As we recently commemorated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, we are again discussing a topic that continues to permeate our society, particularly communities of color. Gun violence is an epidemic that has an unrelenting impact on our children. One can argue that violence committed against children and young adults is a worldwide emergency. However, the devastation left behind and the continual impact on communities of color is undeniable. The recent senseless killing of 19-year-old Kristal Bayron-Nieves in East Harlem, New York, reignited the fierce underlying conditions of trauma left behind in communities after senseless violence. The community and city felt the family’s pain in losing young Kristal. She was slaughtered by another person of color during a robbery after she complied with the alleged gunman’s request to turn over money in the cash register.
We often hear of missing promised reparations, lack of resources, and the pain and poverty within communities of color. In addition, many attribute the lack of jobs or safe and worthy schools as being a preface to increased violence and crime. Understanding that resources and environment are determinants of a healthy socioeconomic and physical outcome, is this justification for senseless gun violence and murder? Because a perpetrator or gunman may have lived in poverty or perhaps have a mental condition, is this justification for the victim, and what about the family left behind? Society has to do better in sharing resources and creating an even playing field for everyone no matter their race or background, however, this is not an excuse to commit heinous crimes against each other or any other human being. It is almost as if some in society would like to offer an excuse for this behavior. Sometimes no matter how hard it is to understand, the simple reason someone commits a heinous crime or act of violence against someone else is that they are simply evil. No amount of resources poured into a community will change this. Crime and punishment go hand in hand and there will always be those in society that deserve punishment. The real debate lies in the type of punishment and true rehabilitation. This alleged perpetrator in Kristal’s case was arrested 7 times previously. After the first arrest, what rehabilitation was offered if any, and would that early intervention have produced a different outcome?
Children are born into situations they have no control over and to parents they did not ask for. Firmly believing that we are all God’s children, we all have a responsibility to see children grow in a safe and healthy environment. That includes not living in poverty and having to rely on school breakfast and lunch to have a healthy meal. It also includes access to quality education no matter where they live and access to jobs and job training that does not include just making a liveable wage but also learning how to be self-employed and how to invest in themselves and their futures. The overwhelming impact on children and young adults in communities of color is instead fear, hopelessness, and endless social media clips of false dreams and hopes. Schools can often be disappointing depending on where you live and the educational resources available and access to good jobs in safe neighborhoods is often non-existent. It was said that Kristal wanted to change her night shift at her job because she did not feel safe. No child or young adult should have to live, work or go to school in fear. These children and young adults are our future and all of our responsibilities.
The Impact of losing one to violence is felt by us all. This is where mental health conditions and support are key factors. We often talk about whether increased police presence is needed in a community or social services. It should not be an either-or but a discussion on how both entities coexist. The fact is, both need to work hand in hand to combat the issues plaguing communities. Each time someone is gunned down or loses their life in a violent way that impacts the community in so many ways including their quality of life, their safety, mental health, trauma levels, hopes, and dreams. This has to be acknowledged with support put in place to address the trauma and impact on mental health that violence has. Our schools should be flooded with resources and support groups to discuss this and advocacy groups to support parents and families who are victims of gun violence. Most importantly, a police presence working with all of these resources and sending a clear message to all perpetrators that there are consequences for actions. We cannot have a society where because of wrongful convictions and injustices against people of color we have a shift towards criminal rights and neglect victims' rights. It doesn't have to be one or the other. A person arrested several times for increasingly menacing or violent behavior does not deserve to be set free pending trial. You cannot equate that situation to someone who has a non-violent past being held on bail for shoplifting or drug use. An adult or child carrying a firearm needs to suffer the criminal consequences of prison or else what message are we sending to the victims?
Dr. Martin Luther King fought for racial equality and dedicated his life so that all could live free no matter their race or background. He died as a martyr and his legacy continues to have a profound impact on today’s society. I cannot help but wonder how he would feel to see what is happening today with the violence happening within our communities. He most certainly would want us to heal and unite by acknowledging the problem and addressing it. We cannot address it by fighting against each other to fix broken communities. Instead, we have to heal and confront our trauma by recognizing it and treating it. For the sake of our children and future generations, we must work together to both combat gun violence and increase access to therapy for victims and survivors and fix what is broken in far too many of our communities. We can solve our problem in a nonviolent way and we can demand to live in a gun-free community ultimately preserving our mental health and attaining our right to not live in fear. All of us no matter our backgrounds deserve to live in peace and deserve access to resources to help support us so that we are not plagued by traumatic experiences. This is how we help to honor Dr. King’s legacy.