CORONAVIRUS

How does a city stop gun violence in a pandemic?

Cedar Rapids police respond April 8 to a shooting at Bever Park. According to police, callers reported a group of about
Cedar Rapids police respond April 8 to a shooting at Bever Park. According to police, callers reported a group of about 20 people gathered and several gunshots fired. An 18-year-old girl transported to the hospital with what authorities described as non-life-threatening injuries. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

In the shaky video of the shooting, it’s hard to see the kids in the park. They are there for a moment, six in one frame. The two in the middle are fighting, grabbing hold of one another. Then they are gone.

The video passes right by them, focusing instead on a woman with her dog. “OK, OK guys,” the woman says. She starts to say something else, but her words trail off, interrupted by gunshots. Her dog starts running before anyone else does. The video turns to the street as the girl who is shooting the video runs away.

The shooting occurred at 2:15 p.m. April 8 in Bever Park in Cedar Rapids, a month into a pandemic that has strained America’s communities to their breaking points. Gun violence is a problem across America. But just like COVID-19, gun violence doesn’t affect all of America equally.

As data on the pandemic is collected and analyzed by cities, counties and states, the reality is clear that people of color are disproportionately affected by the crisis. It’s the same with gun violence.

A 2019 study by Yolanda T. Mitchell and Tiffany L. Bromfield for the National Council on Family Relations explained, “The White experience of gun violence is often vastly different from that of racial/ethnic minorities in urban settings.”

In Iowa, the two problems are layered on top of each other, compounded by institutional racism often ignored by the overwhelmingly white state. It’s the perfect opportunity for a crisis.

But James “Corye” Johnson’s program “The Voice Project,” part of a joint partnership with the African American Museum of Iowa, is reaching teens of color in a pandemic, and it’s making a difference.

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Johnson is a social worker who grew up in Iowa. The Voice Project is focused on reaching teens of color and helping them build social skills to minimize violence. Johnson wrote in an op-ed in February that his initiative is “designed to build community. Partnerships create pathways for acquiring resources and support. The (Voice Project’s) cognitive and emotional development is paired with AAMI awareness and understanding of our history results in tools needed for a successful future.”

His project received funding this year from a special grant program through the Safe, Equitable and Thriving Communities Task Force. The SET task force began in 2015 as a way to examine the local problems of gun violence and inequality and work to develop plans and partnerships to end the problem of violence among teens of color.

The task force presented an initial report in 2017, which connected the problem of gun violence to the structural inequality built into the foundations of the city.

“Violence among youth in Cedar Rapids is a complex problem that at its root is caused by a sense of disconnectedness, hopelessness and despair, exacerbated by a relative lack of opportunities and adequate resources and coupled with easy access to weapons,” noted the report. “Social media and negative influences fuel the fires of conflict until what should be minor arguments and irritations spiral out of control.”

Cedar Rapids needed to address racism in housing, inequality in pay and job opportunities. But most importantly, if the city wanted to curb gun violence, it needed to listen to teens of color.

Violence in Cedar Rapids doesn’t affect everyone equally. Police Chief Wayne Jerman explained at a meeting with The Gazette’s Editorial Board that most of the shots-fired incidents deal with a handful of teens in town. At that same meeting, City Council member Dale Todd explained, “These kids have seen their friends die. They live like they are going to die any day. We have to reach them.”

After that initial report, the city and the task force were unable to figure out what to do next. The mayor’s office and council members and members of the task force couldn’t agree on next steps. Finally, in 2019, the task force shifted to a grant program that would fund programs that “approach systemic causes of economic, racial and academic disparities” and “reduce high risk behaviors that can lead to involvement with the criminal justice system.”

The SET task force unveiled its first round of grant-funded programs in summer 2019. Some of the programs included a “Humanize my Hoodie” campaign and a mural project. In early 2020, a second round of grant money was allocated. Then the pandemic hit.

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Rachel Rockwell, the SET Fund program officer, explained in an interview that the pandemic sent everyone scrambling: “We had all these in-person programs, and we couldn’t be in person anymore.”

Todd, who is Cedar Rapids’ only black elected city official, pointed out that for so long the best way to connect with kids of color in Cedar Rapids was in person. But how do you do that now?

The shooting in Bever Park made the problem all the more important.

Jerman noted that in the first couple weeks of the pandemic, gun violence in the city was on a downward trend.

“It’s on an uptick now,” he said, “even though I don’t like to use that word ‘uptick.’”

Johnson’s Voice Project through the African American Museum of Iowa quickly pivoted to meet the social distancing requirements.

“So many of our kids have access to internet and devices, meeting over Zoom made sense,” said Johnson referring to the popular online videoconferencing software.

Johnson’s Monday night Zoom meetings attract about 10 students each week and are a mix between cultural conversation, past and present social events and lots of questions. Johnson shares articles and presentations with the teens who join in.

He’s had LaNisha Cassell, executive director of the African American Museum, present on the museum. She’s also provided resources like virtual tours of the museum and colleges as a way for students to still have these experiences.

Johnson talks to youth about not getting caught up in despair by staying present-centered.

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“Right now, there is a lot of uncertainty everyone is experiencing,” Johnson said in an interview. “I’m trying to get them to focus on the things within their control.”

In the end, it’s personality driven. Johnson is a dynamic speaker and he says he likes to get involved with the kids and challenge them on their thinking and thought process.

“I am the kind of person who calls kids out,” Johnson said.

I asked if kids ever get bored, like I do in a Zoom call. Even if they do, he said, it’s not for long and, again, he calls people out if they aren’t participating.

And it’s working. The kids in his meetings are inviting friends from City High and high schools in Cedar Rapids. There is no formal marketing campaign, everything is word-of-mouth.

“This is exactly what we want to do,” Cassell said. “We want to reach kids where they are. We want this to be meaningful for them.”

Whether it will work remains to be seen. But city leaders are hopeful.

“In Cedar Rapids our problem is about reaching those few kids who need us most,” Todd said. “There is no Harvard study on how to reach teens in a pandemic. We just have to do it ourselves and hope something works. Because this violence must end.”

Contact: lyz.lenz@thegazette.com; (319) 450-0547

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.