A Conversation with Journalist Abené Clayton, Part II

Abene Clayton
Abene Clayton, Journalist

Following the publication of her article in The Guardian, “Inside the San Francisco Bay Area’s Pandemic Murder Surge,” I spoke with journalist Abené Clayton about popular misunderstandings of where and to whom gun violence happens, where to find the experts in gun violence, and what we as a nation might do to resist community gun violence. 


CL: How you “take care of” and give voice to your interviewees represents the best of community engaged journalism. As you spend time talking to families and victims – people who live with quotidian gun violence – what do they most want people who don’t live with regular gun violence to know? 


AC: It always depends on who I’m talking to. Many say it starts in the home. If you see your kid exhibiting risky behavior, intervene. Stop the fatal conflicts before they start. Be as present as you can with your child. “Wrap your arms around them.” Gun violence is so concentrated. Before Sonya Mitchell’s son was killed, people would contact her to ask for advice and support when their kids were killed. A lot of the families want the people around them to speak and to testify about who shot the gun. People know a lot more than they’ll say, or tell the police, and many are trying to shield their children from responsibility. When it comes to violence interventionists, or those who help support people through the process of getting victim compensation, making funeral arrangements, there’s also the constant need for state and federal funding. People usually do this work on top of full time jobs. Violence prevention work is never profitable and they need sustainable funding to train and compensate staff, and to build critical infrastructure.


The actual shooting is just one piece of the larger story. I think of this as a clock: at noon there’s the violence interrupters who talk to kids on the block and try to prevent violence; then the afternoon – when an incident takes place – there are the folks who go into the community and try to prevent retaliation; there’s hospital-based intervention and medical teams; later during the afternoon there are the community healers – including many moms who have lost children – who reach out to family and parents to help support them through their grief, and to prepare a proper home-going ceremony for their loved one; then later in the evening, there are the community support measures in schools, “stop the violence” rallies appealing to city councils for support and recognition. Each part of that clock must be funded to function. Each of those pieces needs public money. It takes three years to see results from these community interventions, but many don’t make it because the funding dries up. Relying on grants and philanthropy isn’t sustainable.


It’s unprecedented to hear mention of community gun violence prevention from the White House, and it’s cause for hope. There’s five billion earmarked for this work, but we hope it remains in the infrastructure bill and doesn’t get slashed. 


Most families want a critical mass of community members who are saying “no more.” And many want people to tell the police what happened if they know something about what led to their child’s death, and that’s a complex thing at this time, when we see how many young Black men are going to prison. And we know that policing often contributes to this problem. We are losing faith in the system. If one-third of homicides were solved in a given year, that’s a problem when your child was in the unsolved two-thirds. It’s not as simple as “tell the police what you know,” but I tread very lightly when families tell me what they want. 


The people I talk to want people to talk to their kids – have uncomfortable, very real conversations about violence – that’s what LaTanya Robinson said. She and Sonya Mitchell regularly talked to their own kids and other teens in the neighborhood, and unfortunately, both of their kids were murdered doing everyday, normal things. How much do I take for granted the safety of simply going outside? André Robinson was dropping off breakfast for his girlfriend when he was killed. He was just living in the world, occupying public space.


CL: What do we do when the institutions designed to “protect and serve” actually undermine community safety? And in re federal funding: it’s exciting to see five billion dollars earmarked for community violence prevention, but the budget for policing is significantly more.


AC: It astonishes me when I hear people over the past year say, with a straight face, “the reason more gun violence is happening is because the police are bummed out,” and “police see these protests and they know what you’re saying about them and they’re sad that you don’t like them, and as a consequence they won’t do their jobs.” And I wonder, what was happening in the past, the early 2000s across the Bay area, with so many people getting shot? People have been dying for years, and the police have not prevented or solved these crimes. We’ve been frustrated with policing for years.


This ties back into our conversation on victimhood. I want to do a story on cold cases. People think of unsolved homicides as “white person found in woods dead.” Not “young Black man found in a car with a bullet wound in his chest.” But at rallies I see old ladies with signs saying “my son was killed in 1992. Help me find out what happened.” There’s this backlog of unsolved and unaddressed murders and police don’t have answers.


I’ve talked to police investigators, and they’re understaffed and people keep calling to ask about cases, but I haven’t heard any acknowledgement of how poorly police solve crimes. As much as we talk about what Black and Brown folks need to do to prevent gun violence, let’s talk about the data and the fact that most of these homicides, disproportionately of Black and Brown people, go unsolved, so it’s understandable to hear people say “what’s the point of talking to police?” while others say “please tell the police if you know something.” It puts communities in an impossible situation. And I’m really interested in where crime victims fit into criminal justice reform and conversations around defunding the police. There’s a range of issues, but when it comes to policing, we don’t spend enough time reflecting on the track record of crime-solving. Was it necessarily easier for police to solve crimes back before this wave of popular criticism of policing? The police hold all the chips in crime solving, so where else can we turn?


Lois Beckett and I just published a story about homicides of Black women. I talked to the family of a 19-year-old girl who got shot and killed. She didn’t know to fall to the floor to avoid gunshot – she had lived a sheltered life. Her father wants the perpetrator to face the same face as his daughter, and some parents and survivors of gun violence feel that way. Some survivors put their faith in police and others don’t have that faith, so they have to look to other places for support and healing, to accept that they may never find out the causes of their children’s death. 


What role do the police actually have? Are all these surveillance technologies: drones, license plate readers, etc. There’s lots of money for these interventions, but are they helping prevent violence? They receive so much money while community gun violence interrupters receive such a small fraction. Can that money be used for something more fruitful? 


People often want easy, one-off answers, but the problem of gun violence doesn’t lend itself to those easy answers. And the police don’t necessarily have the answers but are still the people we look to and ask for help solving the problem.


CL: Who should we be looking to for answers in preventing gun violence? 


AC: Remember when every news channel had a police officer talking about “the crime wave”? I have no problem with news covering the ways communities are hurting – these are issues we need to talk about – but when we have police chiefs and police unions leading that conversation, it’s not going to be productive or lead to any results. So when we talk about expertise, I think many believe that folks who work for nonprofits or as community violence interventionists are advocates but not experts. That they don’t have the capacity to provide objective thoughts on what’s happening. Whereas many believe that the police are neutral experts on crime. 


So when it comes to expertise I tend to reach out to folks who aren’t necessarily your standard white criminologists who study urban violence. There are some researchers who I trust and are thinking intersectionally in their work, like the UC Davis Firearm Prevention Program, and there’s Shani BuggsNicole Kravitz-Wirtz, and Garen Wintemute, who works on ghost guns – experts who are affiliated with higher ed institutions.


There are rare occasions when I need a “talking head” expert, but I always try to talk to people “on the ground” and in communities with personal experience. When it comes to the human side, there’s no greater expertise than community healers and violence interrupters who work for reputable places. And they work directly in and with the communities most affected, which is a level of expertise that you can’t duplicate.


There’s a need for experts like staticians and data analysts, and others who do empirical research. But those voices have an outsized influence while the people working in the communities are relegated to stories specifically on violence “in the hood.” If I’m doing a national story, I’ll reach out to the community workers. As a professional journalist, I know I can get the right information, but you’re not going to find that level of perspective and experience in the Ivory tower of academia. There’s space for all these voices, but it needs to be commensurate with what you have to offer. When all the prestige media put out FBI crime data stories, they always feature the same three or four voices, or police. There are so many other extremely smart voices with so much insight who get left out.


There’s the assumption that you need this white voice of God to explain what’s happening. I was trained as a journalist to seek out this kind of objective expertise. I felt a need to bring in a white expert with a PhD to legitimate my story. But I learned that you can use your reporter voice to provide the background information but you can’t get the voices of the people on the ground – the people who experience the incident first hand – from googling a study and trying to find the first author. Journalism, especially in gun violence reporting, has a lot of room to grow when we think about who is an expert. Whose voice can stand alone without being backed up by a PhD?


There’s so much room to expand our idea of who’s an expert, and to not dismiss someone because they care deeply about an issue or they work in that community or they are “too close” to a situation. There’s an assumption that you need a level of distance – objectivity – in order to have valid expertise on the issue. And objectivity just isn’t real.


I find expertise in all kinds of places. And I have to be precise and walk a fine line between putting victims’ voices front and center and making sure I consult community experts when it’s called for. It’s a whole ecosystem of knowledge to pull from.

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