n Fri., April 4, 16-year-old Torrence Gamble, Jr. attended the funeral of 17-year-old Taijhon Washington, who was shot and killed on Mon., March 24. One day after the funeral, Gamble, who had reportedly sought help from the New Haven office of My Brother’s Keeper the day Washington died, was shot in the head. That weekend, he was signed up to play paintball with the group. Gamble was killed on Daggett Street, Washington near an elementary school by Butler and Lilac St. The cases are both still open. No suspects have been apprehended, and New Haven principals are meeting with Mayor Toni Harp, ARC ’78, this week to discuss possible violence prevention strategies.
Crime rates in New Haven have slowly begun to decline in the last decade, but these recent murders have been a jarring reminder to New Haveners of its serious problem with street crime. The fact that the two shootings both involved teenagers has further fueled interest in the programs that the city has implemented to combat youth violence. There is disagreement, however, between city officials, community activists, and experts on what the underlying causes of street violence are and how it can be best addressed and prevented.
Poverty is often pointed to as an underlying cause of street violence. New Haven’s unemployment rate is much higher than the national rate—12.2 percent as of 2013—but many experts also point to the more nebulous idea of street culture, which is based on violence and is difficult to ameliorate. “The violence that we see as senseless, in the impoverished marginal context that these young men live in, does make a certain kind of sense,” explained Michael Sierra-Arevalo, GRD ’17. Sierra-Arevalo, who studies Sociology, also does research with Project Longevity, an organization that aims to reduce gang violence in cities in Connecticut. Andrew Papachristos, Sierra-Arevalo’s advisor and an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, agreed that the causes for street violence are more complex than unemployment. “You need to understand what sets the stage and what pulls the trigger,” he said. He added that while poverty and unemployment, as well as “disparities in education and opportunities,” provide the context in which violent street crimes occur, they are not immediate causes. “Poverty sets the stage but doesn’t pull the trigger,” he said. “Most unemployed people don’t kill anyone”—a fact that Papachristos noted is often overlooked.
Elijah Anderson, Yale’s William K. Lanman, Jr. Professor of Sociology, explored the more immediate causes for street violence in his book Code of the Street, published in 1999. He proposed a theory that rationally explained how certain inner-city cultures can lead to violence. He explained in an interview with the Herald that in already impoverished areas inhabitants tend to set up their own social structures, or street codes, to maintain order and hierarchy. If no jobs are available, people turn to underground sources of income, like drug trade. “People make it any way they can,” Anderson said. “Bartering and hustling are the way people build lives.”
But, under this framewrk, the underground jobs that can’t be managed by legal authorities still require a form of regulation-—enter, respect and credibility. “There’s a battle for street credibility in the community, and this is what leads to violence, and often death,” Anderson said. “You need it to protect yourself and your loved ones.” This cycle violence is even more difficult to break, Anderson argues, because community members feel unable to turn to the police, and take justice into their own hands: “Many people in the community feel like they’re on their own. They don’t wait for the cops because when they call, the cops may not come, and when they do come, they may abuse the people who have called them.” Anderson did not speak specifically about the New Haven police, but argued that all inner-city communities had this impression of the police. In the eyes of the community, he said, “the police seem like an occupying force.” Anderson continued, “When law is weak in the community, street violence fills the void.”
This analysis of street code, which has broadly been accepted in the field (Code of the Street has been widely praised and received the 2000 Komarovsky Award from the Eastern Sociological Society), begs the question of whether New Haven policies are adequately addressing the issues at the root of street violence. As Sierra-Arevalo put it, “You can’t fix [street culture] with programs on a policy level.”
Alder Sarah Eidelson of New Haven’s Ward 1, who serves as the Chair of the Youth Services Committee, stressed that the city has increasingly adopted programs that are not implemented from the top down. “As a committee on the Board [of Alders],” Eidelson said, “we have felt very strongly that we need a community based approach.” She explained that the Youth Services Committee tries to work with organizations that are already “rooted in the community.” The Committee has been able to support these organizations in part due to the 700 thousand dollars they received from the state of Connecticut as part of a youth-violence prevention grant program. She said she expects that funding to be renewed next year. Eidelson said that the Committee tries to fund programs rooted in “peer mediation and mentorship” with a diverse set of focuses: “Theater opportunities, arts opportunities—whatever will speak to a young person.”
One of the most prominent organizations working in the city is the New Haven Family Alliance, which provides programs addressing an array of issues, from child abuse to unemployment. NHFA also provides aid to young people at risk of becoming involved in street violence through its Street Outreach Workers (SOW) program. William W. Ginsberg is the president and CEO of The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, which raises funds to support community programs, including SOW. Ginsberg described the program’s structure: volunteers from the New Haven, many of whom are ex-convicts, reach out to young people already involved in or at risk of becoming involved in street crime and serve as mentors. Ginsberg said that SOW was inspired by similar programs in Providence and Boston, and credited it as contributing to “the significant down-tick in youth violence” in New Haven in recent years.
Another major program in New Haven has been My Brother’s Keeper, an initiative launched nationally by the Obama administration last year. Obama established My Brother’s Keeper in response to damning statistics regarding young men of color: as of, 2013 only 14 percent of black boys and 18 percent of Hispanic boys read at a proficient level in fourth grade, and by 9th grade, 42 percent of black male students have been suspended or expelled during their time in school. Black males also made up 43 percent of murder victims in 2011 despite making up about 6 percent of the population. The program aims to help young men of color overcome the achievement gap through support and mentorship programs. In addition, My Brother’s Keeper provides support for ex-offenders and helps them to reenter the community. The Obama administration has pledged 200 million dollars to the initiative over the next five years.
Academic experts, city officials, and community activists all agree that there is no one solution to youth violence in New Haven or in any other city. Papachristos spoke about how violence could be prevented through programs not directly related to individuals currently on the street. He conducted a study at NYU that compared different children who had gone through traumatic situations. “If they have mentally healthy mothers,” he said, “the cognitive effects on that kid will lessen.” The conclusion he drew from this study was that the availability of good mental health counseling not only for young people but also for parents helps to prevent street crime. “Pre-K is about violence prevention,” he added by way of example. Eidelson said that the city will continue to support programs providing health services, legal services, mentorship, and mental health services. “New Haven has some great programs,” she said. “But we need to continue to expand them.”