Photo of four members of Urban Family

Community Responses to Youth Gun Violence in the Wake Of Rainier Beach Shootings

by Mark Van Streefkerk

Last Friday night, 16 year-old Earl Estrella was shot several times and killed when he answered a knock at the door of his family’s home. The killing was without apparent reason or motive, leaving Estrella’s family and community grieving the tragic loss of a beloved son, another life cut short in Rainier Beach due to gun violence. The case is still under investigation.

The Rainier Beach neighborhood has weathered at least eight shootings since last May — including six deaths — according to chair of the South Precinct Advisory Council Erin Goodman. As people look to community-based safety organizations for solutions that prevent youth gun violence — ideally without increased policing — the leaders of these groups all echo a similar sentiment: we’ve been out here doing the work before, during, and after these crises, and we will continue.

The Alliance for Gun Responsibility (AGR) acknowledged that community safety groups are proven to be effective at preventing and interrupting gun violence, even in circumstances exacerbated during the pandemic. Reflecting on the recent teen shooting, activist Reverend Dr. Harriett Walden said that in addition to all-hands-on-deck violence interventions, a spiritual component is just as important.

“How are we going to change the consciousness? How are we going to change the thinking?” Walden asked. “The enemy is white supremacy. The enemy is the system that oppressed the ancestors. How does somebody who looks like you wind up being the enemy?”

Organizations like Southeast Network Safe Passage at the Rainier Vista Boys and Girls Club, Urban Family, Community Passageways, and others, are doing the invaluable work of restoring connection, interrupting violence, de-escalating conflict, hosting healing circles, activating neighborhood hotspots, and so much more. The Emerald recently reported on some of these efforts to increase community safety at the Rainier Beach Safeway.

When shots are fired, sometimes leading to a tragic loss of life, to an outsider it might seem like nothing is being done, when in fact many teams are on the ground building on foundations of safety.  Paul Patu, Executive Director and co-founder of Urban Family said, “I think for the most part people feel afraid when they experience these acts of violence and they feel like there’s no support. That is not the case. There is actually support. It’s that they may be unaware that there’s safety support.”

Community safety groups are often called upon to address immediate crises — in addition to holding local government officials accountable to promises made to invest in community-based solutions — but the origins of youth gun violence run deep, baked into an inherited system of historical underinvestment and inequity.

“The immediate concern for the community is always immediate because people and kids are dying now,” Patu said. “It is [also] a long-term issue that has its foundations in systemic racism, white supremacy, oppression, and poverty. All of these foundational things create environments where violence emerges.” 

Urban Family and three other organizations joined forces to launch the Seattle Community Safety Initiative (CSI) in January. CSI is a strategic partnership among Urban Family, Southeast Network Safe Passage, Community Passageways, and the YMCA of Greater Seattle, groups that already have some kind of safety patrol. Each organization will take on a safety hub: Southeast Network Safe Passage in Rainier Beach, Community Passageways in the Central District, the YMCA in West Seattle, with Urban Family providing professional violence prevention training and consulting for CSI.

“Trained intervention specialists, community safety specialists, have been trained in crisis response and do regular patrols and safe passage patrols through the neighborhood, through all three of these neighborhoods,” Patu explained. “Urban Family has purview over training them because we are subject matter experts as it relates to safety planning, crisis response, particularly for youth and young adults that live in urban communities.”

Patu reported that CSI teams are currently doing safety patrols, ramping up their efforts for the summer.

Historically, summer in the South End sees an uptick in gun violence, which last year escalated even more due to the pandemic. “The gun violence during COVID has completely been exacerbated by the pandemic, coupled with a huge increase in the purchase of firearms,” said Renee Hopkins, CEO of AGR. “We’re seeing those huge increases in all kinds of gun violence, but in particular, in the interpersonal gun violence that disproportionately impacts young Black and Brown men.”

AGR is a state-wide organization that advocates at federal, state, and local levels to address all forms of gun violence. Hopkins said during the pandemic, gun violence across the board has been on the rise, spreading like a disease. This includes an alarming spike in youth suicide, especially in Black communities. Over the last year, COVID-19 canceled afterschool and other youth programs and created mass unemployment. At the same time there was an influx of firearms, with all of these factors leading to a “perfect storm.”

If it seems that we’ve (hopefully) turned the corner on the pandemic, Hopkins said the lasting economic effects will still be felt into the future. In the last few years, the AGR has advocated for Extreme Risk Protection Orders, a civil process whereby an individual’s right to purchase or possess firearms can be temporarily suspended while in a behavioral or mental health crisis, and safe storage legislation, in which limiting access to guns directly reduces instances when they end up in the hands of youth. Recently, AGR has turned its attention to gun violence prevention and intervention programs, working with groups like Choose 180 and Community Passageways. “These are the organizations that people trust in the community and do the hard, vital work of providing the trauma-informed and culturally-responsive support to young people who are most at risk of gun violence,” Hopkins said. 

Last year, AGR helped establish Washington State’s Office of Firearm Safety and Violence Prevention, the first of its kind. Part of what the office will do is administer a grant program to fund community-based violence prevention and intervention programs. “While the funding is not nearly close to what is needed, it’s a good step towards really establishing and prioritizing at the state level, investment in community-based solutions that we know are more effective than the criminal/legal-based solutions,” Hopkins said. 

Pointing beyond the physical and legislative challenges to reducing gun violence, Walden said, “There’s a spiritual component that’s missing.”

Walden grew up in segregated Florida before eventually settling in Seattle. She founded Mothers For Police Accountability in 1990, and in 1999 she started the Silent War Campaign, which breaks the silence on Black on Black crime. While experiencing starts and stops over the years, Walden said there might be renewed activity associated with the Silent War Campaign, especially when it comes to fostering a connection between youth and their spiritual and cultural heritage.

“[The youth] are the prayers of the ancestors . . . the ancestors knew they’d never go home again. They’d never see their children that were stolen from them, but they knew that one day a better day would come,” Walden said. “The young man with a gun didn’t know that he was the better day — that his ancestors had prayed up. That’s what this is about, to connect them.”

Editors’ Note: Sections of this article were updated and modified on May 3, 2021, at the request of Urban Family to better reflect the work this organization does.

Mark Van Streefkerk is a South Seattle-based journalist, freelance writer, and the Emerald’s Arts, Culture, & Community editor. He often writes about restaurants, LGBTQ+ topics, and more. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter at @VanStreefkerk.

📸 Featured image: The organization Urban Family launched the Seattle Community Safety Initiative in January, a community-based effort to reduce youth gun violence in the Central District and South End. Team members from left to right are: Jamoni Owens, Paul Patu, Emanuel Espana, and Luz Victoriano. Photo by Chloe Collyer.

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