Long Beach community leaders discussed how to address the rise in shootings across the city during a two-hour Zoom townhall Friday, with speakers sharing personal stories of how gun violence has impacted their lives.
Former Long Beach Councilman Steve Neal said the goal was to create a team of city government officials, nonprofits, religious groups, mental health professionals and former gang members to share how to prevent violence from continuing to spread across the streets.
“We’d like to build a network here to connect the dots to address social ills, particularly gun violence,” he said.
Overall, 381 shootings took place across the city in 2020. The previous four years had an annual average of 232 shootings.
The townhall, called LBC Peace Makers, was co-hosted by local activist and entrepreneur Shirin Senegal, founder of the nonprofit Ronnie’s House.
Senegal’s battle with gun violence is personal: In 2016, her husband Ronnie was fatally shot. His death motivated her to start her nonprofit to find ways to address violent shootings, among other things, in her husband’s name.
She was inspired to co-host the meeting between different members of the community who shared similar goals after she experienced a string of shootings near her office last month. She felt like something had to be done.
Data provided from the Long Beach Police Department showed that shootings have increased over the last few months. In January, 25 people were shot throughout the city, according to police data. By comparison, nine people were shot in January 2020.
Senegal said there were five pillars to stopping gun violence: Acknowledgement, prevention, interruption, healing and investment.
An interruption, or interrupter, could be a person or a group that gets in the way of, or prevents, an issue from otherwise escalating into gun violence.
Billy Brown, who was born and raised in Central Long Beach, saw himself as one such interrupter after being part of the problem many years ago.
During the meeting, he opened up about the drug epidemic that plagued his neighborhood in the 1970s and 1980s. He became involved in gang culture and sold drugs.
“I saw a bunch of stuff change and I was involved in it,” he said. “It was a part of the culture.”
He said a class at Long Beach City College about African history turned his life around, and he began helping the youth get out of the life he lived.
He was tapped by the principal of Franklin Middle School in the early 2000s to help stop a string of violence among the students and the surrounding neighborhoods.
“I had to get people involved,” Brown said about his efforts to stop the violence.
He called on members of notorious gangs and organized crime organizations from all over Long Beach, and through their partnership they created a safe passage program that aimed to protect kids going to school and back home.
Youth development plays a key role in preventing violent shootings, speakers said. Police previously told the Long Beach Post that there seemed to be an increase in teens being involved with criminal activities as perpetrators and victims.
In December, the slaying of 14-year-old Arthur Touch, described as an engaged, bright and well-liked student at Poly High School, shook some city leaders and residents.
Alongside youth programs, investing appropriate resources into underserved communities is important if organizations want to see an end to the violence, Refujio Rodriguez, chief equity and program officer at Hope and Heal Fund, said. The program Rodriguez works for was founded after the deadly 2014 shooting in Isla Vista near the University of Santa Barbara. The organization works to address shootings through mental health services.
Rodriguez said the shooting at Isla Vista drew the attention of many, as activists held vigils and fundraisers to collect donations. It concerned him that shootings in east Santa Barbara—a more Latino community—were not receiving the same amount of attention.
“This is a public health issue, this is a pandemic that has not been addressed in the last 40 years,” Rodriguez said of gun violence in marginalized communities. “You’re talking about people that are not in the room, and that’s speculative at best.”
Solutions to bring those who live through the violence have been in the works. Adam Lara works with the violence prevention team within the Health and Human Services Department on programs around youth violence prevention. One program, the Youth Strategic Plan, was established after multiple youth groups met to devise a strategy to increase social connections, provide economic support and health-wellness opportunities to underserved communities.
The plan aims to serve young people ages 8-24 to cover multiple stages of their lives, from elementary school to transitioning to adulthood, organizers said. The 62-page strategic plan was presented to the City Council on Feb. 10.
“Gun violence is preventable,” Rodriguez said. “It’s not inevitable.”