Gun violence in the District is spiking. How are community organizers responding?

Gun violence in the District is spiking. How are community organizers responding?

2020 was a record year for gun homicides in the U.S. Over 19,000 people died from homicides nationwide, a 25 percent increase from the previous year. The District, in particular, has seen an uptick in gun violence, as homicides hit a 15-year peak in 2020. Mayor Bowser declared a state of emergency over the current spike in violence and called the violence a “public health crisis.”

Communities across the District are feeling the effects of this gun violence. We talk to community organizers about how their neighborhoods are dealing with the gun deaths, how the pandemic is affecting their work, and what the District can do to reduce gun homicides.

Produced by Richard Cunningham


  • Ryane Nickens Founder and President, TraRon Center; @TheTraRonCenter
  • LaTrina Antoine Editor-In-Chief, D.C. Witness; @dcwitness
  • Beverly Smith-Brown Executive Director of Momma's Safe Haven


  • 12:00:14

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast Crime Novelist, Screenwriter and Producer George Pelecanos joins us to talk about how the Washington region shaped his career. But first, the nation saw a surge in gun homicides in 2020 as more than 19,000 people lost their lives due to gun violence nationwide. That's nearly a 25 percent jump from the previous year. The District had a 15 year peak in gun homicides as city officials declared a state of emergency over the issue last month. With communities and families broken by gun violence how are local community organizers helping to curb the violence in the region? Joining us now is LaTrina Antoine, Editor-in-Chief of D.C. Witness. LaTrina, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:01:03

    LATRINA ANTOINEThank you for having me.

  • 12:01:06

    NNAMDIFor listeners who may not be familiar with D.C. Witness, can you explain what your organization does?

  • 12:01:13

    ANTOINESure. I'd love to explain. But first off, I just want to say thank you for all of your years of service. I know that in light of your announcement to retire. We are losing an influential voice and an influential factor in our community. And I just want to say you'll be missed.

  • 12:01:33

    NNAMDIWell, I certainly appreciate that. Thank you very much.

  • 12:01:36

    ANTOINEAnd to let you know what D.C. Witness is -- so D.C. Witness is a news site that focuses on providing transparency of the D.C. Criminal Justice system. And we do this by collecting data on homicide cases and other violent felony cases, which include domestic violence and sexual assault. And as we collect data on those cases, we also sit in the court proceedings of those cases to verify that data and also inform the community about what is going on with those cases.

  • 12:02:11

    NNAMDILaTrina, what has you data found about the spike in gun violence?

  • 12:02:17

    ANTOINESo our data has found that the spike in gun violence -- it's happening very rampant in D.C. and it's really -- it's happening at a pace where there just isn't -- there isn't enough data. There isn't enough data out here to mitigate. And with the crisis that has been called by the mayor's administration and even the appointment of this new gun violence director, which we think are all fantastic, we still say that there really needs to be a societal approach if we want to really rid the D.C. streets of gun violence. Joining us now is Beverly Smith-Brown, Executive Director of Momma's Safe Haven. Beverly Smith-Brown, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:03:13

    BEVERLY SMITH-BROWNThank you for having me.

  • 12:03:15

    NNAMDITell us what -- about Momma's Safe Haven and what your program does.

  • 12:03:22

    SMITH-BROWNAll right. Thank you. Momma's Safe Haven, we are a 501 C3 non-profit organization. We're located in Southeast D.C. We're actually in partnership with the Alliance of Concerned Men. So we're in the same building in Ward 7. And what we do is we provide a safe space for those affected by trauma and gun violence and for them to heal. What we do is we encourage self-love, higher education and self-employment by offering a support bridge to those in need of resources to get to the next level in their lives, and basically we provide counseling.

  • 12:04:02

    SMITH-BROWNWe work with grieving mothers as well as the families with support groups on Mondays at 7:00 p.m. via Zoom. We also offer retreats. We do art therapy. We do meditation. We really do boots on the ground just really wrapping our arms around the families by creating real relationships that really understand the basic needs of those most affected by gun violence.

  • 12:04:28

    NNAMDIHave the pandemic and the recession increased violent crime in the communities where you work?

  • 12:04:33

    SMITH-BROWNYes. In my opinion, I think out of -- you know, we have so many different issues that affects it when you think about income. It's a low income community. So we were already experiencing gun violence prior to the pandemic. But, of course, with the loss of jobs and then also mental illness plays a huge part in it as well as the way people cope with the things that's happening with drugs. You know, drugs is a big issue. That's also another pandemic that we've been dealing with since the 80s. It's just this drug pandemic with people not knowing how to cope and self-medicating. So in my opinion all of those factors as well as, you know, poor education, having limited access to healthy foods and poverty of relationships I think is very important.

  • 12:05:27

    NNAMDIAlso joining us now is Ryane Nickens, Founder and President of the TraRon Center. Ryane, welcome back to the show.

  • 12:05:35

    RYANE NICKENSThank you. It's good to be back with you.

  • 12:05:39

    NNAMDIRemind our listeners what the TraRon Center is and what the program does.

  • 12:05:44

    NICKENSSo the TraRon Center works with elementary and middle school kids in communities that have generationally been impacted by gun violence youth through an after school and summer program. We offer art therapy, conflict resolution and anger management skills while teaching our kids about Black history, because we believe that showing them positive images of Black people beyond their block helps navigate a different story, tells a different narrative of where they can be and where they can go. And it helps them be a part of the change in their community.

  • 12:06:29

    NICKENSWe don't believe that our children have next. We believe that they have now, because the issues of gun violence and inequity in schooling is impacting them right now. So we help to raise their voices and let them lead instead of us just yelling.

  • 12:06:48

    NNAMDIHow did the TraRon Center get its name?

  • 12:06:52

    NICKENSThe TraRon Center is named in honor of my brother and sister, Tracy and Ronny. My sister was killed in 1993. My brother Ronny was killed in 1996. And so this is me honoring the memory of my sister and brother and trying to deter gun violence in our city. That's there's never another Tracy or Ronny.

  • 12:07:18

    NNAMDIHere is Sarah in Silver Spring, Maryland. Sarah, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:07:24

    SARAHHi, Kojo. I was just wondering, the statistic that you shared if that included police violence.

  • 12:07:32

    NNAMDILaTrina, can you answer that question?

  • 12:07:35

    ANTOINESo the -- for 2020 what our data shows is that there have been seven police involved shootings in the city, but those have not resulted in homicide. So that's what we do show.

  • 12:07:52

    NNAMDISarah, is that what you were looking for?

  • 12:07:54

    SARAHYeah, thank you.

  • 12:07:56

    NNAMDIRyane Nickens, what factors do you think are contributing to this rise in gun violence? What are you seeing in your neighborhoods?

  • 12:08:04

    NICKENSSo the neighborhoods that we provide services, we're seeing that the -- everything the mayor said during her press conference, unemployment, poverty, lack of education, poor physical and mental help and housing -- affordable housing are the issues. They have been the issues for almost five or six decades in poor neighborhoods. And these are the issues that continue to keep gun violence going in these communities.

  • 12:08:39

    NICKENSNow with COVID, I think we've seen this rise, because children don't have a place to go. It's been the steady focus on the age group of 18 to 35 Black and brown males. And we forget that being truly preventative we have to also reach our children at an early age to redirect some of those things.

  • 12:09:03

    NICKENSAnd so that means have after school program, summer programs, having positive spaces for them to go, but during COVID our kids -- everything is closed down. Our kids don't have anywhere to go and they are outside. And sometimes free time is the worst time for kids growing up in some of these communities.

  • 12:09:26

    NNAMDIWe got a call from Debbie, who couldn't stay on the line who says -- just to show it's not exclusive to the District. "I live in Greenbelt and very recently have heard several gunshots right outside of my house go off in rapid succession. I've called the police several times. Half the time they don't even show up." I guess that too is one of the problems. LaTrina Antoine, you wrote an op-ed about illegal guns and you said, quoting here, "Getting the illegal guns off the streets is appealing, but the data shows it will not change very much." Why not?

  • 12:10:03

    ANTOINERight, because we're not -- by putting programs forth and getting these illegal guns off the street, that's great. But we're not solving the systemic problem and we're not catching the root of that problem, which is this feeling of self-defense. So more illegal guns are just going to replace the illegal guns that they get off the street, because there is this gun prone culture here that is driven by these men feeling that -- these men and a few women feeling that they need to have guns in order to protect themselves.

  • 12:10:38

    NNAMDIAs a matter of fact, what do you think needs to be addressed instead or in addition to illegal guns, LaTrina?

  • 12:10:50

    ANTOINEWe need to come forth with a comprehensive plan that not only focuses on illegal guns, but also focuses on bigger systemic issues that are in play that really foster to having those illegal guns, for instance, having resources available. I was a part of -- I attended a public safety meeting by Council Member White's office yesterday where non-profit organizations and other members of the community talked about what was actually needed in a comprehensive plan for public safety.

  • 12:11:29

    ANTOINEAnd one thing that resonates with my organization that came up was the fact that they don't have the data that is needed to then hold these agencies and other organizations and other factors accountable so that we can get at the root of the problem. We're missing resources in a lot of these communities, and we're also having to fight a culture in a lot of these communities that we just need to have more information on in order to really effectively get this.

  • 12:12:02

    ANTOINEWe understand that the mayor has put in this new position for the director over gun violence. And we feel that this is a great position. But, again, the only way that this position will work is if this person -- if the woman in this position can actually have the freedom to look beyond gun violence so that we can then solve other parts.

  • 12:12:33

    NNAMDIGot to take a short. When we come back we'll continue this conversation. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:12:54

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with community organizers responding to a spike in D.C.'s gun violence. Allow me to start with the phones. Here is Jenny in Washington D.C. Jenny, your turn.

  • 12:13:06

    JENNYHi. Thanks for bringing me on. I just -- I wanted to -- I had two comments one was a caller -- or I'm not sure if it was a caller or someone there, was referencing mental illness and compensating in drug use. And I think that's sort of a misplaced reason for an increase in homicide especially touching on mental illness and using drugs as a coping mechanism those aren't people that are going to be committing homicides in the District. And second of all, you know, all of these problems these systemic problems have to do with the fact that we are not a state. And right now is the best time for us to stand together and lobby and have a leadership to push for D.C. statehood. We have a chance to do that.

  • 12:14:09

    NNAMDIJenny, Jenny, Jenny, allow me to interrupt for a second. I can assure you that all of our guests on this show, LaTrina Antoine, Beverly Smith-Brown and Ryane Nickens are all probably in favor of statehood for the District of Columbia, but that's not the political issue we're discussing right now.

  • 12:14:28

    NNAMDIThe issue we're discussing right now is the social upheaval that has led to the gun violence that we are currently dealing with. So thank you for that suggestion. But, Beverly Smith-Brown, our caller Jenny also said that she didn't think gun violence was stemming from people, who were stressed out mentally. What has been your experience since this pandemic started about people being stressed out or people turning to the use of drugs more?

  • 12:14:56

    SMITH-BROWNJust to go back to that. You know, we have -- I'm a native Washingtonian. I grew up in Ward 7 and Ward 8. And I have also experienced gun violence. Two of my nephews were gunned down two weeks apart, separate situations, ages 25 and 26. So we were at the funeral home twice in one month. That's not the only two sons that were murdered, and good friends who lost children and husbands to gun violence. So just thinking about what is going on, it is a serious pandemic that is affecting people mentally as it relates to how they're going to be able to provide for their families. So you see more robberies that's happening. You see more domestic violence.

  • 12:15:39

    SMITH-BROWNSo there are a number of issues that is leading to gun violence. So it's not just always -- you know, they want to think about gang violence and how they can stop that. But there are a lot of people who like domestic violence, again. And just when you think about the youth and, again, when I say about the drug pandemic is because, you know, you have people who have experienced trauma in the womb when parents are self-medicating. And that has been an issue in D.C. and I know that for a fact being in D.C. and working within these low income communities and family members. So they are people who are self-medicating and because of that the result of it is that they are -- it's a mood-altering substance.

  • 12:16:28

    SMITH-BROWNSo you have a lot of people who are turning to a gun to solve situations and not knowing how to cope. So then you have people who are arguing and fighting, because they don't have the coping skills of just being able to talk things out or how to, just like Ryane said, conflict resolution. So working with the Alliance of Concerned Men we have a conflict resolution manual, and we are training young people as well as families on how to cope and how to deal.

  • 12:16:55

    SMITH-BROWNAnd also self-employment, looking into how we can boost the economic situations in our communities. So I think again, for my expertise of being in the community my whole life and also working in the community today, and having used in the families that we work with, this is a real issue. That mental health, I think that it is really one of those things that people are sweeping under the rug as it relates to how this pandemic is affecting people. It's really affecting people's mental health , and that's my personal opinion.

  • 12:17:30

    NNAMDIThank you very much. Here is Dem in Arlington, Virginia. Dem, your turn.

  • 12:17:35

    DEMGood morning, Kojo. How are you doing?

  • 12:17:37

    NNAMDII'm well.

  • 12:17:39

    DEMNow, I'm a native D.C. person, been shot five times. I made it through the crack era to have a productive life. What I'm having right now so called productive as a Black American. Now I'm not on this show to sugarcoat. So the programs that are place in D.C. I respect that. Like Cure the Streets and all these other different programs. What it is it needs to be more people paying attention to the parents of these Black kids, because if you don't have some type of structure in the household, how do you think that you're going to have structure outside the house?

  • 12:18:17

    DEMSo I done been through all these schools and all these programs growing up all my life and all they're doing is doing the most they can do within their 8 or 12 hours. And then they're back to their lives, which these kids though back to their life where they might be abused. They might be -- parents are on drugs. You may have parents like the young lady that had to go to work and (unintelligible).

  • 12:18:41

    NNAMDIWell, Dem, let me interrupt you for a second. You said you have been shot five times. How did you get over that trauma?

  • 12:18:48

    DEMWell, you got over the trauma, because it's a part of life. You know, it's kind of like when I look around and I see all these statues of -- spending money of slave owners. You don't see a lot of statues of Herd Chuckman and Frederick Douglas. That's uplifting people with holding the word now within the Black communities and let them know what they died for and what they struggled and strived for, like it's a lack of government awareness on the community. It's not about the people who are in the programs who are doing the best they can. It's the government that's not (unintelligible).

  • 12:19:22

    NNAMDII'm glad you brought that up, because, LaTrina Antoine, CDC data shows that young Black men and teens are 20 times more likely to die from gun violence than white males of the same age group. Is that what we're seeing locally also?

  • 12:19:39

    ANTOINEYes. Most of the homicide victims that we are seeing are Black males, most of them young Black males, and they are, you know, that is what we're seeing. Those are the people we are seeing being killed in D.C. due to gun violence.

  • 12:20:01

    NNAMDIRyane Nickens, the mayor declared gun violence a public health crisis. What is your response to that?

  • 12:20:10

    NICKENSMy response is good. Thank you for the acknowledgement. However, what are we going to do about the systemic issues that cause poverty, because I agree with LaTrina, and the fact that if we don't address the systemic issues the structural balance and policies that policies create for Black and brown people we're going to be here again next year and other years to come if we don't have -- we don't look at affordable housing. If we don't -- because D.C. has become one of the most expensive places to live. If we don't look at equity in schools, we can tell data all day long. But there are kids who are suffering. And if we don't catch those kids now, research shows us that by the time they're in middle school they're already planning to drop out if they can't read or write.

  • 12:21:17

    NICKENSAnd so what job availability is there other than McDonald's, fast food restaurants. And that's nothing against anybody who works in a fast food restaurant. But we have to look at what resources, wrap around services there are in our school systems for kids, who are failing, because some of our kids are failing because of environmental issues like gun violence. It's not that our kids lack the ability to learn. It's all the other stuff they have to deal with at home before they get to school and after they get home from school that impedes their progress.

  • 12:21:54

    NICKENSSo it has to be a top down approach, top down, top up. All of us in this together. Government alone will not solve gun violence -- the gun violence problem in our city. It has to be government, community, the faith based community, community organizations, all in to address this issue. So good on the mayor for -- for declaring it a public health crisis, but we need a full plan not just (unintelligible).

  • 12:22:29

    NNAMDII'm afraid that's about all the time we have. Ryane Nickens...

  • 12:22:31

    ANTOINEWell, if I could just add one other thing.

  • 12:22:34

    NNAMDIWe only got about 10 seconds.

  • 12:22:37

    ANTOINERyane, I agree with you, but in order to have that top down approach we need the data to know where certain initiatives are needed.

  • 12:22:43


  • 12:22:44

    NICKENSMm-hmm, yes, yes.

  • 12:22:47

    NNAMDIThank you all for joining us. LaTrina, I'm not retiring fully. I'll still be doing The Politics Hour, but thank you all anyway. When we come back, George Pelecanos. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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