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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.”

Chip Brownlee is a former political reporter, online content manager and webmaster at the Alabama Political Reporter. He is now a reporter at The Trace, a non-profit newsroom covering guns in America.

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Congress

U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne announces new chief of staff

Eddie Burkhalter

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U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne

Congressman Bradley Byrne, R-Alabama, on Friday announced that Seth Morrow will serve as his chief of staff.

“As we enter the last half of 2020, my office remains busy assisting constituents and advancing our legislative priorities. I know Seth shares my focus on finishing out my term in Congress strong, and he is well prepared to move into the Chief of Staff role,” Byrne said in a statement. “My staff and I will continue working hard every day to fight for the people of Southwest Alabama and advance our conservative agenda.”

Morrow is a native of Guntersville and has worked for Byrne since June 2014, serving as deputy chief of staff and communications director. 

“I am grateful for this opportunity, and I’m committed to ensuring our office maintains our first class service to the people of Southwest Alabama. Congressman Byrne has always had the hardest working team on Capitol Hill, and I know we will keep that tradition going,” Morrow said in a statement.

Morrow replaces Chad Carlough, who has held the position of Byrne’s chief of staff since March 2017. 

“Chad has very ably led our Congressional team over the last few years, and I join the people of Southwest Alabama in thanking him for his dedicated service to our state and our country,” Byrne said. 

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Congress

Voting rights activist calls for federal Department of Democracy

LaTosha Brown, a Selma native who co-founded Black Voters Matter, issued a statement saying that it is time to reimagine American democracy.

Micah Danney

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(VIA BLACK VOTERS MATTER)

The co-founder of an organization that is working to mobilize Black voters in Alabama and elsewhere used the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act on Thursday to call for a new federal agency to protect voting rights nationwide.

LaTosha Brown, a Selma native who co-founded Black Voters Matter, issued a statement saying that it is time to reimagine American democracy.

“The Voting Rights Act should be reinstated, but only as a temporary measure. I want and deserve better, as do more than 300 million of my fellow Americans,” Brown said.

The U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a key provision of the law in a 5-4 ruling in 2013, eliminating federal oversight that required jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to get approval before they changed voting rules.

“To ensure that the Voter’s Bill of Rights is enforced, we need a federal agency at the cabinet level, just like the Department of Defense,” Brown said. “A Department of Democracy would actively look at the patchwork of election systems across the 50 states and territories. With federal oversight, our nation can finally fix the lack of state accountability that currently prevails for failure to ensure our democratic right to vote.”

She cited excessively long lines, poll site closings and voter ID laws in the recent primaries in Wisconsin, Georgia, Kentucky and Texas as voter suppression techniques that disproportionately affect Black and other communities of color.

Brown said that the July 17 passing of Rep. John Lewis, who was nearly killed marching for voting rights in Selma in 1965, has amplified calls for the Voting Rights Act to be strengthened. That’s the right direction, she said, but it isn’t enough.

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“History happens in cycles, and we are in a particularly intense one. We have been fighting for the soul of democracy, kicking and screaming and marching and protesting its erosion for decades,” Brown said.

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Congress

Negotiations on a bipartisan coronavirus relief bill appear to have broken down

Brandon Moseley

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The United States Capitol Building (STOCK PHOTO)

Both parties in Congress and the White House hoped to have agreement on a bipartisan coronavirus relief bill, but those hopes appear to have been dashed after a Thursday night meeting at the White House.

The Washington Post reports that the White House and Democrats failed to reach an agreement late Thursday night on the fifth virus relief bill. White House officials and Democratic leaders ended a three-hour negotiation with no agreement and both sides far apart on basic issues.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, has insisted on a $3.4 trillion package. The White House wants a $1 trillion relief package.

“We’re still a considerable amount apart,” said White House chief of staff Mark Meadows after emerging from the meeting with Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. Trump was called into the meeting several times, but they were unable to resolve key issues.

Pelosi said that the meeting was “consequential,” but blamed Republicans for the breakdown in negotiations.

“They didn’t take the virus seriously in the beginning, they’re not taking the consequences of the virus seriously at this time, and that’s why it’s hard to come to terms,” Pelosi said.

Mnuchin said that if the administration decides that further negotiations are futile, Trump would move ahead unilaterally with executive orders to address things like unemployment aid. Schumer said Democrats were “very disappointed” in how the meeting went and that any White House executive orders could be challenged in court.

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Pelosi claimed that Meadows pounded the table at one point. Meadows denies the allegation.

“We are very far apart,” Pelosi said. “It’s most unfortunate.”

Over 30 million unemployed Americans will see their unemployment checks dramatically cut next week without an extension of benefits. Trump has suggested that he could increase the benefits through unilateral executive action. Critics suggest that would be unconstitutional.

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Democrats want about $1 trillion in aid for cities and states, but Trump has dismissed that demand as a “bailout” for mismanaged states and has agreed to just $150 billion in aid for states.

Meadows said that the White House has agreed to go above $1 trillion, but that Democrats still have refused to go below $3.4 trillion. Democrats are also pushing for more money for food stamps, child care and the U.S. Postal Service as part of the plan. All of this would be paid with more deficit spending.

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Corruption

Arrest warrant issued for Rep. Will Dismukes for felony theft

Dismukes is charged with first-degree theft of property in connection with a theft that occurred at his place of employment between the years 2016 to 2018.

Eddie Burkhalter

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Alabama State Rep. Will Dismukes, R-Prattville, has been accused of theft of property, a Class B felony. (WSFA)

An arrest warrant has been issued for Alabama State Rep. Will Dismukes, R-Prattville, for felony theft from a business where he worked, Montgomery County District Attorney Daryl Bailey said Thursday.

Dismukes is charged with first-degree theft of property in connection with a theft that occurred at his place of employment between the years 2016 to 2018, Bailey said during a press conference.

Bailey said the charge is a Class B felony and levied when a person steals in excess of $2,500 and that “I will tell you that the alleged amount is a lot more than that.” 

“The warrant has just been signed, his attorney has been notified and we are giving him until late this afternoon to turn himself in,” Bailey said.

Bailey said the employer contacted the district attorney’s office with a complaint about the theft on May 20, and after reviewing bank records and interviewing witnesses, the decision was made to charge Dismukes with the theft. 

WSFA reported Thursday that the theft occurred at Dismukes’ former employer, Weiss Commercial Flooring Inc. in East Montgomery. Bailey did not provide any more specifics on the charge but said the employer signed the arrest warrant after countless hours of investigation on the part of the DA’s office.

While the charge stems from a complaint filed months ago, Dismukes been in the headlines recently and faced a torrent of calls for his resignation in recent weeks after posting to Facebook an image of himself attending a birthday celebration for the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Nathan Bedford Forrest.

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The event was hosted by an individual with close ties to the League of the South, a hate group, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In response, Dismukes stepped down from his post as a pastor at an Autauga County Baptist church but defiantly refused to step down from the Legislature.

If convicted of the felony, Dismukes would be immediately removed from his seat in the Alabama House, to which he was elected in 2018.

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In June, the Alabama Democratic Party called for his resignation over previous social media posts glorifying the Confederacy.

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