The Bull City had a gun problem long before nine-year-old Z’yon Person was shot to death on August 17, when someone in a burgundy Honda Accord fired into his aunt’s Ford Escape in North Durham. He was in the backseat, on his way to get a snow cone.
According to a Durham County report released last month, 662 people were shot in Durham between 2016 and 2018. The city saw thirty-two homicides last year, twenty-one in 2017, and forty-two in 2016. This year looks likely to eclipse them all. Most victims are black men. Most of those arrested for the killings are also black men.
In addition, according to the report, the suspects in most violent crimes are felons in possession of a firearm—itself a felony. These individuals are frequently the victims of violent crime, as well. And 46 percent of the people the Durham Police Department arrested on charges of possession of a firearm by a felon between 2016 and 2018 were known gang members, the report says.
“These are not random shootings,” Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry, who took office earlier this year, said at a press conference on August 22. “Neither Z’yon [nor] many of the victims this year were random in a violent city. We know that a small number of people are responsible for most of the violence in Durham County.”
The report recommends a “surgical and focused” approach to combating violent crime, “[fishing] with a spear instead of a net” to “target impact players and groups that are driving the violence”—including significantly increasing the frequency of warrantless searches of repeat weapons offenders who are on probation.
Local officials often point to the considerable resources deployed to keep young people out of gangs and give them a better chance for success. Wendy Jacobs, who chairs the Durham County Board of Commissioners, has pushed to treat gun violence and the trauma it causes children as a public health crisis. The city and county have crafted programs to offer former offenders, including former violent offenders, employment, housing, and mentorship opportunities. And they’ve promised that what they can’t accomplish by the carrot they will by the stick, via lengthy sentences for repeat violent criminals.
But watching that press conference, there was an inescapable sense that while the leaders present—Deberry, Jacobs, Sheriff Clarence Birkhead, Mayor Steve Schewel, Police Chief C.J. Davis, and U.S. Attorney Matt Martin—were dismayed by Z’yon’s murder and a recent uptick in violent crime, they knew there wasn’t a quick or easy answer.
Schewel lamented that the General Assembly has refused to pass gun reforms. Deberry said she had reoriented her office to focus on violent crime. The law enforcement officials talked about how closely they were working together. Davis said the DPD had boosted its homicide unit and tasked it with looking at “known offenders possibly involved in recent incidents.” (She also pointed out that Durham experienced record crime lows in 2018.)
In July, when the INDY reported that Durham had twice as many homicides in the first six months of 2019 as it had in the same period of 2018, Davis said the cases were neither related nor random: Most perpetrators and victims knew each other, but the incidents weren’t connected. Much of the violence over the last two months, however, appears to be gang-related, officials suggested at the press conference.
Four days later, six Durham men were injured in four separate drive-by shootings during a seven-hour period.
Many of the initiatives proposed by Jacobs and other officials are meant to help young people become more resilient amid trauma—a worthy goal, to be sure. Longer-term, city officials want to address the systemic causes of violence: unemployment, a lack of affordable housing, educational resources, and opportunities for residents who grew up surrounded by poverty and violence—also a worthy goal.
But these proposals will take years to bear fruit, and people are dying now. The city’s immediate response is to try to lock up the gang members responsible for the bloodshed—and then, presumably, the gang members who take their place.
In 2017, activist Solomon Burnette proposed a different solution, one noticeably absent from the conversation: a gang truce. In 2017, he applied for the Durham City Council seat left vacant when Schewel became mayor, pointing to his experience bailing young people out of jail, guiding them out of a gang mentality, and connecting them with educational resources.
“I would negotiate a gang truce to address violent crime in concert with necessary programming to address the employment, educational, and economic development issues that cultivate crime,” he wrote in his application. He told council members Charlie Reece and Jillian Johnson that he could “end the gang war with fifty jobs.”
Reece didn’t find Burnette credible, and the council ultimately selected Javiera Caballero for the seat. In an email, Reece says Burnette pitched the ceasefire as a “quid pro quo” for the position and says he never “presented any evidence, then or now, that he had the wherewithal to create such a gang truce.”
But someone else might. Diana Powell, the director of NC Justice Served, a Raleigh nonprofit that mentors young men in jail, says that two Durham gang leaders contacted her after Z’yon’s death.
“They said it’s not the OGs who are doing the shooting,” she says. “It’s the younger guys that are out there, and they want to do something to at least slow it down.”
Powell says she reached out to two Durham activists and suggested the gang leaders speak with them about forming a truce. The gang leaders, however, said they didn’t trust the activists. So Powell’s next step is to try to organize a ceasefire herself.
Ceasefires have been successful before. The most famous one began in Los Angeles in 1992. Fashioned after the 1949 truce between Israel and Egypt, it led to declining violent crime rates for a decade. Eventually, a new generation of gang members entered the scene, and the ceasefire eroded. Perhaps, observers have suggested, the city could have avoided its demise by addressing systemic issues such as jobs and poverty.
In Raleigh, gang leaders declared a truce in the summer of 2016. The ceasefire followed the death of gang member James Elvin Alston a year earlier, hours before he was set to speak at an anti-gang summit in Southeast Raleigh. But gang leaders had also listened to students at the predominantly black Torchlight Academy in North Raleigh, who told them that gangs were responsible for killing black people in their neighborhoods. Torchlight offered jobs to the gang leaders who agreed to the truce.
The year it went into effect, Raleigh police investigated twenty-three homicides. By 2018, that number dropped to seventeen.
Larry Walton, a former Blood leader in Raleigh, says the truce is still in effect.
“It’s still holding,” he says. “But you got people who don’t want to accept it.”
Torchlight director Donnie McQueen says that after the Raleigh truce, he wanted to expand the movement, including to Durham, but he was unable to put together the resources he needed.
“We might have been moving too fast,” he says.
Still, he wouldn’t hesitate to try again.
“If we can save just one life,” he says, “or reduce the number of guns on the streets, that would be important. A gun that shows up in Act One leads to a shooting in Act Four.”
Durham released its report on felons and firearms days after Z’yon’s murder. Much of the media focused on the fact that prosecutors had dismissed more than half of all cases of possession of a firearm by a felon between 2016 and 2018.
There’s a straightforward explanation for at least some of those prosecutorial decisions, according to a 2016 Durham County report on gun crimes: The DA’s Office doesn’t have the evidence.
“Consider the example of a gun thrown from a car containing four occupants,” the report says. “When the vehicle is stopped, all occupants deny that the weapon belonged to them. Without reliable fingerprints on the gun or a record of registration, it can be very difficult to successfully prosecute any of the occupants.”
The report released last month shows that little has changed: “Based on [the] number of felons in Durham who have firearms in their possession, it is apparent that [the] chances of not being caught far outweigh the chances of being caught with a firearm and facing prosecution for that offense.”
Guns are everywhere. They’re bought legally and on the black market. They’re purchased from straw buyers. They’re stolen—more than two hundred guns have been reported stolen this year, Davis said at the August 22 press conference, and her cops had confiscated thirty guns in the previous month alone.
This proliferation of guns turns domestic squabbles and drug-deals-gone-bad deadly—and gang turf disputes into rising body counts that inevitably culminate in collateral damage.
Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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