“All these systems are basically failing these kids.”
That’s how Elise White of the Center for Justice Innovation (CJI) summarizes the structural failings that underlie the high rates of gun violence in New York’s historically under-supported neighborhoods.
White, who is the CJI’s director of action research, has become very familiar with the impact of these inequities. She and her colleagues have spent the past five years conducting research on gun-carrying practices among young people living in these neighborhoods.
CJI recently published its second study on this topic, “‘Two Battlefields’: ‘Opps,’ Cops, and New York City Youth Gun Culture,” which examined the reasons why Black boys and young men in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood carry firearms.
The study’s name derives from one participant’s description of the dual fears of interpersonal and state violence that the researchers found drove gun-carrying. “It’s like we got to get a gun to protect us from the opps [opposition]. Now we got to protect us from the cops, too, so it’s two battlefields,” he said, according to the researchers.
The research builds on the findings of CJI’s 2020 study, “Gotta Make Your Own Heaven,” which explored gun-carrying practices of Black and Latinx youth living in Brownsville, Brooklyn, Morrisania, the Bronx, and East Harlem in Manhattan. It is also part of a national project, with similar research wrapping up in Wilmington, Delaware; Detroit, Michigan; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
In total, the study drew from anonymous interviews of 103 participants—primarily Black men—from ages 15 through 24 who said they had carried a gun in the past year (at the time of data collection). CJI Community Research Coordinators Basaime Spate and Javonte Alexander served as the study’s primary interviewers. Both Spate and Alexander have experienced the impacts of gun violence first-hand: As teenagers, they became involved in the street networks (gangs and more informal crews) of Crown Heights.
Originally from New Jersey, Spate said he spent his childhood in foster care, and eventually moved to Florida. He left the system at around 15 and joined a street network instead.
“[I] got real deep involved in that because it treated me more like a family,” he said.
He then moved up the coast until he settled in New York. He built a new life through the branch of his street network in Crown Heights. There, he met and befriended Alexander, who grew up in the neighborhood.
Both became involved with Save our Streets (SOS) Crown Heights, one of the CJI’s demonstration projects, which employs credible messengers (those who have experience with street networks) to intervene in disputes that could turn violent, and works with high-risk individuals to help them reject violence. Alexander was one of the first participants in the program, and Spate worked there as a violence interrupter and outreach worker.
Spate’s and Alexander’s experiences growing up in the neighborhood and connections to the street networks helped them gain access to and build trust with the youth they spoke to. The unique methodology proved a success. The researchers produced new, substantial qualitative data about urban gun violence, a public health crisis that has gone under-studied for decades due to insufficient funding. White said that before their 2020 study, qualitative data of similar sample size had not been collected since the 1990s.
Overall, the research provides insight into the documented link between poverty and gun violence in underinvested urban neighborhoods of color, which for decades have suffered the consequences of racially discriminatory policies in areas including housing, education, and policing.
A culture driven by fear
The research revealed that a large majority of these youth found themselves existing outside of the mainstream economy. The researchers said that many had been pushed out of schools that failed to meet their needs and were unable to find regular employment that offered a living wage. Because of this, they often joined street networks and resorted to activities like drug dealing, robbery, and scamming to provide for themselves and their families.
As participants in this underground economy, they felt that carrying guns (often acquired through family or friend connections) was a way to ensure safety, whether by providing protection against attack or inspiring fear in others. According to the study, 75 percent of participants cited fear of their own deaths as a reason for carrying guns, while 72 percent cited fear of harm to their families. The participants were mainly concerned by conflict with “opps” (opposition), a term they used to refer to either rival gang members or unaffiliated adversaries.
“My biggest fear is somebody coming for me and they can’t get to me, [so] they try to get to my family,” one participant said, according to researchers.
These fears stemmed not just from participating in the street economy, but also from growing up surrounded by violence, which the researchers said made many participants feel they needed to carry guns—76 percent of participants said they had been shot or shot at; 20 percent had been shot at least five times; 80 percent had seen someone shot, and 89 percent had had a family member or friend shot.
Participants also pointed to the police as a contributing factor to this ever-present fear of violence—35 percent said fear of the police was a reason for carrying a gun and 90 percent said they had seen police abuse authority in the neighborhood, with specific examples ranging from inducing chases to create cause for search or arrest, using excessive physical force, and drawing guns unnecessarily.
Against this backdrop of poverty and violence, participants saw guns as a tool for survival: a way to assert agency in response to systems that had left them vulnerable to harm.
“It’s providing something,” Spate said. “It could be protection at that time, it could be for money at that time, it could be for a family member at that time, it could be to get some food at that time. You never know, in the state of survival, the many options that that gun provides for that individual.”
A sense of safety
Street networks, meanwhile, provided participants with a sense of physical safety, identity, and material support that they couldn’t necessarily rely on their families for—56 percent of participants said they grew up in single-parent households, and Spate said the interviews revealed the depth of the issues many were facing at home.
“I think that was a shocker for us because with the young boys, we’ve probably known them for years, seen them grow up and whatnot, probably know their family…but don’t know what is truly going on inside their family, don’t know what’s truly going on inside emotionally, and what they’re dealing with,” Spate said.
In all, 61 percent of participants said they belonged to street networks: either national gangs like the Bloods or the Crips, or local gangs or crews (more informal groups of friends), with little or no affiliation to national chapters. The majority joined these networks in their early teens and said their leaders helped them with personal, educational, and professional development.
“[They were] really speaking toward the positivity, and how [street networks] take care of these young people overall. How they house them, how they feed them, how they take care of them financially, how they give them wisdom and knowledge based on survival,” Spate explained.
But the potential for violence brought on by gun-carrying and street network membership, which often leads to guns being used to settle individual “beefs” or inter-group conflicts (often exacerbated by social media), contributed to a cycle of violence that participants struggled to break out of. Many participants expressed a desire to integrate into the mainstream economy or pursue further education, but lacked the funds to do so, so they continued to participate in the alternative economy.
“I really feel like it all boils down to poverty,” one participant told the researchers. “I feel like if there was more opportunities to make money than [in] the streets, other than selling drugs and stuff like that, then…people wouldn’t resort to beefing with each other, having bad attitudes, having crimes going on, and resorting to gun violence.”
In the end, this extreme exposure to violence has left these youth dealing with extensive trauma. This trauma manifests in participants suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or blackouts and moving through their lives in a state of constant hypervigilance, on edge about any possible threat. All of this contributes to poor decision-making and conflict resolution, which increases the risk of engaging in violence or becoming the victim of it.
For a long time, these youth bottled up these experiences, further preventing them from healing, a key step in establishing a more stable future. In fact, the researchers said that taking part in the research project gave many participants the first opportunity to talk about their experiences in a safe and structured way.
“These conversations never happen on the street. From my personal experience, they don’t happen. This is the first time that, in a safe space, these constructive conversations [are] happening,” Spate said.
Targeting the “shooters”: a potential solution
Now that their findings are out, the researchers have shifted their attention to designing a new pilot program to curtail gun violence, which they are calling “The Heights.” Through this initiative, they want to build on the connections they’ve made by working with street networks to establish holistic programming that tackles gun violence on a structural and individual level.
The first key finding that informs this model is that an aggressive law-enforcement approach to curb gun violence has proven and is likely to continue to prove ineffective.
“I think it’s pretty clear from our data that more-aggressive policing is not going to be a solution that decreases gun carrying and gun use. It just increases peoples’ sense of fear, it increases peoples’ founded sense of paranoia,” White said.
Furthermore, the researchers found that the threat of incarceration is an ineffective deterrent to gun-carrying practices. Most participants had already been arrested or incarcerated, and although they didn’t want to go or return to jail, fear for their safety outweighed these concerns.
“I’d rather go back to jail than somebody taking my life,” one participant said, a sentiment that others also echoed, according to the researchers.
The NYPD did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story.
The second key finding regards the significant role that street networks, specifically street network leaders, play in the lives of youth who carry guns, as well as participants’ expressed desire for more unity in and across these networks. The researchers believe that rather than shunning street networks or trying to isolate youth from them, solutions should build on this established infrastructure and harness this desire for unity.
Specifically, the researchers want to work with street networks to design programming that addresses the experiences and needs of a particular type of gun carrier they identified in their research: the shooter. Shooters are those who go on the offensive and are prepared to kill people they perceive as threats.
The researchers believe if they can reduce gun-carrying practices among this smaller group, the effects could filter down to the other types of gun carriers they identified. These other types, who made up the majority of those interviewed, include people who carry for protection, for image, and to intimidate, and those who carry for street hustles (to engage in robberies or protect against being robbed when transporting cash or goods).
“Eventually, people [are] going to buy in,” Alexander explained. “There’s always a rotten apple in the bunch—everybody ain’t going to follow suit—but once you got the main people following suit, then people just follow.”
This approach would set the program apart from other community-based organizations like SOS Crown Heights, which follows the Cure Violence model and works with young people with connections to street networks on a more individual level.
“[Cure Violence] is a great program. I worked for it. But that’s just one solution to this huge, complex problem, when we’re talking about gun violence,” Spate said.
Rahson Johnson, director for youth and community development at SOS Crown Heights, supports the researchers’ proposal to engage street networks as well. He pointed to Harry Belafonte’s work with members of the Crips and Bloods in California, helping them maintain a truce and open up businesses in the 1990s, as an example that such efforts can prove successful.
“There certainly is a precedent for being able to do that and make that happen, and any way to accomplish that would be great,” he said.
David Kennedy, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice who has studied and helped implement violence prevention practices since the 1990s, is more skeptical. He said the idea of targeting shooters makes sense, noting that it is this small percentage of gun carriers that drive a large proportion of violence in urban communities, but he warned against legitimizing or strengthening street networks.
He said there is a scholarly consensus that doing so typically increases “gang cohesion,” which in turn increases the risk of violence between groups.
“People often make these often rather loose formal structures more powerful, and when you do that, it’s very easy to make gang conflict and gang beef worse,” he said.
Instead, Kennedy said these high-risk individuals could be targeted through an approach like focused deterrence.
The focused deterrence approach (also known as Group Violence Intervention) involves identifying street groups most at risk of committing violence, then directing members of these groups who are on probation or parole to a “call-in” with law enforcement, community members, and social service providers. At this meeting, law enforcement explains that further acts of violence committed by members of their group will be met with legal consequences that affect all members of the group, while social service providers say that services and other support are available to those who want such resources.
Kennedy helped develop this strategy in Boston in the 1990s, where it was associated with a 63 percent reduction in youth homicides. The model has since been implemented in other cities, including New York, drawing praise and criticism along the way.
The researchers dismissed focused deterrence, given participants’ distrust of law enforcement and the fact that their fear for their safety outweighed their fear of facing legal consequences. But Kennedy believes it would work in Crown Heights, both deterring groups from engaging in violence and increasing the legitimacy of police, helping to repair what he described as the “absolutely toxic” relationship of the police with the community.
“The innovative work that involves police in violence prevention is a really important way of changing policing and changing those relationships. We shouldn’t take those relationships for granted or think that there’s nothing that can be done about that, or give up on creating the kind of policing communities deserve,” he said.
Reimagining public safety
The solutions the researchers propose reflect their desire to reimagine what public safety looks like in neighborhoods experiencing gun violence. With a changing political landscape since the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, they hope to find the funding to support their work.
“I think there are a lot of conversations now that are happening that would not have happened even three years ago, around [public safety]. I think it’s a much more open field right now,” White said.
Overall, the researchers emphasized the importance of understanding that youth use guns and join street networks to fulfill material and emotional needs, and that providing other means to fulfill these needs, like job training or educational opportunities, can work to eliminate the role that guns play in this process.
“What you hear a lot, especially for gun carriers…is ‘don’t do this, don’t do that, put that down, stop doing this, don’t don’t don’t don’t.’ There’s never ‘here’: ‘here’s what you can do, here’s what I have for you, here’s how I’m going to help you,’” White said.
“If we’re going to say, ‘you can put this [gun] down, you can trust us, then…here’s all the things that we’re going to show you,’ or ‘we’re going to give you connections to, so that you can actually make another thing possible for yourself.’”
Shannon Chaffers is a Report for America corps member and writes about gun violence for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting https://bit.ly/amnews1.