Oakland peace activist Michael McBride says politicians need to support successful violence-reduction programs, like Ceasefire
by Robert Baldwin III
Mass shootings, like the Orlando, Florida, massacre that left 49 dead and 53 injured just over a week ago, grip the nation’s attention and move politicians to act. Just three days after the shooting, Senator Chris Murphy led a 14-hour filibuster — much of it focused on the tragedies in Newton, Connecticut; San Bernardino, California; and Orlando — which ended in an agreement to vote on measures intended to tighten federal gun laws.
But the massacres that inspire political action account for less than 2 percent of the country’s annual gun deaths. Of the 30 people killed by gunfire daily, nearly half of them are black men, who comprise just 6 percent of the population.
Michael McBride, an Oakland-based pastor and gun violence prevention activist, is a vocal supporter an approach called Ceasefire that seeks to coordinate the efforts of police, social services and community members to reduce gang violence and shootings.
Although the Justice Department indicated that the Ceasefire strategy is effective, it’s rarely offered up on political stages as a solution for high gun death rates in inner cities. The success of implementing the program in cities across the country is largely dependent on funding, which has been stifled in Congress.
The Trace talked to McBride to hear his thoughts on how politicians are addressing urban gun violence during this high-pitch moment in America’s gun debate.
Was there anything in Senator Murphy’s filibuster that gave you hope for a new focus on urban gun violence?
I do appreciate that Senator Murphy was willing to at least do something. But I didn’t hear anything that gave me hope that they would address nuanced issues related to the ways in which urban gun violence affects the national gun epidemic. The challenge, I think, is for white progressive politicians. Their default is to always use a race-neutral lens and a race-neutral approach. They are just as incompetent about race as most conservatives and Republicans.
But I would say that the fight at the Senate level and the House level is not the first line of defense. Our biggest problem is our mayors and governors who refuse to fund strategies like Ceasefire, who refuse to decrease the law enforcement apparatus and transfer that money into things that we know actually reduce violence and crime. So I applaud their efforts for that. I do think that the fight is really on the local, county, and state level. And that’s where we’re going to be turning much of our attention.
The Ceasefire strategy is wildly successful in a lot of areas. So we’re going to try to scale that up, starting with New Orleans, the Bay Area, Ohio, and St. Louis. We’re also going to build out a strong accountability apparatus for state-based laws that impact the straw purchasing of guns. Our work is going to be geared around that and making sure local municipalities are actually funding prevention efforts and not just scaling up law enforcement. That’s going to be an important conversation to have with district attorneys and city council members.
So presidential elections don’t move the needle?
I wouldn’t say that. We can bring our voices to bear this election year in progressive spaces, and hopefully influence some evangelicals or other kinds of Republicans. We will try to influence them so they know that we care about these issues. At some point, though, the electoral process has to make sure that local and state elections are just as critical in our democracy as federal elections. That is where we really have a profound opportunity to change the way our country is governed.
Have you been in touch with any of the current presidential campaigns?
Absolutely. We’ve met with the Bernie Sanders campaign. We have faith leaders in our network that have met with the Hillary Clinton campaign. We have even visited the [National Rifle Association] board meeting when Donald Trump was there. We didn’t get a chance to talk to Donald Trump but we got a chance to talk to the NRA board. We lifted up these issues, but we were turned away.
Do you get frustrated when mass shootings get so much outsized attention from politicians compared to the true scope of the gun issue?
If we take this recent New York Times piece seriously that says that actually a large number of mass shootings happen in urban neighborhoods today, of course I get very disheartened when those shootings are ignored or not given due attention. Certainly, they’re very tragic shootings that somehow make it into the national narrative. But this Orlando shooting feels a little different because of all the intersecting identities at play here. I mean these are overwhelmingly marginalized populations. Brown, Latino, LGBTQ, some black — so it’s a little bit more complicated.
How do you mobilize in moments like this when the nation is fixated on an issue you’re fighting for everyday?
Every loss of life is tragic, particularly when it happens at the level of brutality and carnage that we’ve seen in Orlando. I’m not one who tries to play oppression Olympics to compete for grief or attention around issues. The contradictions speak for themselves. They don’t always need to be amplified when people are mourning the loss of their loved ones.
The best thing about our work is its persistence. Peacemaking is not an intermittent project, it’s a lifelong commitment. It’s a lifelong calling. That’s what we are: We’re peacemakers. We try to certainly reduce, if not eliminate, the hemorrhaging of lives lost to gun violence.
So certainly, we have a shared message that we need to amplify: that the lives being lost should not be lost and we should do everything reasonable to save as many lives that we can. That’s the message I try to lift up.
Ceasefire seems to be effective in humanizing small groups of dangerous men. Do you have a plan to appeal to the empathy of lawmakers to gather support for people whose problems they’ve shown little interest in treating?
Absolutely. This is critical for the issue of gun violence to be accurately addressed.
We try to champion strategies like Ceasefire because they slow the process down. They allow both victims and perpetrators — because we have to remember that most perpetrators of gun violence have been victims first — to be human. They’ve been violated. They’ve been victimized by violence. They’ve been placed in an environment that is often predatory so they have had to adapt to an environment. We need law enforcement to really embrace that. We need our community members to embrace that. We need faith leaders, elected officials, everyone to embrace the humanity of both the victims and the perpetrators alike.
How do you get citizens to connect with inner city gun violence victims like they connect with mass shooting victims?
It’s my job to amplify a different narrative. Like, here in Oakland on Wednesday, a 16-year-old young sister named Reggina Jefferies had just attended the funeral of two of her friends who had drowned in a tragic accident. And as she was leaving the funeral, she was caught by another funeral attendee shooting into the crowd, and she was killed. She was very respectable.
But that didn’t matter because gun violence doesn’t just touch people who are engaged in a certain kind of lifestyle. We have to continue to amplify that there are people who are being impacted by gun violence that are not engaged in what one would say criminal activity. Once the bullets leave the chamber, the bullets are not discriminatory.
CORRECTION: McBride is affiliated with a Ceasefire program that seeks to reduce gun homicides by coordinating the efforts of police and communities. A previous version of this story indicated that dispute resolution was the prime focus of the group.
[Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images]