Monday, February 25, 2013

Empowering Victims

Hal Pepinsky,, “peacemaking” at
February 25, 2013
                Alex Kotlowitz’s account of young shooting victims’ desolation in yesterday’s New York Times ( ) reminded me of prices paid by victims of violence who are abandoned save for their value to law enforcement.  The opinion article complements Kotlowitz’s current “This American Life” NPR series on the problem of violence in the Chicagoland neighborhood of Harper High School.   The article describes the suffering and  retraumatization of young shooting victims even to the point of suicide, and of those who care about them.  Kotlowitz concludes:
…But missing from this conversation [about curbing gun violence] is any acknowledgement that the violence eats away at one’s soul—whether you’re a direct victim, a witness or, like Anita Stewart, simply a friend of the deceased.  Most suffer silently.  By themselves.  Somewhere along the way, we need to focus on those left behind in our cities whose very character and sense of future have been altered by what they’ve experienced on the streets.
                Amen.   Meanwhile, it is common to hear police in areas notorious for “gang” shootings complain that victims and potential witnesses won’t “cooperate.”  That being the case, police have nothing to offer.  Victims fear either retaliation or other adverse consequences for talking.  Or are blamed as for being in the wrong place.  Or find people don’t want to hear, and get berated for not getting over it.  Where “it” includes those victimized by the terror and pain of seeing someone shot, or the despair at seeing a promising student deteriorate or learning the student has been killed.
                The maxim of rape crisis workers applies to all victims of personal violence.  The violence has stripped them of power and control over their bodies and social existence.  Healing requires giving survivors control over what is done with information they “give up.”  The common English word for a promise that one will have control over the information s/he gives up is “confidentiality.”
                The cardinal difference I see between spreading violence and making peace with it is whether do things to and for people to “solve” the violence, or let those who have to live with the consequences of what we do decide what we help them do next.  This is the approach Kotlowitz describes to be taken by a program in Philadelphia called Healing Hurt People, whose people “scour” emergency rooms for young men who have been shot, simply to offer them counseling.
                Confidentiality does not preclude preservation of evidence or prosecution.  It does presume that the survivor will decide whether information will be turned over for prosecutorial use, or that the prosecutor promises not to proceed without the survivor’s permission.
                In open discussion in Trinidad last fall, senior police officers acknowledged that they were able informally to grant measures of confidentiality with gang members they had come to know.  That means more than not revealing the identity of an informant, which cannot be guaranteed once the information gets out in any way.  Confidentiality means sharing information only with express permission of the informant, the kinds of assurances journalists may be asked to give.  With specific exceptions, they are assurances that clergy, medical personnel, licensed counselors and school personnel, and lawyers are entitled to give.
                I suspect that the plight of victims of violence of a neighborhood I am getting to know in Central Ohio is like that Kotlowitz describes in the Harper High neighborhood.  From what I have been learning about the wave of programs across the US to give gang members in murderous neighborhoods a choice between hard time and giving up guns and drugs for the promise of social services,  there’s a whole lot of stereotyping and “intelligence” about what shootings are about, without much information in most cases.  Both for survivors’ sake, and for empowering residents to know more than rumor and speculation about what is really happening in their neighborhoods, it pays for residents to know there are people they can trust to help them  get honest inside information instead.  It opens the opportunity for survivors to be hooked up with those who shoot and their families of all kinds, as in the “peacemaking circles” Carolyn Boyes-Watson (Peacemaking Circles and Urban Youth: Bring youth home, St. Paul: Living Justice Press, 2008) describes created out of a community center, Roca, in Chelsea, Massachusetts.  Information sharing empowers those hurt and threatened by violence, but only when the information is forthcoming and honest.
                I sense across national boundaries that the pressure is on to show that gun violence is “unacceptable.”  Implicitly, the pressure is on to use whatever information about that violence one gets to identify perpetrators and get them off the streets.  For all I know, there are countless community workers including police who are quietly, confidentially, using what they learn about violence to show that they are there to help survivors—shooters included—take back control they have lost.  I hope so.  One paradox of working with rather than doing things to or for people is that the more plentiful it is, the less it makes the news or makes it into criminologists’ data sets.  One antidote is the kind of reporting that Kotlowitz and Boyes-Watson are doing.  For all the hype about “best practices” to stop gang violence, the approaches Kotlowitz  and Boyes-Watson describe deserve equal criminological, political and journalistic billing.  This citizen thanks them for their efforts.  Love and peace--hal

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