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Human trafficking bills pass state House

Jessa Reid Bolling

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The State House unanimously passed three bills on Wednesday and Thursday aimed at combating human trafficking. 

Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Birmingham, Assistant Minority Leader, and Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, Education Policy Chair, co-sponsored the bills.

“This is a great step in continuing the fight against human trafficking,” Coleman said. “The unanimous, bi-partisan passage of all three bills and two resolutions show the Legislature’s dedication to combating one of the most pressing crises facing our state.”

Collins said the Alabama House of Representatives sent a strong message to the public by unanimously passing these bills.

“We worked with over 30 organizations across the state on these bills, and we are grateful to our partners for their hard-work and dedication to combat this growing issue,” Collins said.

HB261 would require all new commercial driver licenses to undergo industry-specific human trafficking training developed and administered by Truckers Against Trafficking.

HB262 clarifies existing law to prohibit publishing photos of those charged with the act of prostitution while allowing for publishing photos of those charged with soliciting or procuring

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Prostitution. This bill is meant to protect potential victims of human trafficking from public identification and to deter individuals from purchasing sex.

HB264 clarifies existing state regulations related to the posting of the Human Trafficking Hotline and awareness posters in public places and entertainment establishments by assigning a regulator and increasing fees for non-compliance.

The State House also passed unanimously two resolutions aimed at combating human trafficking. The first resolution encourages the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency to continue developing curriculum to ensure that every officer in the state is trained regarding human trafficking.

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According to END IT Alabama, a project of the Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force, human trafficking is the second largest criminal industry in the world today, second only to the illegal drug trade, and is estimated to be a $32 billion industry annually.

HB261 heads to the Senate Transportation & Energy Committee and HB262 and HB264 head to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

 

Jessa Reid Bolling is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter and graduate of The University of Alabama with a B.A. in journalism and political science.

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Jones calls for McConnell to bring the Senate back to work on bipartisan aid package

Brandon Moseley

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U.S. Sen. Doug Jones during a livestreamed press briefing. (OFFICE OF SEN. DOUG JONES/FACEBOOK)

Alabama Sen. Doug Jones and two of his Democratic Senate colleagues — Nevada Sen. Jacky Rosen and New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan — led 10 other senators in a letter asking Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to bring the Senate back into session and work through the weekend until Congress reaches a bipartisan deal to address the public health and economic crises caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. has been relentless, bringing about a public health crisis and an economy teetering on the edge of catastrophe,” Jones and the other senators wrote. “Across the country, Americans are fearful and anxious as loved ones get sick, families go hungry, small businesses go under, and workers continue to go without pay. State and local coffers have run dry, tenants can’t afford the rent, state unemployment systems are overwhelmed, and over 150,000 Americans have died. Despite this, it has been over four months since the Senate passed a comprehensive relief package, and the relief we provided is running out.”

“In the circumstances we find ourselves, it is imperative that the Senate be in session through the remainder of this weekend and all of next week — working not on partisan nominations, but on bipartisan coronavirus relief for the American people,” the letter continues.

“With this in mind and with federal unemployment benefits having expired last night, we implore you to bring the Senate back into session this weekend and pass bipartisan legislation to help working Americans and families,” concluded the letter.

The House passed their Heroes Act in early May with little Republican input. Senate Republicans have proposed a $1 trillion coronavirus aid bill on top of the CARES Act and the other relief packages. Senate Democrats have criticized the Republican plan for not going far enough. Their proposal was for a $3 trillion aid bill.

Jones has been a vocal critic of McConnell’s delays in bringing a strong, bipartisan relief bill up for a vote. The original CARES Act had a costly provision that increased the amount of money that the unemployed could collect during the coronavirus economic shutdown. That bump up in benefits expired on Friday.

Millions of Americans, however, are still unemployed and are having to make mortgage and rent payments with dramatically less to spend. Senator Jones has called for a renewal of emergency unemployment benefits, as well as more relief for health care providers, small businesses and workers, schools, state departments of labor, and incentives for states to expand Medicaid.

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He has also called for an extension of the federal eviction moratorium, and for the state of Alabama to renew its own eviction moratorium, which was lifted on June 1.

The federal government has enacted four pieces of legislation that provide relief to individuals, state and local governments and corporations that have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic meltdown. These cost more than $2 trillion. To pay for all of this, the Treasury Department has ramped up borrowing.

According to a report by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, since March 1, the United States Treasury has borrowed more than $3 trillion. Most of that increase has occurred since March 30, when the CARES Act was enacted.

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Most of the new debt has been issued in the form of Treasury bills. T-bills mature in one year or less and account for 80 percent of the increase in debt since March 1. Treasury notes, which mature in 2 to 10 years, are 15 percent of the increase. Treasury bonds, which mature after more than 10 years, Treasury inflation-protected securities, and floating-rate notes, combine for the remaining five percent of the increase.

Fortunately, the government is paying very little interest on those new Treasury bills because interest rates dropped when the extent of the pandemic became clear and money fled risky investments like stocks and real estate trusts for security. For the 4-week bills that were issued on July 21, the government paid investors an interest rate of 0.11 percent. That is a considerable drop from the 1.60 percent interest rate that the government paid on the 4-week bills that were issued on Feb. 25 before the pandemic hit the U.S.

Treasury projects that they will borrow $677 billion in the third quarter.

The U.S. national debt is nearly $26.6 trillion — an all-time high — and the budget deficit is $3.8 trillion. Interest on the debt is costing taxpayers $337 billion annually, the fourth costliest federal program trailing Medicare and Medicaid at $1.3 trillion, Social Security at $1.08 trillion and national defense at $695 billion.

Jones is in a difficult re-election race with former Auburn head football coach Tommy Tuberville.

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Congressman Mo Brooks urges voters to choose Tommy Tuberville

Brandon Moseley

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U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks

Congressman Mo Brooks, R-Huntsville, last week penned a letter urging voters to support former Auburn head football coach Tommy Tuberville’s candidacy for the U.S. Senate over incumbent Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama. Brooks said, “Coach Tuberville supports President Trump and his immigration policies, and, just as importantly, President Trump supports Coach Tuberville.”

“Have you noticed how often politicians claim they want to help American families yet support policies that make poverty and hardship even worse?” Brooks said. “Socialist Democrats like Doug Jones, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez threaten America’s national security, suppress American worker wages, and take needed American jobs from struggling American families by luring millions of illegal aliens into America with promises of amnesty, voting rights, jobs, and ‘free’ welfare.”

“For example, Socialist Democrats have, in numerous cities, passed local laws letting illegal aliens vote in American elections, thereby undermining the ability of Americans to control their own governments!” Brooks continued. “And make no bones about it. They want the same anti-American laws for ALL elections in America!”

Brooks said that Jones opposed President Donald Trump’s border wall and “worked against Americans and with Socialist Democrats to kill efforts to withhold tax dollars from ‘sanctuary cities’ that illegally support illegal aliens.”

“How much damage do illegal aliens (supported by Doug Jones) do to American citizens?” Brooks continued. “Per federal crime data, illegal aliens average killing 2,000+ Americans on American soil each year. These Americans would be alive today but for Doug Jones’ policies.”

“Per Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), illegal aliens cost American taxpayers a net tax loss of close to $9,000/illegal alien/year, for a total of $100+ BILLION per year in net tax losses!” Brooks said. “That money should be spent helping Americans, not illegal aliens.”

“Per Harvard economist Jorge Borjas, the surge in illegal alien labor costs struggling blue-collar families over $1,000 per year in suppressed & lost wages/year,” Brooks explained. “Per Pew, illegal aliens also take millions of job opportunities from Americans each year. Per federal data, illegal narcotics like fentanyl, cocaine and the like that are smuggled across America’s porous southern border kill 30,000+ Americans each year. But illegal aliens are only part of the problem. Cheap legal foreign labor suppresses wages of and takes jobs from America’s white-collar workers.”

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“America must cut the importation of lawful foreign workers to reflect and help the 40+ million Americans who lost their jobs this year because of COVID19 & economic shutdowns by America’s governors and mayors,” Brooks said. “America needs TWO Alabama senators who prefer Americans over cheap foreign labor and will work with President Trump to combat cheap foreign labor that so badly hurts struggling American families and secure our southern border.”

“Coach Tuberville supports President Trump and his immigration policies, and, just as importantly, President Trump supports Coach Tuberville,” Brooks said in his endorsement. “I urge all Alabamians who want to secure America’s porous southern border, who support freedom and liberty, who understand the foundational principles that have made America the greatest nation in world history, to join me. I am voting for Coach Tommy Tuberville on November 3rd. I urge you to fight for America by joining me and casting your ballot for Coach Tommy Tuberville, too.”

Brooks is in his fifth term representing Alabama’s 5th Congressional District. Tuberville will face Doug Jones in the Nov. 3 general election.

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GDP fell by an unprecedented 9.5 percent in second quarter

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The Bureau of Economic Analysis released its advance estimate of U.S. GDP for the second quarter of 2020 reflecting the months of April, May and June dropped 9.5 percent in the second quarter, According to the BEA report, real GDP contracted at an unprecedented annualized rate of 32.9 percent. This is the largest quarterly decline since the series began in 1947, though market expectations were so low the actual number was slightly better than what the market and official estimates had expected.

President Donald Trump’s Council of Economic Advisors said that despite this massive contraction, the resiliency of the U.S. economy and the swift fiscal response of the Federal Government can aid in a strong recovery.

The Council of Economic Advisors said that the U.S. economy entered this contraction on a healthier and more resilient footing than it did both prior to the Financial Crisis of 2008 to 09 and relative to other advanced economies. This was due in part, to the longest expansion in U.S. history. American households also had a smaller overall debt burden prior to this pandemic than prior to the Financial Crisis. Household liabilities as a percent of personal disposable income were 136 percent leading into the Financial Crisis but were below 100 percent prior to this pandemic.

The United States had the highest growth rate among the G7 countries prior to the pandemic, with growth roughly double the non-U.S. G7 average.

The second-quarter decline in GDP was widespread, touching nearly every facet of the economy. Consumer spending, which accounts for roughly 70 percent of the U.S. economy, contributed to most of the decline, accounting for 25.05 percentage points of the 32.9 percent decline. The report also showed sharp contractions in business fixed investment, residential investment, inventory investment, and state & local government spending which contributed to the decline.

A massive but uneven decline in consumer spending (-34.6 percent at an annualized rate) revealed how quarantines have driven spending patterns. Individuals increased consumption of recreational goods & vehicles and housing & utilities, but lessened consumption of gasoline & other energy goods, health care, transportation services, recreational services, and food services & accommodation. The decline in business fixed investment was also widely spread, though it was particularly sharp in transportation equipment investment and mining structures investment, the latter reflecting subdued oil and gas production activity responding to extraordinarily low prices.

The pandemic and the forced economic shutdowns caused a sharp drop in real personal income as many workers faced lower wages, fewer hours or loss of their jobs completely. The University of Pennsylvania estimates that the CARES Act reduced the GDP contraction in the second quarter by 7 percentage points.

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The Council of Economic Advisors are predicting strong real GDP growth in the third quarter. The current Blue Chip consensus forecast of 17.7 percent annualized growth in the third quarter would be the largest recorded quarterly growth rate and a 36 percent recovery of the second quarter contraction.

The Council of Economic Advisors claim that the pace of the recovery so far has exceeded expectations, providing a source of optimism as we look ahead. In fact, the majority of major economic data releases over the past month—reflecting May and June data—have surpassed market outlooks. Most notably, the record-breaking number of jobs added in both May and June beat market expectations by a combined 11.7 million. Furthermore, high-frequency data indicate that 80 percent of America’s small businesses are now open, up from a low in April of just 52 percent. Consumer credit & debit card spending has recovered roughly 80 percent from the pandemic low, with spending in low-income zip codes rebounding the furthest, now just 2 percent below pre-pandemic spending levels.

Another 1.43 million Americans filed initial unemployment claims last week, the nineteenth week the total has surpassed one million new claims.

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The recovery could be threatened by surging coronavirus cases, which could force a second shutdown in some states. Governors in Texas, Florida, and California have had to implement some social distancing restrictions and Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has had to impose a mask requirement on all citizens and even on school children.

The uncertainty with the virus and the economy has put pressure on Congress to approve another coronavirus relief package.

“Our nation is going through a time of testing,” Vice President Mike Pence said. “And let me say from my heart that our prayers and our sympathies are with all of the more than 150,000 families that have lost loved ones in the midst of this pandemic. As we continue to contend with the coronavirus in various places across our country, President Trump and our team, and the task force will continue to marshal the full resources of the federal government and the full power of the American economy to meet this moment and put the health of America first.”

“It’s amazing to think, at the lowest point in this pandemic, our economy lost 22 million jobs,” VP Pence said. “But thanks to that solid foundation that President Trump laid in our first three years, we’ve already gained back 8 million jobs just in May and June alone.”

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Activists push for community-led gun violence prevention in an Alabama city

Birmingham has one of the country’s highest rates of fatal shootings. The defund movement has reinvigorated grassroots efforts to drive down violence.

Chip Brownlee | The Trace

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An ambulance arrives as authorities respond to a gunman that opened fire at a Birmingham, Alabama, hospital, wounding two men before turning the gun on himself Wednesday night, police said, on Wednesday, March 14, 2018, in Birmingham, Ala. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Every Monday evening, just before sundown, Onoyemi Williams and a group of local faith leaders and volunteers in Birmingham, Alabama, walk through one of the city neighborhoods hardest hit by shootings. The tradition, which started more than two years ago, is an opportunity for the community to “listen, learn and love,” said Williams, the co-chair of Faith in Action Alabama, a group of religious leaders working to counter racism and injustice. Listening to and supporting the people affected, she said, is key to any effort to reduce gun violence.

One evening in October 2019, just after they set out, a young man was shot nearby. Williams and a local pastor rushed to the scene, the victim’s home in the city’s West End neighborhood. Paramedics had already transported the man to the hospital, so Williams and the pastor followed, arriving with his parents. “You can’t go back to where he is. You need to have a seat,” Williams remembers a hospital employee telling the family. They waited hours without any word.

Eventually, the young man who’d been shot walked into the waiting room wearing a hospital gown, his bloody clothes in a bag. He was holding discharge papers. “I thought they said you were shot?” Williams remembers asking. He had been, but the wound was relatively minor; the bullet had traveled into the front of his torso and out the back. Stitches and gauze covered the wound, but he’d already begun to bleed through the bandages.

Angry and in pain, the man just wanted to go home. “He handed me the papers,” Williams said. “It just looked like a WebMD printout.”

While the hospital treated the man’s physical injuries, Williams said, the event’s psychological aftermath had been ignored. She said someone should have been there to provide links to community-based services, victims’ services, and mentoring — with the explicit purpose of preventing more violence. She said she doesn’t want anyone else to go without support in a critical moment because the resources just aren’t there — and for that lack of support to lead to the continuation of a cycle of violence.

“In these moments, you see what people are actually experiencing,” she said. “The hospital didn’t have anybody. I didn’t have anybody to refer him to, to help him deal with his anger.”

The experience reminded Williams of so many other cases she’s witnessed, many firsthand, some in her own family. According to The Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that tracks shootings in real time, more than 182 people were shot and wounded in Birmingham last year. Police data shows that over the same time period there were at least 91 firearm homicides — a per-capita rate much higher than Chicago, New Orleans, or Detroit in 2019.

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As activists across the country campaign to move funding away from police departments and into community programs and social services, Williams and Faith in Action Alabama are campaigning for Birmingham to move $1.5 million from its police budget to fund a gun violence interruption program.

As in most American cities, the Birmingham Police Department eats through a huge chunk of the city’s resources. It has a budget of more than $92 million annually, which makes it the largest line item by far. It also has a particularly disturbing history of brutality directed at the city’s Black community, dating back to the days of Bull Connor, the racist Birmingham police commissioner who ordered officers to attack civil rights activists with police dogs and fire hoses.

Mayor Randall Woodfin last month announced a 30-day review of police practices. On July 14, he proposed a ban on chokeholds and said a task force will further review the city’s Police Department and identify “areas of improvement” in public safety.

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Woodfin hasn’t said whether he supports the call from activists to shift police funding toward a street-level gun violence program, even though he has a background in progressive politics (during his mayoral campaign, he had the backing of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders). He also has a personal history with gun violence. His brother was shot and killed in 2012, and his nephew was shot and killed just weeks before he was elected. Woodfin did not respond to requests for an interview.

Activists like Williams say reviewing use-of-force policies isn’t enough and that police alone just aren’t equipped to handle violence and crime spurred in large part by the systemic racism — including de facto segregation, bleak economic opportunity, and underfunded schools — that many Black communities face. At the same time Woodfin announced the police review, Williams and other local activists who are part of the Birmingham Peacemakers Campaign put forward a public request for the city to reallocate some police funding to a community outreach program that’s already received support from local philanthropies and the county’s Health Department. Now they just need the city to commit, and they hope nationwide calls to “defund the police” may provide the momentum they need.

“The Police Department has been allowed to leech all of the nutrients out of the community,” Williams said. “People don’t understand that the conversation about defunding the police comes from the fact that all of these other social programs were cut in order to increase funding for the police.”

The Peacemakers program would employ street outreach teams made up predominantly of men formerly incarcerated for gun charges to connect residents with social services, provide mentoring, and engage with their own communities to stop shootings.

The program is modeled after a similar initiative in Richmond, California, which was associated with a considerable reduction in firearm homicides and assaults annually, according to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health. After Richmond’s Office of Neighborhood Safety opened in 2007, that city has experienced an overall 82 percent reduction in total shootings involving death or injury. Peacemaker initiatives have also shown success in Sacramento and Stockton, though they began much more recently.

Street outreach programs, broadly speaking, have been identified as effective at reducing gun violence, and they’re already in place in cities across the country, albeit with varying levels of support and funding. The street outreach teams typically help mediate conflicts between individuals, cliques, and gangs before they escalate, particularly in the communities of color hardest hit by gun violence.

Williams knows anger and fear. She was 12 when her uncle was killed in a shooting. She became a parole officer in Florida, barely making it through the academy because she hated using a handgun. After retiring from her job as a P.O., she moved to Birmingham. She lives in Smithfield, a neighborhood in west Birmingham. During an interview, she listed a dozen of her neighbors, their ages, what they do for a living and even some of their current struggles, like a cancer diagnosis or a COVID-related job loss. She knows the neighborhood as a tight-knit community.

But Williams — and almost everyone else in Birmingham — also knows Smithfield and the city’s west side neighborhoods as the locus of most of the city’s shootings and gun homicides. “I should not be afraid to walk down the street on my block,” she said. So now she’s a community organizer, working to prevent gun violence with night walks (though they are now on pause because of COVID-19) and urging the city to back a more significant street outreach program.

Many of the homicides in Birmingham are retaliatory in nature, as they are in many cities, and committed by a small number of people, Williams said. These moments, when anger and confusion are high, are moments when outreach workers can stop the cycle of violence with support, mentorship, and social services — and without police intervention.

“We can stop retaliation if we get there in enough time,” Williams said. “We can work with a person to understand. We can help them channel their anger. We can help them get through it.”

A street outreach program, she said, can prevent shootings, and also fill in the gaps in many neighborhoods where police still have little legitimacy, social safety net programs often fail to reach people, and victims of crime often feel just as unsafe calling the police.

“You can be in the right and still go to jail because they think you were in the wrong,” Williams said.

Being near that violence, often knowing the victims and understanding how systemic racism and lack of resources contribute to the violence is part of the reason she is pushing for more to be done, Williams said. It’s also moments like the one at the hospital that day.

“It’s not just the fact that this could easily be my child or a friend’s child,” she said. “I see everybody’s child as my responsibility.”

This wouldn’t be the first time Birmingham has tried to get its arms around its gun violence problem. In 2015, the city launched the Birmingham Violence Reduction Initiative. But the program was housed in the Police Department, and combined techniques for violence deterrence with aggressive enforcement tactics, such as gun raids and no-knock warrants.

It drew the ire of community leaders who said the program was more about intimidating would-be perpetrators of violence than meeting them where they were. Local Black Lives Matter activists described it as “police terrorism.”

A review by John Jay College of Criminal Justice found that the program often “lost focus” while the city’s homicide rate continued to rise.

“It collapsed in large part because it was not part of the grassroots community,” said Daniel Schwartz, the executive director of Faith in Action Alabama.

The Peacemakers’ street outreach program, in contrast, wouldn’t be connected to the police department and would likely be organized as a non-profit outside the city government.

“You have to remember how the systems of racism have stripped these communities,” Williams said. “The street outreach workers are there to help break down those barriers and navigate.”

DeVone Boggan, the CEO of Advance Peace and the former director of Richmond, Virginia’s Office of Neighborhood Safety, said: “A major part of why these strategies can work, and where ours are working, is that we’re focusing on those very same people that law enforcement has been unable to reach, but we’re engaging them in a more deliberate, intentional, and relentless way. Focused engagement, focused attention, helping connect them to services, resources and opportunities — and more than anything, helping them to understand that gunfire is not the only means to resolving the conflicts.”

“We have to understand the dollars and cents of this, and the benefit, cost-ratio opportunities here,” Boggan added. He noted that each shooting costs between $400,000 and $1 million. “Look at the cost of a fellow being shot, or a fellow shooting someone and harming or injuring them, or, God forbid, murdering them. The cost is exponentially greater.”

The advocates in Birmingham are asking for the city to provide $1.5 million for five years, saying that a long-term commitment is important for the program to get off the ground and become sustainable. Last year, the Jefferson County Health Department committed $100,000 a year in funding for the program, but that funding will only be released once the city makes a commitment to invest in the program.

“If you look at African-American men between the ages of 20 and 40, the Number One cause of premature death is homicide,” said the county’s health officer, Dr. Mark Wilson. In 2019, he declared gun violence a public health crisis. “It’s a big public health problem, and this is what is contributing to reduced life expectancy.”

Wilson said the department identified gun violence and public safety as the Number One public health issue in its last community needs assessment, and it’s even willing to spend more than $100,000 a year, potentially up to a total commitment of $1 million to $1.5 million — despite taking a hit from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are a willing partner,” Wilson said. “We’re trying to encourage people to work together. We’re willing to put a substantial amount of funding into this, but in the grand scheme of things, if it doesn’t have other support, the money we’d contribute would get eaten up in no time.”

Other local fundraising partners have also committed money, but it too is contingent on the city supporting the program. National organizations like Advance Peace, which promotes the Peacemaker fellowship program, often require local partners to have buy-in from city leadership before they’ll get involved.

“We have a strategy that we as a collective have come up with that can help radically reduce gun violence,” Schwartz said. “We can. We just need the political will.”

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