Gun violence across the nation has reached a human rights crisis level: from the out-of-control situations in Chicago and Baltimore to tragedies like the Parkland, Florida, school shooting and most recently the Dallas cop who killed an unarmed Black man in his own apartment.
NewsOne spoke with Philadelphia-based Black Lives Matter (BLM) national organizer and activist Asa Khalif about his grassroots effort to help stem the crisis in Philadelphia, where shootings have increased by 10 percent this year and homicides in southwest Philadelphia have surged by 26 percent.
Amnesty International released a new report on Wednesday that examined how the U.S. government has allowed gun violence to become a human rights crisis “on a massive scale” and accuses the powers that be of violating international human rights standards.
U.S. officials are required to comply with certain global treaties that touch on the right to live free of violence, including the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, the global human rights organization said. But gun violence has disproportionately affected Black communities. African-Americans represented approximately 13 percent of the population in 2016, yet they constituted nearly 60 percent of gun homicides nationwide.
Khalif said he supported Amnesty International designating gun violence a human rights crisis. Last year, he and other activists started an initiative in Philadelphia to reach out to young people in the community. He said they see themselves as uniquely positioned to contribute to a solution through preventing potentially violent situations from getting worse.
NewsOne (NO): How is BLM organized to combat gun violence in Philadelphia?
Asa Khalif (AK): We have defused and de-escalated at least 25 to 30 incidents last year, and 45 this summer.
We know the players because we live in the community. When we get information, word on the street that there will be beef, often through Instagram or Facebook, it’s very easy for us to approach ‘Raheem’ and say, “Can I talk to you? I heard there’s a misunderstanding, could we have a conversation before it gets to a certain level.”
A lot of this violence comes from misunderstandings. A lot of times the brothers don’t even want to engage in violence. A lot of it is ego, peer pressure, false pride. And they’re looking for a way out. Intervening helps both parties to save face and walk away without looking like a quote, punk.
We are concerned about this issue. We live in the community. The myth is we only show up when there’s a police shooting. We are on the front lines when it comes to gun violence because it affects us. We have loved ones who have been victims.
NO: The interventions you described are important, but what’s the bigger solution?
AK: Gun violence is a virus in our community. We know the virus; we’ve detected the virus, and we know where that virus is coming from. It’s up to us, organizers and people in the community. We have the cure. We have to come together as people of color to make sure gun violence is not an issue in our community.
There’s a church on every block in our community, and those churches go behind safe walls and preach to themselves. It’s time now for ministers and congregations to link up with the activists, and not be afraid of BLM activists who have been deemed militant.
As I’ve said when the movie Black Panther was playing, we–the activists, community leaders and mothers and fathers who are standing in our communities–are the superheroes. Black Panther, Wonder Woman, Batman, those are people who don’t exist and are not coming to save our community, and so we have to pick up the torch.
NO: Do you share Amnesty International’s view that the government bears a lot of blame for the gun violence? Aside from the legislative failures toward achieving gun control, has other government policies contributed to the problem?
AK: I’ve been extremely critical of the federal government, which has always had a hand in the flow of guns into the community. We have to hold the government and gun dealerships accountable. We need to call on law enforcement, instead of occupying our community and shooting us in the back, to do the job you were sworn to do. If you’re going to rush into our community, make sure the busts you do are the gun dealers, the ones who are making the big dollars, not ‘Raheem’ who sold a gun for 50 bucks.
The government is also 99 percent to blame in setting the conditions that make gun violence an issue. We have poverty in our community, unemployment, our schools are not as well-funded as white counterparts. It all gives a sense of hopelessness. When you have those conditions and you have no self-worth, it’s very easy to pick up a gun and shoot someone who looks like you because you don’t value yourself.
If you give people hope, you’ll see a turnaround. Give a man a job and you’ll see a drop in crime. Young people need a place to go and a purpose, an alternative to standing on the corner and selling drugs.