Increased Community Efforts Seek to Thwart Gun Violence in South Seattle

by Jack Russillo

Over the first weekend of October, “close to 140 rounds” were fired in multiple incidents across parts of West and South Seattle. A hit-and-run occurred shortly after the biggest shooting, both events left victims dead.

“That isn’t a normal weekend. This is where we have to call upon our community and say that this violence has to stop,” said Seattle Police Department Interim Chief Adrian Diaz in a panel discussion with Converge Media and South Seattle Emerald on October 8. “There are victims in this. The community is traumatized by the rounds that are constantly being fired.”

The year 2020 has already been an “anomaly year,” said Diaz. Three-hundred and twenty-nine shots have been fired in Seattle, three short of all of 2019, with nearly 40 percent of those coming within the boundaries of the South Precinct, according to Diaz. Forty-five percent of homicide victims have been under the age of 30.

Alvin L.A. Horn, a longtime southeast Seattle resident who lives close to where one of the weekend shootings took place, says the community is aware of the violence that can take place just a couple of blocks from their homes. More than just aware, he says that communities have even become desensitized to the gunshots fired in their streets for decades.

“Guns in our neighborhoods have become commonplace,” said Horn.

As an administrator for the Skyway community Facebook page, Horn has seen “a lot of chatter” about people wanting to stop the violence. Horn cites multiple issues he feels need to be addressed in order to even begin to stop the violence — noting insufficient policy, ease of access to guns for young people, and common depictions of gun violence in video games and other media. But at the root of the problem, Horn feels that one issue stands out above all others: the vicious cycle of guns being accessible to youth. 

“The simple fact is that you have the ease of getting a gun … ” said Horn, “a repeated situation of guns getting into a mind that is not mature, that hasn’t had direction.”

Gun violence has been discussed as a public health issue, especially concerning young people, who, in King County, have higher firearm-related death rates. Across the county, people who report “firearm access” are at twice the risk of homicide as people who don’t. 

“I think that really what’s happening is a lack of care and a lack of support,” said Willard Jimerson, a youth violence prevention advocate and executive director of United Better Thinking. “Not only just a lack of caring and support for the young folks, who oftentimes have such high risk behavior activities, but also a lack of support for those who are experts around engaging in this process to bring the … level of care … needed to nurse their families and communities to a level of health that is … necessary for everybody to have a sustainable quality of life.”

There are numerous local organizations working to help provide the care and support that Jimerson spoke of such as United Better Thinking, Byrd Barr Place, Abundance of Hope, and the Rainier Vista Boys and Girls Club. These institutions are important outlets for youth that could otherwise be exposed to situations where they’d get access to guns. But while the programs largely help provide assistance to those who need it, they don’t typically fix the overall issue. 

Firearm-related deaths increased across the country in the decades leading up to the 21st century, and reports from recent years show the same upward trend. The 2020 protests for racial justice and police reform have shown that we are still far from a final solution. In southeast Seattle, Horn has been a witness to the lack of overall improvement in finally suppressing gun violence.

“Anything that was available — programs, police situations — it is still the same 30 years later,” said Horn. “Nothing is different. Policing, activities available, mentorship. Yeah, we have people who put themselves in little entities of trying to help you, but those were around 30 years ago. There’s no super program to really change anything.”

There may not be a super program or sweeping legislation coming down the pike anytime soon, but there is some progress being made on financial and legal fronts that could help spur more sustainable, equitable changes. In the past year, protests have helped accelerate wider-reaching, longer-lasting ways of addressing sources of gun violence. Future City budgets may divest from law enforcement to invest more money in BIPOC community assistance institutions, and gun laws have become stricter. Some cross-organizational efforts have produced coalitions, like King County Equity Now and the Rainier Beach Action Coalition, to help bring even more restorative-justice-based solutions to the region. In addition, the City’s ownership transfer of properties critical to Central District organizations supporting disadvantaged youth signals the effectiveness of ongoing community-based organizing.   

Large-scale policy changes could eventually shift what has become a systemic issue in places with histories of gun violence, like Seattle’s South End, but making smaller changes in everyday interactions, even on the individual level, could also help.

“I don’t care how smart you are, you cannot do everything alone,” said Mohammad Nejash, owner of the Bakkalch Mini Market at South Kenyon Street and Rainier Avenue South.

At the market, Nejash treats anybody who enters his store with compassion and respect. People have tried stealing from his store and he tells them if they had asked he may have just given it to them. If they are jobless, he’s given them a hose and access to water so they could wash cars, be productive, and earn money for the day. Today, Nejash has become more positively connected to his community to the point where it seems he is friends with every customer who enters his shop. 

“Between you and I,” said Nejash. “We are the same… People come in here from Russia, Greece, Ethiopia, around Rainier, we are all the same. We come together here and we all work together to make this space work.”

Nejash is well aware of the gun violence going on in his part of the city. He, himself, has been shot and has known some of the South Seattle gun violence victims over the years. He’s even had a gun pulled on him at his store. But he knows he should treat anybody who comes into his store, violent or not, as a valuable member of his community. 

“I have needed help before, when opening my shop, and the people from the community came to help me,” said Nejash. “My shop is here today and many people come through it … I should help out others when I can because they were like I once was. If I don’t help someone, then maybe we both don’t end up so good later on.”

Jack Russillo has been reporting in Western Washington since 2013. He covers the environment, social justice, and other topics that affect a sustainable and equitable future. He currently lives in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.

Featured image: The We Want to Live rally held Aug. 28 to address gun violence in South Seattle. (Photo: Susan Fried)

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