also dismantle those systems of oppression that exist within movement spaces.

Our demand for the white-led organizations that work on gun violence prevention is that they not only put their money where their mouth is, but also do the work to give up their power and intentionally deconstruct the oppressive systems from which many of them have benefited at the expense of Black lives.

At Community Justice Action Fund, a nonprofit gun violence organization building power for and with communities of color, we're proud to partner with dozens of great organizations working to make Black communities safe, like Advance Peace, Life Camp Inc., Cities United and the Live Free Campaign. In the last two weeks, we were joined by more than 50 other organizations, including March For Our Lives, the National Domestic Violence Hotline and Amnesty International, which have signed on to support reducing all gun violence — including gun violence at the hands of police.

In this critical moment, we're finally saying firmly, together, that Black Lives Matter, that police violence is gun violence, that public health approaches must be prioritized over policing, that gun violence prevention efforts should take an anti-racist approach, that we must divest in policing and that we must invest in community-based solutions.

This is a first step for non-Black people in the movement against gun violence and police brutality — and they must do the work to take additional steps. It is up to white people to move out of the way, listen, learn and do the work to empower Black leaders.

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